Does the TV Industry Need Affirmative Action?

Cast of HBO’s “Girls”

Over the past year, there has been much talk of color-blind casting, and the lack thereof, in primetime television. While Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal, is praised for not considering race when casting a show, Lena Dunham, creator of the new hit HBO series, Girls, was harshly criticized for turning a blind eye to her colorless cast. This increasingly prevalent double standard must be addressed within the context of American history and media culture.

There are infinite reasons for why millions of Americans plop down on their couches every night to watch TV. While some are eager to learn about how sharks breathe, others simply want to escape. The hundreds of channels available to viewers highlight the wide variety that Americans crave. With all of the recent controversy surrounding creative decisions in the media, critics seem to have forgotten the seemingly basic principle of individual preference.

At its core, television is entertainment. Yes, the medium has been extremely helpful in mobilizing and communicating to the masses, but even news anchors feel the need to craft witty story titles and corny puns in an effort to entertain viewers. With this in mind, the conversations surrounding what television should and shouldn’t be seem to be addressing the wrong concerns. While minority representation has been a hot topic lately, little discussion has been devoted to the evolution of viewer demands.

It is no longer enough to simply cast a minority character in a show, or at least it shouldn’t be. When the public cries out for diverse representation, they are really pleading for the inclusion of their stories, not their skin tone. The sophisticated modern American viewer could not care less about how many people of color are on a show. The deeper frustration is rooted in the narrow lens from which stories are being told. Unsurprisingly, that often translates into a lack of racial diversity.

If a Latina actress had been cast as a lead in Girls, but was still assigned to the character of Hannah Horvath, a spoiled young writer who is just now learning how to live independent of her parents, there would still be some unrest. A racially diverse cast does not equate to comprehensive content. Even with an all-minority cast, for example, Girls would still be perceived as overwhelming White. This raises yet another difficult question about the thin line between stereotypical perpetuation and cultural authenticity, which is being consistently redefined by creators everywhere.

Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) of Scandal would be equally as gripping if played by a white, brown, or blue person. Good characters aren’t limited by race; they are driven by story. Similarly, if Shonda Rhimes fully replaced the cast of Grey’s Anatomy with African-American actors, it would not turn into a Black show because the content still wouldn’t exclusively address “the Black experience.” Would viewers automatically denounce its credibility after the change? That’s a different article.

Though it may be hard for some to accept an all-White television cast in 2012, the problem with White shows is not skin deep. The problem with any narrow minded show that irresponsibly handles race, gender, or socio-economic realities is only found within the creator’s intentions, which are not always available for critique.

Every Hollywood executive has the right to fabricate the truth or to create their own. Unfortunately, due to our media-crazed culture, this creative freedom now possesses the power to strongly influence the masses, as we have witnessed throughout history.

Individual viewers must continue to evaluate what they really want from television and tune in accordingly. If Girls doesn’t resonate with you, don’t watch it. The fact that it is on the air means that it resonates with a significant amount of people just the way it is. Likewise, if you are not satisfied with the presentation of people who look and live like you on television, begin to tell your own stories. Independent creations are our only hope for fully inclusive representation in this country. It is unwise to expect major networks to reflect everyone’s real world; it isn’t their job.

3 responses to “Does the TV Industry Need Affirmative Action?

  1. For a rushed post this is really quite clear, Makiah! Affirmative action doesn’t really map on to the entertainment industry as it does to education. Every body has a right to education. Not every one has a right to having their narratives being represented diversely in media.

    You write, “Every Hollywood executive has the right to fabricate the truth or to create their own.” Does Hollywood itself represent the population of people who watch their fabricated truths? Not really. Should Hollywood represent the population? Again, not really.

    You’re right. We want to see more nuanced stories. But how nuanced can we get if most of Hollywood looks like each other? For better or worse, the way your color of your skin is perceived plays a big part of your American experience (same goes for your gender or your religion). A white man’s story is necessarily limited by his privilege in ways a Latina’s story is not.

    The trend I’m seeing is instead of looking to those diverse American stories, television is relying on fantasies. Like, real life fairy tales (Beauty and the Beast, Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Arrow, to name a few). It’s a good formula, for now, but pretty soon the American audience will get bored. What next?

    I’m a fan of looking for alternatives to the mainstream outside of Hollywood, and of not relying on or trusting any Hollywood executive with my truths. Telling your own stories is kinda my thing. But I recognize the historical and structural impacts inequality has had on all our institutions from education to entertainment and everything in between. I also recognize that we have been telling our own stories, but we lack the infrastructure to distribute them to the people who need to hear it.

    And that’s where Hollywood wins and stays winning. The distribution mechanisms are formidable. That’s why the stories that are trafficked through them must continually be challenged, especially when they are one of Americas largest exports, especially when they re-write, mis-represent and straight up lie about the stories and lives of marginalized people.

    Is the goal of our stories to become mainstream? I don’t think so. The goal of our stories is to be heard, to be witnessed and thus to be validated. Even if we did have fair representation (which I assume is the point of affirmative action), our stories will still be co-opted (see Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone).

    It’s messy and there’s still work to do. I’m excited for the moves you’re already making!

  2. Pingback: Does the TV Industry Need Affirmative Action? A Response | Afrolicious·

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