Yes yes, y’all! Actor and graphic novelist Erika Alexander (you may know her as Living Single's Maxine Shaw) approached the R to cross-post the very first post on her blog, Showbiz Is Glamorous—and we were thrilled to do so!!!
Check it out:
Why did I write an episode of Mad Men with Negroes? And by that I mean with “Negro” characters in it, not with.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Anyway, why did I write an episode of TV that I know will never be made?
ThoughI work as an actress and have pitched and sold a television series or two in my time in Hollywood, I’m not a writer on Mad Men, so this episode won’t appear anywhere but here. Why, then? And why negroes? Aren’t we finished with all that? In honor of the Season 6 premiere, let me tell you about it.
I like Mad Men. A lot. I like the subject matter (advertising); I like the cast (Don Draper is hot); I like the look (sexy Eames meets Op Art); I like the writing (Matthew Weiner is a storytelling beast). I love the writing.
I have only one issue with Mad Men (OK, with a bunch of shows, but let’s stick with this one): I’d love to see more diversity. I’m a Black actress, so diversity is an issue that comes up for me. A lot. Mad Men, Game Of Thrones, Girls, Veep–these are cool shows, except for the fact that they would really rock with more people of color, series regulars or otherwise. I complain, wtf?…and bemoan, WTF!…but alas, for all my years in TV, I’m not able to make a difference in my own living room. Or am I?
A March 14 Media Matters story entitled How Chris Hayes’ Show Differs From Other Sunday Shows In One Chart offered this info-graphic to support their contention that Hayes’ weekend TV political magazine, Up, “has provided much-needed diversity“ of race and gender to television political programs.
Now, I’m not trying to minimize the accomplishment indicated by the graph. In fact, some of those “diverse” people who appear on Up are friends of mine. But uncritically trumpeting these numbers is indicative of a problem with the media and how it addresses race that even shows like Up are often guilty of. Here’s what I mean.
The “diversity” Media Matters lauds is far from robust. For one thing, the people of color represented in this graph are, in the vast majority, black. That’s not a problem in and of itself until you consider how those who are not black are represented on Up.
ChangeLab pulled the transcripts of seven weekend political programs televised between January 1-June 30 of last year. The shows included Face the Nation, Meet the Press, State of the Union, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Fox News Sunday, Up with Chris Hayes, and Melissa Harris-Perry.* Over this six-month period, these seven programs aired 169 episodes.
In those 169 episodes, Native Americans were never mentioned at all. They weren’t just left off guest lists. Words to describe them were never used. Now you might argue that the way these shows define “politics” is at issue here, and not a conscious bias against Native Americans, but the impact is the same. By leaving Native Americans off the agenda, we contribute to one of the most insidious means of conquest of Native America – making Native Americans disappear. We make native people disappear in many ways, not least by imposing blood quantum restrictions that lead to tribal termination, and by treating native people and their issues as if they are irrelevant to contemporary (non-native) American life.
This disappearing act was as evident on Up as on every other Sunday show, making Media Matters’ “diversity” virtually meaningless to Native Americans.
From Hyphen Magazine:
“New show alert! Monday Mornings premiered last week (fittingly, on Monday), and not only is it based on the novel by CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, it also introduced us to two Asian American characters: Dr. Sydney Napur, played by Sarayu Rao, and Dr. Sung Park, played by Keong Sim(the eagle-eyed among you will recognize the latter as Mike Chang’s dad on Glee). It really warms the cockles of my cold heart to see a medical show that’s not only created and produced by an Indian American doctor, but also features two prominent Asian American leads and many Asian American background characters. How refreshing to not only see so many APAs at once, but to also see them representing a field that is FILLED with Asian Americans — you don’t get that too often on television (I’m not overlooking you, Sandra Oh and Daniel Henney — RIP, Three Rivers). “
Take a facet of crime, and then look at television shows/movies that feature those criminals as protagonists.
White serial killers.
White political corruption
White drug dealers
I mostly want to talk about this as a TV phenomenon, but pick a crime, any crime, and Western media has probably made a movie/TV series/play/etc. with a white person that romanticizes the criminal activity. No matter what, a white person can do whatever terrible crimes and still have a TV/movie fanbase that loves them.
When you see black or brown people committing crimes on screen, you are to see them thugs and criminal masterminds and people to be beat down.
When you see white people committing crimes on screen, you see a three-dimensional portrait of why someone might commit that crime, how criminals are people too, and how you should even love them for the crimes that they commit because they’re just providing for their families or they’ve wronged or they’re just people and not perfect. This is particularly a luxury given to white male characters, since there few white female criminals as protagonists.
If and of the above shows were about black or brown folks, there would be a backlash of (white) people claiming that TV and movies are romanticizing criminals and are treating them too much like heroes and that it will affect viewers and encourage violence and “thuggish” behavior. And yet fictional white criminals get to have a deep fanbase who loves these white criminals, receive accolades and awards, get called amazing television that portray the complexities of human nature. Viewers of these characters see past the atrocious crimes and into their humanity, a luxury that white characters always have while characters of color rarely do. The closest that mainstream TV has come to showing black criminals as main characters is probably The Wire, and even then, the criminals share equal screen time and equal status as main characters as the police trying to stop them.
The idea that crime can be so heavily romanticized and glorified to such a degree is undoubtedly a privilege given to white characters. The next time you hear someone talk about Dexter Morgan or Walter White in a positive way, it may be an opportunity to rethink how white people can always able to be seen as people no matter what they do, while everyone else can be boiled down to nothing but a criminal.
Get out of my head, y’all! I’ve been thinking all like this about Breaking Bad specifically versus The Wire or even New Jack City.
And Dexter? Now maybe the analysis is out there and I haven’t run across it yet—and please send me the link(s) if they are there—but I haven’t heard a feminist critique of the Dexter’s serial killing as sanitized because he offs “bad people,” when the reality about quite a few serial killers’ victims are women. The last feminist analysis I read about male serial killers in US pop culture is Jane Caputi’s Age of Sex Crime from waaaaaaay back in 1987.
For Hemsley, George Jefferson meant navigating his need to sustain his career and the needs of the character, with some respect for the actresses and actors, who before him, had no such options. Hemsley was a product of the famed Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), founded by playwright Douglas Turner Ward, actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald Krone and was the training ground for generations of Black actresses and actors including Esther Rolle, John Amos and Janet DuBois, all of Lear’s Good Times, plus Roxie Roker, Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and contemporary actors and actresses like Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.
The early generations of NEC were faced with many of the same challenges that Hemsley faced: how to cultivate the humanity of Black characters that were never intended—intentionally or unintentionally—to be fully-fledged humans by the writers and producers that created them. In the case of those folk who worked on television sitcoms, they were further limited by the conventions of the format, which rarely lent itself to depth and nuance.
In this latter instance, actors and actresses like Sherman Hemsley and his television wife Isabel Sanford, were held to standards that their White peers never had to deal with. Hemsley, for example, possessed a gift for physical comedy—that was part of what the strut was about—that was comparable to that of figures like Dick Van Dyke (particularly on The Dick Van Dyke Show), Larry Hagman, during his day on I Dream of Jeannie, John Ritter and Don Knotts, whose Three’s Company often shared the top-10 spot in the Nielsen’s with The Jeffersons.
Whereas the aforementioned actors were sometimes seen as geniuses of the style, who never had the burden of representing for their race or ethnic group, too often Black comedians of that like, Bert Williams, Lincoln Perry (“Step n’ Fetchit), Hemsley and Jaleel White, are simply reduced in the Black imagination as simply acting like “coons.” A Black actor would have never been able to get away with the “bugged eyes” that were Knotts’ specialty, dating back to his days as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show.
It’s important to note here that Rhimes directed her criticism at @abcfbunheads, the official Twitter for the ABC Family show. ABC Family is a subsidiary of Disney-ABC, which owns all of the shows Rhimes has developed, created, or had her name attached to since her TV career began. In reality, her tweet is less an attack on Sherman-Palladino than a calling-out of the network Rhimes has made richer. The people who resent the lack of diversity criticism directed at shows like Girls and Bunheads will be the first to tell you that the lack of diversity on TV is a systemic problem. Which is why Rhimes being called a woman-hater for pointing out that there isn’t even one non-white ballerina on Bunheads is such a fucked argument. Rhimes criticizing the lack of diversity on a show on her network in a public forum is her fighting that system, not her sowing the seeds of a bitchfight. She’s not embarrassing Sherman-Palladino; she’s embarrassing the system.
Last thing: the people who think criticizing a show’s lack of diversity equates to woman hate are the same ones who keep asking, Why don’t you haters go after shows run by men? Why don’t you go after shows like Entourage or Two-and-a-Half Men that only show the point-of-view of white men?
The answers are simple. First of all, there’s been plenty written about the lack of diversity on TV in general by the same people who’ve critiqued the lack of diversity on women-run shows like Girls and Bunheads. On this very blog. And this one. And this one, for starters.
Second, the shows that we’re often the most critical of are the ones we care about the most. You know, the shows we fancy to be for, by, and about us. Even when those shows turn out to seem not to care about us at all.