Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The strangely color-free New York of the small screen

I found this video over on the must-follow blog Sociological Images:



Heh. Pretty funny.

You know, I've heard a lot of people misunderstand the criticism of shows like Friends. They either point to random extras of color as proof of the show's diversity. Or they defend the existence of a close-knit group of white friends. Both of these arguments miss the point.

It is really hard to reside in a major metropolitan city in 2011--a Chicago, a New York, a Los Angeles--and not have any meaningful interaction with people of different races and ethnicities. This is a fact (and a joy) of everyday city life. And people of color are more than just window dressing in The Big Apple; they are a majority. A 2005 to 2008 American Community Survey found the white population of NYC to be less than 50 percent. The percentage of non-Hispanic whites: 35 percent. African Americans represent 25 percent of the community. Latinos: 27 percent. Wikipedia says 36 percent of the NYC population is foreign-born. And so, it seems strange that a show set in this highly-multicultural city would make the choice to eliminate substantial portrayals of people of color. That is what happened--creators of Friends (and Sex and the City and Seinfeld and other shows) made the choice  to present a whitened city drastically unlike reality.

Why is that? What possible good excuse can there be for choosing to make Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Haitians and African Americans and Koreans (*poof*) disappear? And why do TV show creators so often make this choice? Why does True Blood's Shreveport, La., seem to include white people, vampires and werewolves, but none of the black folks who, in real life, make up more than 50 percent of the city?

Show creators find brown people so unfit for TV or unimportant that they will take an iconic American city that people of color help to make great and scrub us from the landscape deliberately. And viewers defend this erasure or don't notice it. People choose this fantasy--a world where brown folks scarcely exist--which tells us...What?...that they are uncomfortable with a reality that is quite different indeed. That's the rub.

14 comments:

liz said...

Due to a different problem that I had with "Friends" and "Seinfeld" (they never lock their doors), I never watched long enough to see that they had no people of color in them.

Kinitra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kinitra said...

Well done, Tami. What I also find troubling is the creation of these awesome world of fantasy where everyone is white. I understand the Tolkien influence, but damn. For example, I am incredibly interested in that new HBO series, Game of Thrones, but it baffles me that this author (and the producers and every other person involved with the project) is okay with creating a world where no POC exist. Really? Is Nordic and Anglo-Saxon culture THAT fascinating? What about all these other peoples that were kicking Europe's butt in terms of development and technology during the Dark Ages? Ugh.

Finally, I know you love vampires (have you read that LA Banks series, yet?) but what has really started to irritate me with True Blood is the lack of vampires of color. Are you telling me that my home state of Louisiana, with all the people that were sexually mixing down there (willingly and unwillingly) there is not one Native or Creole or formerly enslaved Caribbean vampire? Not one? Once they brought on that supposed Queen who was lily white (I'm of the opinion that no one is lily white in Louisiana) I was done.

Tami said...

Kinitra,

You know I feel the same way about urban fantasy. I don't get why in a fantasy world, writers still can't get past basic biases surrounding race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.

Funny you ask about LA Banks. That's the next series on my list. I'm reading it in concert with two of my friends. I'll let you know what I think. I'm excited to read them!

Anonymous said...

Good post. This reminds me of Jet when they had the TV listings and would highlight the black actors appearing in them. Not sure if they still do that. I'm guilty of thinking this is the norm because I grew up in an isolated, small white town, so my life was like Friends until I went to college. You raised a good point about the high population of minorities in major cities. Once you're classified as other its a hard mold to break.
I have a friend who's 15 years older than me and she says she remembers when everyone got excited when they saw a black person on TV. Now it's 2010 and I guess we're still supposed to get excited about the black extras on Friends. Gotta love progress. :)

Kinitra said...

Awesome! I usually write as k8dee, I think I was one of a few people who recommended that series. I've used it to teach some of my courses. Give it time, the first book is a bit clunky b/c it set up so mythology, but a lot of series with a heavy mythology do that (which is why I am trying to get back into Fringe, but the lead actress is just dead in her eyes and bland in her lack of facial expression).

Julia said...

I enjoyed the video, but was frankly surprised to see that there had been so many black characters as extras. As a person who watched that show somewhat regularly for a while (I know, I know, but I didn't have cable), it's interesting to me that I don't remember a single one of these characters of color. To me that just further proves your point--that small roles of this sort do nothing to dilute the overwhelming whiteness...

@liz,
yes, they never lock doors. somehow they "don't have any money" and yet they live in the largest apartment in NY I have ever seen and are well dressed to boot. Oh, and supposedly they all have jobs, except that they are _always_ home. disconnected from reality in so many ways...

RVCBard said...

What I also find troubling is the creation of these awesome world of fantasy where everyone is white. I understand the Tolkien influence, but damn.

You tellin' me.

Anonymous said...

Kinitra, some of the civilizations in GoT are POC. Jason Momoa is of Native American and Native Hawaiian ancestry (as well as German and Irish), and the Dothraki people (of whom his character is one) are meant to be POC, so they aren't whitewashed. Also, a family that won't be in the first season, but will show up later in the series is the Martell family, who are described as olive-skinned, with dark hair and dark eyes. True, that still leaves a lot of white people, but your charge that George R.R. Martin created a world without POC is just not factual.

Sarah said...

I think that the problem you're identifying could be helped by prime time TV shows hiring writers of color. I'm sure there are many talented writers of color out there looking for work.

I'm fairly comfortable assuming that it's a general trend for white writers to be hired more often, especially for prime time television slots. In that case, perhaps they (white writers) feel unqualified at writing parts for characters of color without projecting their own stereotypes? It goes along with the general unease and avoidance in American politics and media of talking openly about race.

Perhaps my interpretation is a bit generous? Maybe the lack of representation of people of color on tv has a lot more to do with what you suggested, in that, "Show creators find brown people so unfit for TV or unimportant that they will take an iconic American city that people of color help to make great and scrub us from the landscape deliberately. And viewers defend this erasure or don't notice it."

I really hope that's not the case :/

Do show creators also have control over who they hire to do writing? Are the characters written as being specific races when they're written as characters in the first place? If so, there should be more working tv show producers of color, and so on.

Kinitra said...

@ Anonymous.

Thanks for the information. I am not familiar with the series, and I have an interest in it. It appears smart with a lot of political maneuvering and set in a fantastical world. All the promos (of the tv series) show a serious centering on whiteness. Thanks for making me better informed. I'm more inclined to give it a chance. I also like Peter Dinklage [sp?]. I have loved him ever since In Bruges...

Tami said...

Sarah,

I'm not sure that I completely buy that shows hire all-white casts because their writers are white and they are sensitive to writing accurately about POC. If this was a concern, then, well, they could hire more writers of color. That's sort of like saying "We've been woefully biased in our hiring and now we can't possibly have POC on screen because our writing about them will be woefully biased."

Plus, Hollywood has not shown a particular sensitivity to not offending POC (or anyone else for that matter) with TV portrayals.

ohands said...

Yes! (To the post; I can't watch the video yet because I'm at work.)

One of the interesting (in a *lolsob* kind of way) is Grey's Anatomy. That show started with four out of nine main characters being POC (and three of those four were "bosses"), but over the years have added so many white characters the somewhat even (especially in comparison to other shows) balance has been completely demolished.

Anonymous said...

@Kinitra, (same anon from earlier, my name's Sara :-)

I'm glad you'll give it a chance. The book series is really wonderful, with multi-faceted characters and an exceptional story-line. GoT also has some of the best female characters in a fantasy series that I have ever seen, and Tyrion (the character played by Peter Dinklage) is just a really cool character. I really hope that when they do the casting for the Martell family that they will cast characters who look like what's described by Martin in the novels, but of course, what casting persons do isn't necessarily going to follow the author's intent. I have high hopes that they will, though, because the casting they have done so far is pretty spot on with what I imagined. I guess we'll see. I can tell you, though, from a die-hard fan of the novels, the show looks amazing.

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