Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Representing.

The battle for a fair representation of minorities in the popular media is a well-placed and rightful concern. It is no secret that a majority of the leading and supporting roles in mainstream entertainment tend to skew to one-side - namely, straight, white, and, male. Women are typically portrayed to be the wives, girlfriends, or points of sexual tension for a male protagonist, where people of color are shifted to the infamous "best friend" slot or "token" space. That is not to say that writers/creators intentionally craft these roles to be non-compelling, stale, sexist, and/or racist (although, I would not put it past some network executives). It is more of a sad status quo, reflective of the personal oversights and limitations of the writers and creators themselves.

To their defense, writers often do their best by writing what they know and many writers tend to be white and male. By the same hand, it makes sense that many compelling roles in the popular media are going to stem from these writers' inherent knowledge of themselves and their own personal experiences. However, that does not mean that writers should not try to

create roles for women and minorities that are more compelling. In fact, I support whole heartedly the push for creators to branch out from the safe confines of self-relevancy when it comes to writing for main and supporting characters. Lately, however, I have been wondering, "how far does this go?"

I stumbled onto a blog not too long ago criticizing the portrayal of prostitutes and women in the popular media (namely Joss Whedon's Firefly). The author herself is a prostitute and, while her perspective is interesting (albeit assumptive and short-sighted) and she brings some valid points, she knocked me for a loop when she stated:

"It is my opinion that, if you champion yourself as an advocate of issues for one marginalised [sic] group, you have more responsibility to be aware of the issues that other marginalised [sic] groups face, and to take care in your representation of them. Otherwise it is hypocritical at best and outrightly privilege promoting at worst."

... really? All of them? Is that possible? Having a good grasp on one or a few is not good enough? Generally, this comment has its roots in the right soil. Writers, when portraying nearly any character or theme, need to do their research and ensure that the representations they choose are fair and accurate. But, applying the principle to, say, race - how are we to ensure that all representations are fair? For instance, if I choose to write a character explicitly designated as African-American, from where are this character's origins going to be the most fair? Is the character rich or poor? Northern or Southern? From Oakland, or Detroit? If I choose to have this character come from Alaska, is he/she going to be considered someone who fairly represents African-Americans in a general sense? What if I write a script for a movie where the lead role is to be a Japanese woman, but the best actor for the part happens to be Korean. How much of the story am I going to have to change to make this representation more fair? Would it be fine if I do not account for the actor's race within the story line?

Certainly, these questions take some thought. But, lets take it one step further by imposing that all works, when applicable, should fairly represent all groups, minority or not, at all times. If I were to create a story within a fictional town set in modern day America, what demographic data should I reference to guestimate how many members of various ethnic groups I need to designate speaking parts? Would it be okay if the main characters were predominately Italian-American-Catholics even if they were not related? How many Jewish, American-Indian, or Hawaiian speaking parts will "counter-balance" my primarily Italian-American cast? We have not even discussed sexual preference yet.

If the concept is a little offensive, it should be. I have basically, within the confines of my hypothetical, asked you to compartmentalize, trivialize, and objectify entire cultures, races, and creeds in a single statement for the express purpose of creating a product that appears "fair-minded." Sometimes, I get the sense this could be where this general movement ends up. That is not to say stopping the movement is a good idea. Far from it, in fact - I just think this is a place where it could lose its proper footing. A big part of progress is simply to break up homogeny. To make sure that what we are watching/reading/listening to is diverse, interesting, and enriching. Does that mean that having a t.v. show or two with characters primarily of one race is bad? No - it's really not. What it does mean is that what we should be aiming for is simply taking the ratio of works that do and making it drop. Dramatically. Because people really do like to flip on the tube or go to a movie and say "Hey, he/she's like me!" And, lets be honest, do you really want to be drinking whole milk all the time?

For popular television that seems to give minorities and people of color more sway, I think of two series:

Battlestar Galactica:

 In an instant, humanity (in a future, alternate universe) is nearly taken from several billion people to under 50,000 by their former, now sentient, creations. You will notice a lot of the main characters in the series are white, it is true. And you will notice a lot the characters aren't, as well. In this compelling space drama, most characters are given some pretty dynamic and sympathetic story-lines and a fair mix of the characters have varying ethnicities - a rarity in the genre of science fiction. Edward James Olmos (seen left) says it a lot better than I ever will. If the premise does not draw you or if the title scares you off, take in at least one episode for the splendor of non-homogenous casting.

Dexter

A contemporary noir where the detective is a killer who kills bad guys to feed his impulses. The series is set in Miami, Florida, so if the cast was not diverse it just would not be believable. The leading man may be as caucasian as they come, but he is surrounded by people who are not. Strong leads and supporting characters, yes. But, you have to love a show that throws in a little spanish dialogue (even the sociopath knows a little espaƱol). Dark, violent, humorous, and well produced, it is a good show all around. So check it out if you have not already.

6 comments:

B.Graham said...

Some other examples: The Office, The Wire, Degrassi (at least the one from several seasons ago), Heroes, Dr. Who (the one that restarted in 2005).

That said, it is a sad, sad fact that TV and film are historically extremely homogenous. You'll notice all of these shows were created post-2000; most of them are post 2005. In recent years there have been many more opportunities for black and female actors (especially in TV, which is a whole other article in itself... maybe I'll write it), but asian (that includes pacific islander and indian) actors are almost always relegated to the secretary or the assistant, while latino actors are more often than not the guard or the victim.

As the public (and thus the execs, or vice versa) seems to so-often forget, racial homogeneity is not simply a black-and-white issue.

Ozkirbas said...

All good points, much agreed. I thought about throwing up the Wire but, truth be told, I've never seen an episode of which, being a Baltimore resident interested in Prosecution and Crime, is apparently a mortal sin. I've also only seen bits and pieces of Dr. Who episodes (which looks awesome, I just don't know where to start). Degrassi, well, yes. Go Canada.

The Office I was hesitant about to post - notably because I felt most of the secondary characters take a pretty significant back seat to the Jim-Pam-Michael-Dwight-Angela dynamic. But, really thinking about it, each character, secondary or not, seems to have developed into their own, are compelling, and sympathetic. And, if not, The Office in its own way still address race with its content.

Heroes... well... to be honest I'm going to have to disagree. At least with post season one. Anyone not white or a Petrelli or Sylar (who apparently became a Petrelli and they're all white) gets curbed to the area called "no body cares land." I've nicknamed it (within my brain) the "Heroes' Effect" - where a series starts off decently, with diverse and 3-dimensional characters and proceeds to kill off or make irrelevant any character that stands out from the homogenous mix. Given, you could argue that none of the characters in the show are currently compelling (personal opinion, of course. Could also be that Heroes' ultimate failing is that Tim Kring is both impatient AND lazy, but this isn't supposed to be a post about Heroes).

I think you should post about it. Those are topics I know I'm definitely interested in (particularly if it's going to be feminist geared). Hell, if you wanted to make this a collab series I'd be down with that. Either way, I'm interested in what you have to say about it.

B.Graham said...

Ooh collaborative posting, I like it!

PS I only really watched the first season of Heroes, so that's what I based that on

Ozkirbas said...

Oh no, it's totally fair. I figured as much. I just had so much to say because I actually wrote this post with Heroes in mind

Brittany said...

P.P.S. for Dr. Who, start with season one of the new series (the one with Christopher Eccleston) and go from there. What I'm doing is watching those, then watching Torchwood, then going to the old Doctors. You can watch the first three new Dr. Who seasons on Netflix's Watch Instantly option.

Jackie said...

I think people try to damn the man too much. There are many shows that represent all different cultures its just that the audiences are the ones that are closed minded.

We watch what we want to watch and choose things accordingly. If you really want to watch a diverse show then look for them. They are out there. They aren't on the main channels because society doesn't want them. If society decided that they love watching Lesbians, for example, then you'd find more people talking about the L Word as oppose to Sex and the City or you'd see Cali [on Grey's Anatomy] and her relationships playing a bigger role as oppose to McDreamy.

TV Execs and writers have put out more diverse shows then they are given credit for, it's just that people choose not to watch them. When people start changing their minds about race and sexuality that's when you'll see more mixes on the prime time networks.

If Disney can do it, one day ABC, NBC, CBS, etc. will follow suit. You could just start the movement with diversifying These Gentlemen.