Whose responsibility is it to ensure representational programming on television?
This week all I could think about was race, representation and television thanks to two seemingly disparate events. The first: the backlash to the premiere of Lena Dunham’s much hyped show on HBO, Girls. The second: the discrimination lawsuit filed against ABC and The Bachelor franchise.
You’d have to be hiding under a rock to not know about the controversies surrounding Girls. The amount of media attention around the show is astonishing. There’s been backlash, a backlash to the backlash and reaction to the backlash-backlash.
In this whirlwind of chatter about women on television, generational differences, class and privilege, an interesting debate about diversity and representation has emerged.
For a show set in NYC (one of the most diverse cities in the world) about young 20-somethings fresh out of college (where the characters were assumedly exposed to some sort of diversity) who are navigating the “real world,” the entire cast is bizarrely whitewashed. And people are calling them on it. There has been so much written on the troubling casting on this show so I won’t go too much into it here, but please read brilliant pieces like these from the Atlantic, Hairpin, Jezebel and (in my opinion, the best one) Racialicious.
Most of the outrage about diversity on the show has been directed at the creator, showrunner and star, Lena Dunham. When asked about the lack of diversity, Lena replied that it was an “accident” and they would try to rectify it during the second season if they get renewed. I’m suppressing the urge to go on a long tangent here about how this “accidental” casting is yet another reminder of how whiteness is often assumed as the norm and “otherness” is invisible unless explicitly pointed out (just see the recent Hunger Games controversy), but I’ll save that for another time. The media’s jump to assign blame for the all-white cast strictly to Lena Dunham somehow felt misdirected and a bit oversimplified. So then, who is to blame for this obvious oversight in casting?
Meanwhile, in a California courtroom, two black men filed suit against ABC for discrimination on the wildly popular (and lucrative) The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise. The premise of the lawsuit: in 24 seasons (yes, there have been TWENTY FOUR seasons of this inane show on the same network that might cancel Cougar Town) there has not been a single Bachelor or Bachelorette of color. What’s more, the “contestants” on the show can hardly be called diverse. Reality Steve, a blogger who writes spoilers for currently filming Bachelor/Bachelorette seasons, breaks it down for us:
Going back all the way to the beginning, in 24 seasons of this show, I’m guessing there hasn’t been more than 10 people who weren’t of Caucasian descent on this show. And 10 might even be generous. That’s 24 seasons x 26 people a season (including the lead) = 624 previous contestants roughly. IF that number is 10 out of 624, that’s 1.6% of your contestants have not been white.
Those are some harsh numbers. I assume that ABC is going to argue that it skews white not due to any racial discrimination, but because they’re trying to appeal to their predominately white female audience. This argument begs the question, when is it the network’s responsibility to push their audience out of the comfortable “white guy meets nice white girl and they get married” narrative? As horrible as it is to realize, especially for someone like me who has parents of different races, there are far too many people in America who are still uncomfortable with the idea of interracial relationships. But as Jezebel writer Erin Gloria Ryan argues, “should their outdated discomfort dictate what everyone else watches? Perhaps some immersion therapy will cure what ails — ABC’s got a real chance to take a stupid show and use it as a tool to help normalize interracial relationships for the few people still stuck in the 1950’s.” So I’m back to my original question: whose responsibility is it to make sure that television is actually representative of America as a whole?
For scripted television (we’re going to pretend here that The Bachelor isn’t scripted…haha oh, that’s hard to pretend), does responsibility lie with the show creator? After all, it is the creator’s vision that is being brought to life, so creators/screenwriters/showrunners such as Lena Dunham have some of the most creative control over adding diversity to the mix. But what if Lena cannot write a compelling story from her own experiences that include diverse characters? However problematic that is, who are we to deem her personal non-diverse experiences illegitimate?
Does the responsibility lie with the casting directors who pick and choose the final group of actors to bring in for auditions? Is it their fault for not seeing potential in diverse actors to play roes outside of the typical stereotypes?
Or is it the “suits” – the executives who pour over audience demographic information day after day and fear that doing anything too “radical” might upset the audience? Is it their fault for being too trepedatious, for not taking risks and not giving the audience enough credit?
Finally, should we cast this glaring light of blame and responsibility back on ourselves, the audience, society itself for not loudly demanding representational programming and for supporting shows that have problematic racial representations but are nevertheless entertaining?
My answer: it’s all of these – it should be everyone’s responsibility. From the inception of a show idea through production, to marketing to when the show finally reaches the audience, along every step of the way people should be asking themselves, “is this representational? If not, why and what does it accomplish?”
When people don’t stop to reflect and ask these types of questions we are presented with shows like Girls and The Bachelor/The Bachelorette (or worse – remember Work It?) that purport to try to tell relatable stories that are in fact neither relatable nor believable due to their lack of accurate representation.
Optimistically, I hope that with the success of shows like Scandal and the web series Awkward Black Girl, networks will be encouraged to green light shows that have diverse casts not to specifically target a minority audience, but to provide programming that is representational of an actual, present-day American reality.