Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Is Hollywood Finally Getting More Diverse?

It depends on how you define diversity. If we're aiming for some level of inclusivity in film and television rather than mere visibility, I'd suggest this four-part test: 
  1. Is there more than one person of color with a recurring speaking role? 
  2. Do those characters ever talk to each other? 
  3. About something other than race, or the needs of the White protagonist? 
  4. And do they have an independent, not entirely stereotypical storyline of their own? In other words, do these characters get to do something other than suffer, serve/strip for/sexually service, crack wise with the White protagonist, and/or take part in some other well-worn stereotypical activity that advances the plot or provides comic relief?
Think of it as a slightly more exacting version of the Bechdel test, for racial rather than gender equity. Far too often and for too long, the answer to most of these questions has been no. And when the rare TV program or movie would pass the first three criteria, they'd miss the goalpost by a mile on the fourth. In addition to playing servant or sidekick, depending on the character's ethnicity, non-white supporting characters would most often: run the local ethnic restaurant or dry cleaners; mow the lawn; act out angrily for no reason; commit crime or serve time; play sports; or rap, sing and dance.  

My hope is that this simple tool for evaluating ethnic and racial diversity in entertainment can help to do three things: make the ongoing challenge of inclusion a bit more visible; spark conversation; and help to raise the bar for diversity a little higher than the superficial tokenism that we’ve so often seen and complained about. 

To demonstrate how this metric works, I’ve applied these criteria to several popular, current television shows, and divided them into three categories of inclusivity as a result: Heck Ya!, Aim Higher, and “It’s Complicated."

Comments, questions and additional examples are all welcome. I'll write about film later this week. 

HECK YA!
Grey’s Anatomy (ABC): The long running, still popular champion of inclusivity.
1.     There are five black doctors in the current cast including the Chief, Bailey, Jackson Avery and the two interns, plus Asian American doctor Christina Yang. And Callie, a Latina doctor who is also a lesbian.
2.     yes. frequently. Bailey and Chief especially.
3.     yes they talk about patients, medicine, etc
4.     Yes. Dr. Bailey is doing medical research project for example. 

Sleepy Hollow (FOX): A strong, surprising contender.
1.     Yes, definitely. The Police Lieutenant Abbie Mills, played by Nicole Beharie, is an African American woman; her Captain, played by Orlando Jones, is also African American, as is her sister. There’s also an Asian American police officer played by John Cho and a Latino officer as well.
2.     Yes.
3.     Yes. They talk  frequently, mostly about work and ghosts and the past.
4.     Yes. quite a bit. Abbie assists Ichabod in his quest, but she also has a robust story and past of her own. Both Abbie and her sister are complicated, strong willed, and flawed. In other words, human. 

AIM HIGHER
Californication (SHOWTIME): Um no. But that could be a blessing.
  1. For a while Hank works with a black actor/rapper/entrepreneur named Samurai Apocalypse and has an affair with said rapper’s girlfriend.
  2. Yes.
  3. Yes.
  4. No. Said rapper likes to shoot people. The rapper's girlfriend mostly sleeps with other (usually White) men behind his back. She also spends money and does drugs. The rapper does have a sensitive side though. He’s in love. So there's that!
Mad Men (AMC): Nope, never. 
1.     Three African American women, Carla, Dawn and Shirley, have all been minor characters at different times in the show’s seven season run. There is also a Latino man servant/gigolo but it’s not much of a speaking role.
2.     Carla only interacts with Betty and the kids. Dawn and Shirley interact with each other just barely in season 7.
3.     Yes
4.     Dawn and Shirley never have a storyline outside of their jobs as secretaries. The Latino man is first a servant, then kind of a paid escort/gigolo, and ultimately either a thief or perhaps even a murderer.

Girls (HBO)
  1. Nope. quite famously never on a regular basis. Occasionally Girls might have a short-term guest star who is a non white person, such as the black woman who works with Hannah at Conde Nast and Hannah’s black republican boyfriend. Such occurrences are brief and far between.
  2. No. Let's end it at that.
Veep (HBO)
  1. NO. Just the Veep’s sassy secretary

Silicon Valley (HBO)
  1. Nope, just one Indian software engineer. And a sassy black stripper makes an appearance in one episode.

IT'S COMPLICATED
The Mindy Project (FOX): Close but, no, not really.
1.     Yes there’s Mindy  Lahiri, who’s a doctor and played by show creator, writer producer and Indian-American comedienne Mindy Kaling. And there is an African American nurse Tamra played gamely and yet fruitlessly by Xosha Roquemore.
2.    Yes they talk to each other.
3.    Yes.
4.    Yes for Mindy. No for Tamra. While almost no one in that doctor’s office inspires a great deal of confidence or respect, the African American nurse is kind of a sassy, gum-smacking bundle of incompetence and work avoidance.

Devious Maids (LIFETIME): Technically yes. Maybe. It really is complicated.
1.     Yes, Latina women are the main protagonists, but they are also “devious,” socially ambitious and sexy maids, who work almost exclusively for wealthy whites and use their wiles to get ahead.
2.     Yes.
3.     Yes. They talk about their families. But mainly they spend a lot of time gossiping about their wealthy employers.
4.     Yes, just barely. All the women are maids at the start of the show. There is one closeted gay Latino man who is a singer. And there used to be an African American man who was a chauffeur. One of the women is actually a professor, pretending to be a maid in order to investigate a crime.

3 comments:

Lenka Richards said...

How did an analysis of Scandal not make the list....

Carole Bell said...

Just for variety. I've spent a LOT of time writing and speaking about Scandal of late so I wanted to sample and pay attention to some other programs.

Carole Bell said...

But yes, Scandal, like all of Shonda Rhimes's shows, does have much more diversity than most.