Minorities In Television, Part 1: Ethnicity

When I began watching TV, I wasn’t aware of much. I watched whatever appealed to me and didn’t think more critically about what I was watching. As I’ve grown older and studied television, however, I’ve realized that there are things that I value highly. One of those is diversity.

Of course, this means that I remain annoyed at the continued lack of diversity (and not just on television). There are probably a dozen reasons why diversity is so hard to come by, and it’s not always that people are against it. But I’d like to take the next several weeks and explore the different aspects of diversity and what it would take to see changes on the small screen, as well as celebrate those shows that have embraced diversity.

This week’s topic is ethnicity. I first noticed that there was a lack of diversity in this area when I began watching Ugly Betty. Through that show I learned to appreciate the diversity of cultures working together. There were the Meades, a white family; the Suarezes, a Mexican family; the Slaters, an African-American family; Christina McKinney, a Scot, and Sofia Reyes, from Colombia. Compared to the majority of shows, this display of minorities in television was almost overwhelming but welcomed.

Ugly Betty did a fantastic job stepping around stereotypes while still allowing for cultural and familial background to influence the characters’ points of view. For example, the Suarez family isn’t well-to-do and they are proud to display their Mexican heritage, but they’re also influenced by living in New York and the people with which they come into contact. Betty wants to run a magazine. Hilda has an entrepreneurial spirit. Justin wants to join the fashion industry. Yet they all celebrate their heritage and manage to reach outside their home to bring in a New York flavor as well. Compared to shows like Sex & The City, the ethnicity displayed in Ugly Betty is much more consistent with our concept of New York City.

Unfortunately, many shows rely on majority and either get lazy or pander to stereotypes. If you don’t want to watch Family Guy or American Dad, there’s The Cleveland Show. If you don’t want to watch Everybody Loves Raymond, you can go watch Everybody Hates Chris. Or, if you’re tired of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, there’s always a million sitcoms for white people: Two And A Half Men, Melissa & Joey, King of Queens, How I Met Your Mother, or Sex & The City.

There are, however, some shows that do have a somewhat diverse cast. Community’s Abed, Troy and Shirley comes to mind. Community takes stereotypes of the characters and turns them on their head. Shirley is religious, but even as her religious views are sometimes belittled by the secular characters, she is allowed to staunchly believe and thrive in the show’s environment. The historical significance of religion in the African American culture is displayed even in this modern context and treated with respect, even when it’s ridiculed. Shows like New Girl, Parks & Rec, Scandal, Modern Family, and Falling Skies do a fair job of diversifying when it comes to minorities in television, although there isn’t much in the way of diverse leads. Ensemble casts work really well when it comes to showing ethnically diverse characters, but even as shows like Scandal have a lead character who is a minority, there are still some shows, like New Girl, that does not know what to do with the minorities they have. Even with the addition of the hysterical Coach, Winston’s character seems to be floundering to find himself.

There are quite a few newer shows that have co-lead pairs, like Almost Human with Dorian and Detective Kennex; Sleepy Hollow with Ichabod Crane and Lieutenant Abbie Mills; and Brooklyn Nine-Nine with Jake Peralta and Captain Ray Holt.

This newer trend of splitting lead roles and mixing up the cast is quite promising. I particularly love Sleepy Hollow‘s pairing because it brings a white man from the past with all of his ideals and ways of doing things and pairs him with a young black woman in the present. It’s a genius pairing, and it  has the fanbase to prove it. I’ve seen sketches, fanfics, and Tumblrs dedicated to this show and it doesn’t even have an entire season under its belt.

What makes the contrasting co-leads work so well is that under their skin tones, they also have contrasting worldviews, experiences, and genders. Lt. Abbie Mills has grown up in a small town in the present. Ichabod, on the other hand, has traveled across the globe, helping to build a nation from the ground up. And yet, the problems Ichabod saw during the American Revolution are still present today. Lt. Mills still deals with being a young black woman in a nation still struggling with racism (among other issues).

While I wish that racism was over and done with, it isn’t, and I think it’s important that while we embrace ethnic diversity, we realize that it’s a topic we still need to discuss. We need to learn to listen and understand where each of us stands on the issue. Some of us have had worse experiences than others. Some of us aren’t aware of all the issues surrounding racism. I think putting our current issues in a scripted context is a smart way to address it without specifically writing a show about modern racism.

I also like Almost Human‘s pairing of Karl Urban’s Detective Kennex and Michael Ealy’s Dorian, plus Mackenzie Crook’s British Technician Rudy Lom (I’m not particularly fond of the fact that the show focuses on the male leads, but you can’t have everything, I guess). I think having one of them be an android adds another layer to the ethnicity and diversity of the show, in a strange way.

Some might have an issue with Dorian being an android and therefore a “second-class citizen” but I think this actually highlights racial problems in a good way. I love Dorian. I get angry when people treat him poorly. Watching Detective Kennex stand up for him allows me to see a positive response to racism and bigotry. It draws my attention to what might be going on in real life with peoples’ attitudes and actions toward the issue.

If this is what shows are doing now, I’m interested to see what the next wave of shows will hold.

So how can shows begin to accurately portray the diversity of the world in which we live? There are a few ways to get started, such as:

  • Hiring a diverse writing staff – SNL caught our attention by hiring LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones
  • Allowing a diverse writing staff to write diverse characters (and not depend on stereotypes or generic characters) in both lead and supporting roles
  • Hire diverse actors, keeping in mind that this means all types, colors, and sizes

There are also discussions about cable vs. broadcast in terms of diversity, as well as online or international offerings. Does the platform matter? What happens when you have to pay for diversity (Netflix, Amazon OnDemand, Viki.com, etc.)? If higher quality, more diverse shows are most readily available for a price, then minorities in television becomes a luxury, which is a tragedy.

So why does diversity matter so much? It’s a time-consuming process to ensure that everyone is represented. It takes a lot of listening. It takes caring. But it’s important. It matters to me that people are represented. I don’t want to see just me on the screen. I want to see my friends. My family. I don’t want anyone to be left out.

Not only does diversity show the world we live in, it helps us understand each other. To see life through another person’s eyes shows us how to be compassionate, but it can also show us the similarities we share. A lot of us share the same struggles, joys, dreams, hopes, and fears.

Watching other peoples’ lives unfold on the small screen has the capability to connect us – not only with the characters, but with other audience members as well.

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone is a story nerd, particularly for the episodic stories told via the medium of television. When not parked in front of the TV, K.M. Cone can be found writing kooky urban fantasy on her personal site, attempting to learn German, or making a huge pot of soup for her friends, who are probably coming over to join her in her latest TV or animated film obsession.
K.M. Cone

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