Over the past year, there has been much talk of color-blind casting, and the lack thereof, in primetime television. While Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal, is praised for not considering race when casting a show, Lena Dunham, creator of the new hit HBO series, Girls, was harshly criticized for turning a blind eye to her colorless cast. This increasingly prevalent double standard must be addressed within the context of American history and media culture.
There are infinite reasons for why millions of Americans plop down on their couches every night to watch TV. While some are eager to learn about how sharks breathe, others simply want to escape. The hundreds of channels available to viewers highlight the wide variety that Americans crave. With all of the recent controversy surrounding creative decisions in the media, critics seem to have forgotten the seemingly basic principle of individual preference.
At its core, television is entertainment. Yes, the medium has been extremely helpful in mobilizing and communicating to the masses, but even news anchors feel the need to craft witty story titles and corny puns in an effort to entertain viewers. With this in mind, the conversations surrounding what television should and shouldn’t be seem to be addressing the wrong concerns. While minority representation has been a hot topic lately, little discussion has been devoted to the evolution of viewer demands.
It is no longer enough to simply cast a minority character in a show, or at least it shouldn’t be. When the public cries out for diverse representation, they are really pleading for the inclusion of their stories, not their skin tone. The sophisticated modern American viewer could not care less about how many people of color are on a show. The deeper frustration is rooted in the narrow lens from which stories are being told. Unsurprisingly, that often translates into a lack of racial diversity.
If a Latina actress had been cast as a lead in Girls, but was still assigned to the character of Hannah Horvath, a spoiled young writer who is just now learning how to live independent of her parents, there would still be some unrest. A racially diverse cast does not equate to comprehensive content. Even with an all-minority cast, for example, Girls would still be perceived as overwhelming White. This raises yet another difficult question about the thin line between stereotypical perpetuation and cultural authenticity, which is being consistently redefined by creators everywhere.
Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) of Scandal would be equally as gripping if played by a white, brown, or blue person. Good characters aren’t limited by race; they are driven by story. Similarly, if Shonda Rhimes fully replaced the cast of Grey’s Anatomy with African-American actors, it would not turn into a Black show because the content still wouldn’t exclusively address “the Black experience.” Would viewers automatically denounce its credibility after the change? That’s a different article.
Though it may be hard for some to accept an all-White television cast in 2012, the problem with White shows is not skin deep. The problem with any narrow minded show that irresponsibly handles race, gender, or socio-economic realities is only found within the creator’s intentions, which are not always available for critique.
Every Hollywood executive has the right to fabricate the truth or to create their own. Unfortunately, due to our media-crazed culture, this creative freedom now possesses the power to strongly influence the masses, as we have witnessed throughout history.
Individual viewers must continue to evaluate what they really want from television and tune in accordingly. If Girls doesn’t resonate with you, don’t watch it. The fact that it is on the air means that it resonates with a significant amount of people just the way it is. Likewise, if you are not satisfied with the presentation of people who look and live like you on television, begin to tell your own stories. Independent creations are our only hope for fully inclusive representation in this country. It is unwise to expect major networks to reflect everyone’s real world; it isn’t their job.
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