A great question comes in to the blog from always thought-provoking commenter Jason Byrd Marshall: “Do you mean shows that star ‘people of color’ or stories about ‘people with color’? It would seem that we have a few of the former (there should be more!), while the latter has failed again and again (see Cane with Jimmy Smits).” That actually gets at a question I raised slightly in the post Jason commented on. Simply having people of different races, religions, ethnicities, national origins, sexual orientations, and abilities (disabled folks are probably the most underrepresented constituency in American popular culture) is a first step towards true diversity. But it’s not the only kind of diversity. And it’s an opening of the door, rather than the end of the journey.
The imperative for diversity, beyond the simple fact of its rightness, is the fact that if you have characters with different experiences and perspectives, you ought to get a more interesting set of stories. If 2 Broke Girls didn’t seem committed to being flagrantly racist, Earl’s presence at the diner check-out could be an entry-point for conversations about gentrification in Brooklyn. Ugly Betty was a show both about the weirdnesses of the high fashion world and about the process by which you become a citizen. Avatar would have been a creative if somewhat generic action movie if not for the specific perspective Jake Sully had as a result of losing his mobility in an accident (not a perspective that all wheelchair users share, of course).
The challenge, I think, in making shows that fall into Jason’s second category (and pop culture more generally) is convincing majority white audiences that shows that don’t just have black characters but that are about blackness and black experiences, or that are about, in part, being Latino, or Muslim, or disabled, or whatever, are shows that they will enjoy. This shouldn’t be as hard a sell as it is, of course. Audiences drawn from racial majorities should be, and fairly demonstrably are, interested in stories about social movements and fights for justice by minority groups, even if they like to consume them in problematic forms, like The Help.
The heavier lift actually seems to be with pop culture that’s about not painful stories of oppression where majority audiences might have to acknowledge some complicity with racism, sexism, or homophobia, but about the day-to-day lives of people who are not white, straight, etc., and who are not the sole minority representative in a group of friends or couples who are mostly white and straight. I don’t know if that stems from ideas that, say, black or gay families or couples or groups of friends are in some way fundamentally different from pairings and groups with other compositions; a fear from audiences that they won’t get the jokes or references or background assumptions; or what, but it’s often unfounded. I may have been the only white person at the showing of Jumping the Broom that I attended, but I liked it plenty. The specifics of jumping the broom may not be part of my traditions, but stomping on glasses, which is just as silly, is. I don’t know how to strike a balance between coming up with a diverse set of stories and depictions of universal experiences like weddings and friend-based sitcoms that are inflected by a diversity of experiences and traditions, while simultaneously convincing majority audiences that the differences aren’t that big. The impulses to explore diversity and to minimize its important
is can be contradictory. In the entertainment industry, expanding curiosity and sympathy to a wider range of stories is a heavy lift. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to try.