How does one respond to the story, written by Deadline TV editor Nellie Andreeva and posted Tuesday evening, with the headline, “Pilots 2015: The Year Of Ethnic Castings — About Time Or Too Much Of Good Thing?”
Maybe the story won’t be so bad, a person could generously think upon reading that headline. Don’t judge the entire piece on the headline.
But then the article reads: “Instead of opening the field for actors of any race to compete for any role in a color-blind manner, there has been a significant number of parts designated as ethnic this year, making them off-limits for Caucasian actors, some agents signal.” She goes on to cite an unnamed talent representative who claimed “50 percent of the roles in a pilot have to be ethnic.”
This kind of crying “reverse racism” reads less like a story that could actually get published in a major publication and more like something we’d see in an email that leaked after the Sony hack.
Andreeva is looking at what has been a widely celebrated season of freshman shows that feature casts who (finally!) look like America: Empire, Jane the Virgin, How to Get Away with Murder, Black-ish, Fresh off the Boat. But instead of seeing what just about everyone else can see — gangbusters ratings, fantastic performances, sharp writing — Andreeva sees a dangerous precedent being set, wherein parts that “should” go to white actors are snatched away by actors of color. (Or, to use Andreeva’s ill-chosen terminology, “ethnic actors.” Andreeva’s piece employs the word “ethnic” 21 times, headline included.)
Even when the information in the piece is right, the tone is all wrong. Andreeva writes, “But the big trend this pilot casting season was the huge spike in the number and prominence of roles that went to minority actors.” Ordinarily this is the kind of news a person could report with glee. So much talent has been overlooked and wasted for so long; so many romantic leads and action heroes shunted to the side for no good reason. Yet Andreeva is lamenting this long overdue shift in casting.
Her logic is so illogical that it contradicts itself: she chalks up the success of Empire, Jane, Black-ish and FOTB to the mere fact that “they represents worlds and points of view that were not on TV.” Then, not two sentences later, she heralds Empire, along with Scandal and HTGAWM as being successful “on the strength of their premise, execution and talent performances and chemistry.” So which is it, Andreeva?
Yes, obviously, people want and need to see themselves on TV. For an eloquent, passionate defense of this point, may I direct you to Scandal star and national treasure, Kerry Washington. And yes, obviously, if you build it — not it you build it with Elmer’s glue and popsicle sticks, but if you build it well — they will come. Why, exactly, is that a bad thing?
Andreeva writes that while black audiences “are among the most voracious and loyal TV viewers” (how, exactly, is she quantifying that? In the number of tweets about HTGAWM?), “African-Americans still represent only 13 percent of the U.S. population. They were grossly underserved, but now… they have scripted choices, so the growth in that fraction of the TV audience might have reached its peak.”
The word “peak” jumps off the page. It calls to mind Two and a Half Men creator Lee Aronsohn’s complaint in 2012 that “we’re approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation.” A handful of new female-centric shows — at the time, we’re talking about Girls, 2 Broke Girls, and Whitney — and Aronsohn, a man responsible for a show that systematically treated women like disposable objects, felt like maybe Hollywood was overdoing it with the lady stuff. A few new shows. For 51 percent of the population.
Andreeva is perpetuating this notion that the addition of shows that explore the lives of people of color is somehow a threatening thing. But, threatening to whom? TV writers’ rooms are still dominated by white men. Latino men have practically disappeared from TV and film as leading actors; on TV and in film, Latinos are portrayed primarily as criminals, law enforcement, maids and cheap labor. FOTB is the first Asian-American sitcom to air in the U.S. in 20 years.
The other huge blind spot in Andreeva’s piece is this: she seems to be suggesting that the only viewers who benefit from programs featuring people of color are people of color. But everyone benefits from outstanding television. To state something so obvious it is difficult to believe it must be stated: you don’t have to be black to like Empire, you don’t have to be Latino to like Jane the Virgin, you don’t have to be Asian to like FOTB. Good shows are good shows are good shows. And for the love of a country that grows more diverse by the day, “ethnic casting” is not a “trend.”
Give me strength, oh Shonda:
1st Reaction:: HELL NO. Lemme take off my earrings, somebody hold my purse!
2nd Reaction: Article is so ignorant I can't even be bothered.
— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) March 25, 2015