“I feel that the tide has turned,” one agent said. “I can pitch any actor for any role, and I think that’s good.”
But, as is the case with any sea change, the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction. 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. Many pilot characters this year were listed as open to all ethnicities, but when reps would call to inquire about an actor submission, they frequently have been told that only non-Caucasian actors would be considered. “Basically 50% of the roles in a pilot have to be ethnic, and the mandate goes all the way down to guest parts,” one talent representative said.
While they are among the most voracious and loyal TV viewers, African Americans still represent only 13% of the U.S. population. They were grossly underserved, but now, between shows like Empire, Black-ish, Scandal and HTGAW on broadcast, Tyler Perry’s fare on OWN and Mara Brock Akil’s series on BET, they have scripted choices, so the growth in that fraction of the TV audience may have reached its peak.
Only, as numerous tweeters pointed out, if you think people can only watch TV shows about those Exactly Like Themselves.
“Has the pendulum swung too far in the direction of TV representing the world as it actually is?” asked Farhad Manjoo on Twitter.
The backlash, on Twitter and elsewhere, has been huge and correct. Instead of being excited that it stirred up “a hornet’s nest,” Deadline should be crawling from door to door apologizing abjectly and offering to water the houseplants of every actor and actress whose genuine career accomplishments it snidely called into question. But clicks are clicks. This is one trouble with the Internet — if enough people are yelling at you, you can feel as if you’re doing something right.
Shonda Rhimes, as Salon pointed out, had probably the best response — not to engage. Why engage with a piece that questions your status as a creator or performer, calls actors of color “commodities,” implies that this is a fad and TV is a white viewer’s medium, and generally implies that only black viewers could conceivably be interested in a show about black characters. (That is why “Heroes” was so unpopular — people who were not literally endowed with superpowers just didn’t tune in. What could it offer them?) That piece is obviously silly and not worth your time and you should pretend you have to answer an important phone call so you can leave.
I don’t know that what the Internet Definitely Needs Right Now is my two cents, but as one of the Amorphous Mass Of TV Caucasian Viewers that the piece’s author is clearly so worried will suddenly evaporate, let me just chime in quickly and say: NO. This is wrong. This is bad advice. The pendulum has not swung in the wrong direction. This is not a fluke. This is not a fad. People and their stories are not cronuts.
Stop insulting TV viewers’ imaginations.
I feel the same way about this that I feel whenever someone writes a Worried Story about how Boys Don’t Like To Read Novels With Female Protagonists. What? The answer is not that this dangerous trend of stories with female protagonists must stop.
The inability to see yourself in someone else is not a virtue.
We can watch shows about space aliens and people with superpowers and meth kingpins – but dang it, those space aliens and people with superpowers and meth kingpins had better be white or we won’t be able to identify with them. What? No.
Why do you think we watch TV? If I thought the only way to find characters I cared about, learn about worlds that interested me, and see stories that would change the way I thought about the world was to see my own image constantly reflected back at me, I wouldn’t watch TV, I’d watch the mirror. I’m sad that you think that only people Exactly Like You can tell stories that speak to you. That’s obviously, patently untrue. It’s also strangely insulting to the imaginations of TV viewers, from all backgrounds. For decades, television has been asking millions of its viewers to find their stories in protagonists that looked nothing like them. (You’re not Ward Cleaver? Tough. That’s the only variety this Human Experience Window comes in. You have to find your own truth in it yourself.)
This is coming from a place of fear. “What if?” this piece is saying “what if we get crowded out? What if we weren’t filling all the screens because we were objectively the best and the most interesting? What if that wasn’t merit, after all, but the system we’d built?” That thought can be scary. “There are so many people who want to tell stories. What if mine doesn’t make the cut? I’ve got to tell my stories! Hearing them matters!”
Then how do you think millions of people have felt, for decades and decades?
If this terrifies you — not the thought that your story isn’t being told and has not yet been told on a large scale, for TV viewers; not the thought that you will lose the one or two or three shows that feature characters that you recognize instantly from your own life instead of people from another context whom you might have to make an effort to get to know, but the thought that instead of “all of the shows” fitting into your narrow definition of what represents you, you will only have “all of the shows minus five or six” and fewer 100 percent of the actors – if this is that scary, then imagine being in any shoes but yours. Imagine not having the cushion of hundreds of shows and decades and decades of a TV that was also an easy mirror.
“That,” tweeted NPR’s Linda Holmes, “is the sound of people finding that their key doesn’t work in every single door for the first time ever.”
But imagine having to find yourself in the stories of people who were not like you. And one great way of imagining that is getting to see those stories on TV.
More stories are better. New stories are not a threat. This is not a zero-sum game. It is more interesting and better to have more stories. If you can’t see some of yourself in Jane the Virgin or Cookie, the problem is yours, not theirs. It is not true that the only way to see yourself is in people who look just like you. This should all go without saying. It’s a shame that it doesn’t. We are only a few steps closer to a TV that mirrors not just one segment of America but something even slightly more akin to all of it.
Please, please, please, don’t stop now.