There are two new TV series that have brought diversity in television to the public’s conscience. (It’s always on my mind, as a person of color who loves media.) ABC’s Scandal and HBO’s Girls have people talking about people of color, or lack thereof, on TV.
Shonda Rhimes, the creator, head writer, and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, created Scandal with Kerry Washington in the lead role and based on the career of Judy Smith, a DC crisis management consultant. The show is the first network TV drama with a Black female lead in 30 years; the last one was Get Christie Love, which I’ve never heard of – it was apparently the story of a black female cop that also aired on ABC during the Blaxploitation heyday.
Oh sure, there are black women on TV; VH1 seems to have become the “ignorant quick-tempered black women with nothing to do but throw glasses at each other” channel, with Basketball Wives, Love & Hip-Hop, and all the “let’s help Flavor Flav find love” shows and their spinoffs. WeTV features Braxton Family Values, a reality show about Toni Braxton and her sisters. Bravo has The Real Housewives of Atlanta, all but one of whom is black. Black supporting characters abound. But a prime-time drama about a professional woman who is great at her job? Those are all led by white women. Fair or not, Kerry Washington has a lot of responsibility here. The marketing for the show didn’t focus on the race aspect at all, although the show did get a ton of marketing – but it was all about “From creator Shonda Rhimes …” And I can respect that. While I can’t stand Grey’s Anatomy and think Private Practice has gone way downhill, I have immense respect for Rhimes’s career. She’s an important woman.
So too is Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope. The entire first episode is dedicated to explaining how great she is at her job. The President and his cabinet bow down to her. Everyone who mentions her name follows it up with “she’s the best,” “her gut is never wrong,” etc. I like Kerry Washington (it took some doing but I have forgiven her, Anthony Mackie, and Spike Lee for She Hate Me, which is one of the worst movies I have ever seen) and she brings a quiet confidence to the role.
The cast as a whole is racially diverse. The show doesn’t fall into the Friends trap of never even showing people of color anywhere in a major urban center, and thank God for that. (More on this in a sec.) Guillermo Diaz and Columbus Short are both part of Olivia’s crisis management team. Olivia’s (married with kids) love interest is Fitzgerald Grant, the President of the United States in this fictional world played by Tony Goldwyn; Olivia was a high-ranking member of his campaign team and they began an affair that she broke off … but they’re still madly in love. He told his chief of staff that she’s the “love of [his] life.”
From what I’ve seen of Shonda Rhimes’s shows, she practices colorblind casting and doesn’t make a point of mentioning race at all. Many of the main characters on her shows are or have been in interracial relationships; when Private Practice’s Addison is delivering a baby on the show, half the time the couples are interracial – and not just black/white either. People of color are a part of the world that Shonda Rhimes chooses to depict, but she doesn’t choose to actively call them out.
Conversely, Girls depicts a world where no people of color exist at all.
To be fair, only one episode of Girls has aired. But from what I’ve seen and read (Racialicious posted some casting calls and they’re all stereotypes – the overweight Jamaican nanny, the sexy South American nanny, etc.), the show is one of many that ignores people of color except to depict them as stereotypes. At the end of the pilot, protagonist Hannah walks down the street looking sad (her parents have just told her that her TWO-YEAR run on their tab is up and she’ll need to start supporting herself). A black man who appears to be homeless appears out of nowhere and tells her to smile and say “I love New York!” It screams Magical Negro. The only other person of color is a young Asian woman who has the job Hannah wants; she’s quiet, wears Buddy Holly glasses, and that’s all we know about her (and since Hannah no longer works with her, I doubt she'll be seen again).
The show’s creator and star, Lena Dunham, told the Huffington Post that she’d like to see more people of color, and if they get a second season, she’ll add some in. Which, real talk, reads to me like “I didn’t give people of color a thought until I got called out about it, and now that I have, I’ll deal with it.” And that bugs me.
I spent my college years and 20s in New York City. The world Lena Dunham grew up in is not too different from mine, although I’m a few years older than she is; she and I are both products of urban independent schools and top-tier universities. I saw people of color every day at my high school and my university, and later in business school. We were the minority, sure, but we were there. In my time in New York, I of course didn’t visit every block in every neighborhood, but I saw people that looked like me every single day. On the subway. On the block. At work. In class. At the grocery store. Shopping. At bars. At the gym. The four main characters on Girls are white, which I don’t really have an issue with (it’s not my experience – my friends look like a Benetton ad – but homogeneous groups of friends do exist), but homogeneous New York City doesn’t. Even if you only know one race of people socially, you simply cannot go through your day living in New York City and only see white people. Even on Gossip Girl’s Upper East Side, and especially in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where the Girls live. (My mother and her parents are from Brooklyn and my great-grandparents on that side came to Brooklyn in the '20s from Trinidad; I know black people live there.) You might only notice white people, or choose to only associate with white people, but that’s not the same thing.
And on a deeper level, the show is about four privileged young women (which is interesting since the actresses who play them are all very privileged – each of them is the daughter of someone famous); they all are college-educated, with parents who can afford to support and/or indulge them. People of color like this exist. Not all people of color come from humble backgrounds. The struggles of trying to make something of yourself in your early – mid 20s, even if you have generous financial support, are not just white struggles.
And both Scandal and Girls have a lot riding on them. If Scandal succeeds, it’ll show the media world that people will watch a show with a black female lead, and hopefully inspire them to make more such shows. If Girls succeeds, more shows like it will get made … which further alienates people of color, because “more shows like it” means more shows that exclude people of color.
I don’t know what the solution is. The media world doesn’t bow to my whims, sadly; I can’t force them to hire more people of color as writers and showrunners. But I can, and will, bring issues like this to the forefront in my corner of the world, and encourage people I know to think critically about what they watch.