Specifically, the show has been heavily criticized for a lack of black women in performing roles, with some of the recent criticism being prompted by comments from SNL's two black male cast members, one of whom complained he had grown tired of dressing up to play black women. And SNL even acknowledged the critique in the first episode of this season hosted by Kerry Washington. In the entire 39 years and 138 cast members of SNL, there have only been five black female performers on the show. The fifth, Sasheer Zamata of Upright Citizens Brigade, started over the weekend. The show had not had any black female performers since Maya Rudolph left SNL in 2007.
The diversity of films and television, while better than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago, is still an issue to this day. And sometimes the solutions can be as insulting as the problem they're attempting to address. In the case of Saturday Night Live, just because SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels hired a black woman that doesn't exactly mean the controversy goes away. The issue now becomes about whether they let her do anything on the show. For example, part of the reason Chris Rock's tenure on SNL during the 90s ended was because he became frustrated that he was relegated to "token" black characters in sketches.
Moreover, like I mentioned last week in the discussion about HBO's Girls, this gets into some of the same arguments bandied about with affirmative action. When we're talking about positions within government, educational opportunities, and even the hiring performance of companies and corporations, diversity has become at the very least an important agreed upon "goal" in most people's eyes (even if they may disagree about how you go about getting there). But does a writer or producer have a duty to present diversity when telling a story? If we're dealing with fiction, something that by its very nature can be unrealistic, does that fiction have to at least represent race, gender, orientation, etc., in a realistic way?
Continue below the fold for more analysis.
Some months back, Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress put together a piece that wondered what the American population would look like if it reflected its depiction on prime-time network television. According to her run through of the casts of scripted prime-time shows on the big four networks, NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX:
- Half the population would be white men.
- Five percent of the population would be black men.
- Just 1.9 percent of the world would be Asian or Latino men.
- Overall, 57 percent of the population would be men.
- 34 percent of the world would be white women
- 3.8 percent would be African-American women
- And 3.8 percent would be Latino or Asian women
- 31.8 percent of the population would work for the police or some sort of federal law enforcement agency.
- 9.7 percent of us would be doctors.
- 2.6 percent of us would be criminals.
- 1.9 percent would be supernatural creatures or robots.
A general rule of thumb is that most writers write about what they know. And entertainment is made to entertain, not to provide a social good. Each story provides a specific, individual vision. Plus do you really want writers, ignorant of certain life experiences, trying to reflect the aspirations of people they may or may not know? But the demographics of the people who write and run TV and film productions might have something to do with the disparities. According to a recent UCLA/Writers Guild of America West (WGAW) survey, minorities are underrepresented on TV staffs by a 2 to 1 ratio in comparison to their percentage of the population. Among executive producers, women are underrepresented by 2 to 1 and minorities by 5 to 1.
From Jonathan Handel at The Hollywood Reporter:
There are signs of progress, albeit slow. Minority representation doubled over the last decade (2011-12 season compared with 1999-2000). But during that same period, female representation inched up a mere 5 percent — a rate of increase so sluggish that parity to men won’t be achieved for another 42 years unless faster progress is made.Although, even if there was perfect 1 to 1 representation of minorities, women, gays, etc., in media, it wouldn't necessarily mean all the problems go away. For example, Spike Lee's film Bamboozled satirically argues the minstrel shows of the past have been replaced by "black" television shows and films that depict African-Americans as buffoons. When you think about the depiction of gays in movies and TV, how many of the characters are depicted as "normal" people who live their lives just like everyone else compared to camp characters that need to express how "FABULOUS!" they are every other sentence?
The Boondocks on Tyler Perry films:
And the issue of diversity in media is not just a white-black one. For example, it was once "okay" to basically have white actors put on some brown makeup and a feather in their hair to depict Native Americans, and for any Asian character to be represented by white people who squint their eyes while the "oriental riff" plays. (e.g. Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's)
I believe it was an interview with John Cho and Kal Penn (of Harold & Kumar) who pointed out that almost never do Asian male characters have love interests in movies. And more often than not, if an Asian female character is the main love interest, she will not end up with the Asian guy. Some years back, there was a fascinating article about the effect Sixteen Candles had on Asian males who grew up during the 80s. In his review for the film back in 1984, Roger Ebert wrote that actor Gedde Watanabe had elevated his character of Long Duk Dong from "a potentially offensive stereotype to high comedy." However, not everyone sees it that way.
From Alison MacAdam at NPR:
The mark Long Duk Dong left was more of a stain: To some viewers, he represents one of the most offensive Asian stereotypes Hollywood ever gave America ... Every single Asian dude who went to high school or junior high during the era of John Hughes movies was called "Donger."Many television shows of the 70s and 80s went the "Very Special Episode" route to deal with some of these criticisms. Basically it's an episode where you have the collection of rich, white characters come to the realization that death, drug abuse, alcoholism, AIDS, suicide, gang violence, gay people and/or black people and racism actually exist in the world. The problem with the "very special episode" is that it comes off as both incredibly naive while at the same time horribly condescending.
The original Beverly Hills 90210 didn't have any minority main characters during its early years and came under criticism for it, so they went the "very special episode" route by having Brandon (Jason Priestley) go into South Central to bridge the cultural divide while at the same time trying to solve gang violence. However, another problem of the "very special episode" is that it usually employs "token" characters.
A token character is defined by TV Tropes as:
A character designed to get more minority groups into the plot. This serves several purposes:The problem with the token character is that he or she is defined by whatever their "token" is, and that's usually a collection of stereotypes. These sort of plot developments are usually deployed by hack writers, but even good ones get caught by it. An interesting case is Aaron Sorkin with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Simon (D.L. Hughley) is the one African-American on the sketch show, with almost every story involving him being about how Simon doesn't want to be "the black guy" on Studio 60, which ironically makes every story involving him about that very thing.
- Allows the producers of the show to broaden the appeal of the show by giving more viewers protagonists they can identify with.
- Is useful for bringing in discussions of racial issues, gender issues or homophobia into the plot.
- Helps the producers feel a little better about using a Scary Minority Suspect in every other case.
- Allows the producers to make jokes related to a minority group without any shame.
- Allows the producers to avoid criticism from minority groups.
- Fulfills the executives' desire for the show to be more ethnically respectful.
The Smurfette Principle, which is basically having a female token character in a male dominated cast, can still be seen in a lot of TV shows. Even The Daily Show has been criticized for usually not having more than one or two female regulars at a time.
The Smurfette Principle is the tendency for works of fiction to have exactly one female amongst an ensemble of male characters, in spite of the fact that roughly half of the human race is female. Unless a show is purposefully aimed at a female viewing audience, the main characters will tend to be disproportionately male. Said only woman will almost always be used as half of a romance subplot ... This trope is nearly universal in all forms of media. Most writers try to balance this out with positive discrimination, making the girl more intelligent and level-headed than everyone else, but it still doesn't change the simple fact that there's only one of her. Usually, all it does is turn her into a Mary Sue for everyone to loathe.The most sensible and progressive thing to do if there's minority characters in a work is to write those characters as being just like everyone else. When analyzing the pop culture of the 80s, The Cosby Show has been the subject of much scrutiny and debate, since it was one of the first TV programs to depict an upper class African-American family. And that family was not depicted as explicitly "Black," but just an American family dealing with issues like any other family.
From Todd VanDerWerff at the A.V. Club:
In his essential memoir depicting his life in the TV-writing trenches, Billion-Dollar Kiss, Jeffrey Stepakoff gives the most succinct answer to a perpetual question in television circles: Whatever happened to the black sitcom? In the ’70s, series like The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, and Good Times were Nielsen mainstays, all with either black leads or predominantly black casts ... Stepakoff’s explanation is at once complex and simple. It stems from a series he worked on named Hyperion Bay, a little-known WB teen drama that’s mostly notable for its original premise, which would have revolved around an interracial relationship. The network’s suits eventually nixed that idea, and Stepakoff’s explanation boils down, essentially, to money. Since the early ’80s, networks have increasingly chased younger viewers, usually in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic, because said viewers are supposed to spend their money more freely and be more likely to try out new brands. Thus, they’re more attractive to the advertisers who underwrite the broadcast-network business model.Some shows and films have tried to deal with these issues by having race neutral casting. Instead of casting a character as being specifically a white male or black female, whoever is the best actor/actress that auditions for the part gets it. If I remember right, this is the way it's done on Shonda Rhimes produced shows and it's the reason many of the guest stars that play the patients and families are interracial couples on Grey's Anatomy. However, the process still doesn't guarantee diversity and can lead to other issues.
That’s all well and good, in terms of profit, but the pursuit of almighty demographics has also had the effect of making television whiter and whiter, precisely at the same time that the United States has had a non-white population growing more quickly than the white one. This has all changed a bit in the past few years, largely due to the success of ABC’s mid-’00s ensemble dramas Lost and Grey’s Anatomy, but the majority of series still have mostly white casts, and the number of series on broadcast networks with minority leads can be counted on one hand.
What happened is easy enough to understand, and it’s one of the same reasons for TV’s increasing lack of blue-collar sitcoms: The more networks could provide advertisers with demographic information, the more those advertisers chased the demographics with the most money. According to Stepakoff, in the ’90s, this meant chasing white parents and their teenagers, which ended up being The WB’s demographic. These viewers might have been reliable Cosby viewers 10 years earlier—after all, the Huxtables were affluent, just like the theoretical WB viewers—but increasingly, networks, driven by advertisers, believed that rich white people who would spend the most money on products wanted to see more white people, ideally affluent as well.
The depiction of relationships can be a no-win situation. Say for example you have a teen/twentysomething show with a main cast where there's two or three minority characters that live in a predominantly white community. When it comes time to depict a relationship between the minority characters and a love interest, the show will either:
- Introduce another minority character who we've never seen before (and in all likelihood we'll never see again after the episode). One criticism of this is that of all the white women/men we've seen, the producers and writers are still keeping races separated when it comes to sex.
- On the other hand, there are some who criticize it as a message of "selling out" being sent with the depiction of interracial relationships, especially when it's a black male in an upper income situation who falls in love with a white woman.
Similar issues come up in the portrayal of affection between gay characters. By and large, it is much more common to see depictions of lesbian sexual contact than it is to see the same contact between two men, let alone a comparison between straight and gay couples. An infamous example occurred on ABC's Modern Family, where the show came under criticism for how it depicted a scene between gay couple Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet). They hugged each other after a reunion at an airport, in contrast to straight couple Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen).
If you look back at sitcoms and game shows between the '60s and the '80s, you had gay actors (Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, etc.) on shows that went to ridiculous lengths to not acknowledge something that almost everyone knew, but also played around with the actors homosexuality by slyly alluding to it. On the Ted Knight sitcom Too Close for Comfort, one of the supporting actors was Jim J. Bullock, who played "Monroe." The show never acknowledged the actor's sexuality with the character, but went to a strange "very special episode" route by having the character be raped by women.
Last year, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) developed the Russo Test, named after The Celluloid Closet author Vito Russo. The three standards of the Russo Test are:
1. The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.Of the 101 titled released by the six major studios in 2012, only 14 contained LGBT characters (and it's really only "LGB" since there were zero trans people in any of the 2012 studio release). And of those 14 movies, some of the characters are "blink and you'll miss it" cameos. Of the 14 films, only six meet all three above requirements of the Russo Test: Warner Bros.’ Cloud Atlas and Rock of Ages, Universal’s Pitch Perfect and The Five-Year Engagement, Sony’s Skyfall, and Paramount’s Fun Size.
2. That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity. I.E. they are made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters from one another.
3. The LGBT character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect. Meaning they are not there simply to provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline. The character should matter.
The Russo Test is based on the Bechdel Test. Created by Alison Bechdel, it's been used by some as a litmus test for the depiction of female characters in film and television. It states that in order to pass the test, a work must:
- Include at least two women.
- The female characters have at least one conversation.
- The conversation is about something other than a man or men.
Those three requirements seem like an incredibly low bar, but a surprising and significant number of films fail this test. However, the probative value of Bechdel's test has been argued about. For one thing, a good many "girl-on-girl," lesbian porn films satisfy all of the criteria of the Bechdel Test, even though it probably wouldn't be the first thing that most feminists think about as demonstrations of equality in entertainment.
Secondly, it can only be used in the aggregate to judge female roles in movies at a given time, since it's not a test that can be applied universally to every film that makes a movie "sexist" if it fails. Fight Club fails the Bechdel Test. The fact that Fight Club fails the test is not surprising since it's not a movie about women. It's about men and male self-image in the modern world.
It is entirely possible for a film to pass without having overt feminist themes – in fact, the original example of a movie that passes is Alien, which, while it has feminist subtexts, is mostly just a sci-fi/action/horror flick. A movie can easily pass the Bechdel Test and still be incredibly misogynistic. For instance, the infamously bad Manos: The Hands of Fate passes the test, but its treatment of women is incredibly squicky. Conversely, it's also possible for a story to fail the test and still be strongly feminist in other ways, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. What's a problem is that it becomes a pattern – when so many movies fail the test, while very few show male characters whose lives seem to revolve around women, that says uncomfortable things about the way Hollywood handles gender.Of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards, only four films pass the Bechdel Test.