Skip to main content

Sasheer Zamata, Kenan Thompson, and Drake on NBC's Saturday Night Live
Back in September, Saturday Night Live kicked off its 39th season with six new cast members. All six hires were white, and five of the six were male. SNL has been criticized throughout its history for a lack of diversity, and other networks have tried to take advantage of the perception in counter-programming their sketch shows. (e.g. In Living Color, MADtv) But the issue came back to the forefront this season after the new cast was announced, and some critics claimed the all-white additions were evidence the show has a "white-dominated perspective" that lacks racial and gender diversity.

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:
  • 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 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.

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.
Some argue that one of the show's legacies is that it provided a positive depiction of African-Americans and an African-American family. On the other side of things, some (like David Sirota) have argued that the show was too tame in acknowledging race and dealing with the issues that surround it. A Different World, a show that was originally a Lisa Bonet spinoff of The Cosby Show, was much more topical and issue-oriented. Set at the fictional Black College Hillman, it is the last African-American oriented sitcom that was a top 10 show in the Nielsen ratings. Why is that?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Originally posted to 医生的宫殿 on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 11:41 AM PST.

Also republished by What are you watching? and Daily Kos.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  try to find strong jewish male characters (20+ / 0-)

    in the 1970s. on tv, there were a bunch of series about tough italian cops or detectives- delvecchio, petrocelli, baretta, columbo- each of whom was played by a jewish actor. but jews in the media had to be nebbish woody allen types.

    as for black actors/characters, hollywood often embarrasses itself even more when it tries to include some than when it doesn't bother. the big question for this year's oscars is whether hollywood can handle that the most honest depiction of american slavery has come from a british director and a british actor. the real american hustle.

    The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

    by Laurence Lewis on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 12:27:37 PM PST

    •  As a writing hobbyist, self-educated for the most (8+ / 0-)

      part, I would say a diverse mix matters in shows like SNL that cover everything from the silly to the topical.

      But for some shows, it relies on the focus, theme and/or environment portrayed in the story.

      That being said, there is an obvious dearth, still today, in the 21st century, of diverse characters where there most easily could be diverse characters.

      I think some of this does have to do with the comfort area of writers, but much also is due to rusty old racial infrastructure showing its bones in our entertainment industry.

      Not everyone in Hollywood is a curs-ed Liberal.

      "Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

      by Gentle Giant on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 01:08:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Seems to me 5% of the American population is (0+ / 0-)

      Jewish and about 25% of the characters in tv and movies are Jewish.  I just don't think Jewish people are under-represented.

      I recognize some believe SNL is a bell weather for culture, but who really cares if they are diverse?  It's not important or influential. It's not even funny most of the time.

      Government works when you elect those who want it to. --askyron (2013)

      by Simul Iustus et Peccator on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 06:56:00 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I don't watch it: I have to get up early for work (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Simul Iustus et Peccator

        on Sunday morning. ;)

        Pope Francis: the Thumb of Christ in the eyes of the Pharisees.

        by commonmass on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 06:56:53 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Really? (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Laurence Lewis, Chinton, O112358

        25%?  I'm trying to think of any Jewish characters on any of the shows or movies I've seen recently, and drawing a blank.

        Absent some serious back up, your comment reminds me an awful lot of the complaints from right wingers about how gay people are supposedly over represented on television.  

        Political Compass: -6.75, -3.08

        by TexasTom on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:12:57 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Really? You don't think there are any? (0+ / 0-)

          Government works when you elect those who want it to. --askyron (2013)

          by Simul Iustus et Peccator on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:17:39 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  You're claiming 25%... (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Chinton, O112358

   you should have no trouble naming a whole bunch of shows and characters.  After all, just the big four networks account for 81 hours a week of prime time programming.

            While it may seem that I'm picking on you, I suspect that if you really analyze what you've seen, you'll discover that it's a really small percentage, and that Jewish people are more likely to be under represented than over represented in the media.

            Political Compass: -6.75, -3.08

            by TexasTom on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:20:49 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  We watch The Good Wife and NCIS in spurts. (0+ / 0-)

              Eli Gold and Ziva David are Jewish (Ziva was from Israel. Her father Eli and brother Ari were also Jewish).

              Old shows I watched had Lisa Cuddy (House), and Don and Charlie Eppes (and their dad) from NUMB3RS

              We're currently watching the boxed set of The West Wing, which has Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler.

              Often, many shows have minor characters that are doctors and lawyers who are Jewish. Yes, I know it's stereotyping. But they're common, especially on legal shows.

              But these are major characters on top-rated network shows off the top of my head.

               I don't watch much TV at all. I'm sure there are more.

              © grover

              So if you get hit by a bus tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent today, your last day on earth? Live like tomorrow is never guaranteed, because it's not. -- Me.

              by grover on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 12:36:48 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

        •  Granted, I have not watched broadcast tv (0+ / 0-)

          for about two years ever since I got Netflix.

          Government works when you elect those who want it to. --askyron (2013)

          by Simul Iustus et Peccator on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:18:54 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  There's the nebbishy, mother-dominated (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Simul Iustus et Peccator

          stereotype on that Big Bang Show!

          Jews are certainly hugely overrepresented as writers, though. And probably as actors, too.

          "Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror."

          by GussieFN on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:23:02 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  The only one I can think of right now is (0+ / 0-)

          Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory.

          President Obama at Madison Rally 9/28/2010 - "Change is not a spectator sport."

          by askew on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:40:00 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  top of my head (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          MHB, johnosahon

          Weeds was a show about a Jewish family.  The Golds on Entourage were Jewish.  Saul on Homeland.  Howard on Big Bang Theory.  Isn't Clyde on House of Lies Jewish?  And herein lies the problem.  Most shows don't deal with religion at all so it it hard to know who is supposed to be Jewish especially since the whole point is you don't want stereotypical portrayals.

      •  you might want to check your numbers (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        your perception might have more to do with your perception. you also miss the point- it's how they were depicted, not whether they were depicted.

        The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

        by Laurence Lewis on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:14:44 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  More like 2%, I think, and that's an interesting (0+ / 0-)

        point. To the extent that we want diverse representation (and I think we do) should we support limiting the number of Jews who are hired? Is it okay to say, "Sorry, we've already got too many Jews?'

        Rosenberg didn't run the numbers for % of Jews, I guess.

        "Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror."

        by GussieFN on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:18:30 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Reading this, my first thought was the old (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doctor RJ, commonmass

    Starsky and Hutch series, and Huggy Bear. I loved Living Single for showing smart, independent black women. It's been some better (Shonda Rimes, as you mentioned), but too often you end up with the magical negro.

  •  Black Vulcan On "Harvey Birdman Attorney At Law" (5+ / 0-)

    Featuring Gary Cole as Harvey Birdman and Stephan Colbert as his opponent,  Reducto.

    Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. -Pascal

    by bernardpliers on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 06:01:56 PM PST

  • On Token Characters (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    commonmass, Matt Z

    You can browse this topic endlessly to find characters like the Black Nerd Token from "Day After Tomorrow."

    "Fight Club" wasn't that bad for women.  Helena Bonham Carter ("Marla") was in fact the most sane character.   BTW, her nudity was all CGI.  She said "I wish those were my breasts.")

    Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. -Pascal

    by bernardpliers on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 06:14:24 PM PST

  •  Very interesting diary. As a gay man, I still see (5+ / 0-)

    a lot of (especially male) gay characters portrayed as if Spike Lee's fictional minstrel show in Bamboozled were some kind of gay reality. It has gotten somewhat--in a spotty and hit or miss kind of way--better in the last 15 years or so (the gay characters in HBO's old series "Six Feet Under" for instance were highly un-stereotypical* and one of them was also African-American AND a cop) but still underrepresented.

    I would love to see television, both broadcast commercial, public, and cable that better represents the make-up of our society. I also prefer to see less television. Most of it, I can't relate to.

    What we see on the streetcar or subway, or on the bus, or in our workplaces, or in our places of worship, or in the public library, or in our schools and colleges continues to be in stark contrast to what we see on the screen or television. What we see in real life is increasingly more diverse than what we see in media. It's troubling.

    *Yeah, but I could relate: not only gay, but devoutly Episcopalian and open to interracial relationships. THAT character spoke to my experience in many ways, and perhaps the only "gay" character on any kind of TV that I have ever been able to actually relate to. Sometimes, HBO has done a very good job.

    Pope Francis: the Thumb of Christ in the eyes of the Pharisees.

    by commonmass on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 06:55:11 PM PST

    •  ever seen The Wire? (0+ / 0-)

      I'd say that Omar and Kima would pass the Russo test.

      Being gay was not what defined Omar as a character (one of the most memorable and beloved in the series), though it was certainly part of who he was.

      As for Kima, I guess "lesbian cop" could be seen as a little stereotyped, but she was a fully drawn character, integral to the storylines, whose role was not based in her love life (though we saw some of its ups and downs, as we did for other main characters who were straight).

      Not sure if Kimmy & Tasha were a couple or not. I thought they probably were, but it was never explicitly addressed. They weren't ogling men, anyway. Smaller roles, part of Omar's story.

      And then there was Snoop. Who was mostly playing herself, though I don't think real-life Snoop is terrifying and evil, her rap sheet notwithstanding. Her sexual preference was mentioned once, but not part of the story at all.

  •  SNL (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Has not been funny since the early-mid 80s.  Eddie Murphy is the best talent to come from the show, and I started watching in the late 70s shortly after it went on air.  Bring back Eddie and you bring back ratings.  

    •  yup (0+ / 0-)

      Even as comedy the writing is completely incomprehensible and inane - it's hard to imagine how they even come up with some of the skits - seems completely disconnected to anything anyone can really hang a hat on as to why it would be something to laugh at. I usually just end with a big "Huh??? Whatever..." reaction.

      And then there are usually one or two gratuitous homophobic "jokes".

      Even weekend update inspires but one or two half-hearted chuckles, and that was always kinda the best segment.

      I dunno why on earth I bother to watch. I guess it's like watching an accident - you don't wanna, but sometimes you just can't help it.

  •  Class is another trope..... (3+ / 0-)

    Everybody in America is middle class and they have gigantic apartments or gigantic houses. When there are working class or poor people they are either slutty women, criminals, drug addicts, or hugely stupid and inarticulate.

    •  I don't think that is true. Roseanne, Raising Hope (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      undercovercalico, METAL TREK

      and most of the procedural shows have working class/poor people in them. I think that there are some unrealistic shows like Friends and other sitcoms, but I wouldn't say that is the norm.

      President Obama at Madison Rally 9/28/2010 - "Change is not a spectator sport."

      by askew on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:30:00 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  This is the flip side of the coin (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lorell, MHB

    Just as white people cannot tell minorities what should or should not offend them, minorities can't tell whites what should or should not amuse, entertain, or entice them to buy (and make no mistake, it's the advertising dollars that are driving this train).

    As for the references to [i]In Living Color[/i] and [i]Mad TV[/i] it's worth noting that they are no longer with us.

    Social engineering won't make a program or movie funny or entertaining.

    As for those "black shows" with their "buffoon characters" - exactly who is the target audience for those, and exactly who is actually watching?

    •  This is the "Big Mama" argument. Seen it before. (0+ / 0-)
      As for those "black shows" with their "buffoon characters" - exactly who is the target audience for those, and exactly who is actually watching?
      "The shows that portray Black Characters as stereotypes are popular with Black Audiences."

      Could be. . .

      Or is there simply not another type of movie/television program being made for Black audiences to choose instead?

      "You don't have to be smart to laugh at fart jokes, but you have to be stupid not to." - Louis CK

      by New Jersey Boy on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 08:39:38 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  No, that wasn't an argument (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        That was a question to which I don't know the answer.   Based solely on how quickly those shows come and go, I'd say that nobody knows the answer.
        There may exist some "token" characters in Hollywood, but creating and maintaining an entire "token show/movie" would get pretty damn expensive, and I doubt the financial cost would be deemed worthy when the only payout is bragging rights, street cred, or brownie points with minority groups rather than actual cold, hard cash.

        As for "Big Mama" - I don't find a single thing remotely funny or entertaining about those movies or their stars, but I'm a white male in my mid-40s, so I doubt it's a stretch to say that I'm NOT the target audience.

        Does that make me a racist?

      •  Example (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I stumbled upon a show completely by accident last week.  I don't know the name of it (I'll check IMDB in a few minutes) - but it's about a black President and his family living in the White House.  No biggie - but one of the stars is Jackee'.  Again, I doubt I've ever been the target audience of anything she's ever done, which is good, because I didn't find her funny or entertaining even back in the day when she was relevant.   Based only on what little I've seen of this new show (new to me, anyway) it's clear that Jackee's schtick hasn't changed a bit over the years.   So I ask you, again, who is HER target audience?   Do minorities find her funny?  Does anyone?  Am I a racist because I do not?  

        •  I think it's a little early in this discussion (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          MHB, johnosahon

          to start calling anyone a racist.

          It is a complicated issue, as this diary demonstrates, with multiple factors contributing to what movies and T.V. shows get made, and then the somewhat democratic reality of what shows people watch.

          Now, I also don't like the "Big Mama" movies, but I also don't like the "Dumb and Dumber" movies. So, I'm willing to admit to being a humor snob with no taint of racism.

          So let's take what I called "The Big Mama" argument at it's face value and discuss that. If you want a Black audience you have to make a low brow movie. While it's not necessarily racist, it may be patronizing and condescending.

          There are certainly all White movies that are desperately idiotic, like "Dumb and Dumber," that also have some audience that pays to see it.

          And there are some movies that capture a more intelligent part of life that no one ends up seeing - without respect to character demographics. That's the business.

          The question I'm asking is, "Do they take a chance on an intelligent movie script or show idea as often with a minority cast as they will with a predominantly White cast?"

          And if not, why not?

          "You don't have to be smart to laugh at fart jokes, but you have to be stupid not to." - Louis CK

          by New Jersey Boy on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 04:48:38 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  SNL is so irrelevant (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    radv005, Matt Z

    I wouldn't put much stock in what they do or don't do. They've been superceded by every other show and forms of media

    •  For now (0+ / 0-)

      but SNL's relevance is cyclical, many times in tune with our political cycles.  

      •  I think it's time is past (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Matt Z

        It's a chore to watch, it is slow and pondering at an hour and a half, in this day of tweets, minute long attention spans. It has not evolved at all with the times. It's a dinosaur

        •  Maybe (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          MHB, Matt Z

          But SNL's obit has been written before.
          The best, but not only example - the show was on life support for a few seasons, and then Ferrell/Bush v. Hammond/Gore blew up and we saw some of SNL's best stuff.   The same argument could be made with Carvey as Perot, or Fey as Palin.

          I think it struggles now in part because Obama is so damn hard to pigeonhole.   Jay Pharoah is pretty funny most of the time, but his Obama impression is weak IMO.   That would help a lot, because the political climate we're in right now is ripe for the picking from a comedy standpoint.

  •  Perhaps a development team mentality would help (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doctor RJ, METAL TREK, johnosahon

    SNL ought to be working with comedy clubs and outfits like Second City to encourage more minority talent to get involved.  If they're doing their job right, they ought to be aware of the best next thousand comedians in the country, and they ought to be working to make sure the pool is as good as it can be.  And part of that is developing from the widest possible base.

    SNL has also had much better content when it has had a more diverse cast.  The 1970s and early 1980s SNL stuff, including Eddie Murphy and Gilda Radner in prominent roles, is of course very strong, and the more recent Kirsten Wiig/Amy Poehler phase was also pretty darned good.  In contrast, if my recollection serves me right, the late 1980s to mid 1990s era was one of their whiter, maler phases, and it happened to also be dreadful.  Boring.  Trite.  Contrived.  And often offensive.

    We have a really stunningly diverse society.  You see it at Democratic conventions.  And Republican conventions demonstrate the hazards in self-selecting too narrowly.  It becomes a big inside joke that no-one else finds funny.  And SNL ought not to go down the same path.

    •  I heard some Black Comedian talking about this. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Matt Z

      Going into comedy is a luxury. You need to have some ability to feed yourself while you go broke before you make it.

      It's the kind of thing a Rich White kid will choose to do to piss of his parents, but for a poor Black kid, it's just a bad idea.

      Or something like that. I don't remember who said it, it was on the radio and I might have missed the introduction.

      Did NPR do a piece about the SNL diversity criticism? Might have been on that.

      "You don't have to be smart to laugh at fart jokes, but you have to be stupid not to." - Louis CK

      by New Jersey Boy on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 08:44:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  One of the reasons I love ABC Family is their (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Aquarius40, Doctor RJ, Matt Z, johnosahon

    commitment to diversity and that their minority characters are just as fully-realized as their white, straight, male characters.

    Shows like The Fosters, that focuses on a bi-racial, lesbian couple raising a white son, 2 adopted Latino kids, and fostering 2 other troubled kids.

    Or Switched At Birth, which focuses on a Latina girl and a deaf, white girl who were switched at birth and the impact that has on their lives. They even had an entire episode in ASL.

    Then, there is Pretty Little Liars which has a Asian lesbian as one of the main characters.

    Yes the shows focus on teenage angst but they are more diverse and more realistic than the teen shows of my generation (90210 Original Recipe, etc.)

    President Obama at Madison Rally 9/28/2010 - "Change is not a spectator sport."

    by askew on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:24:22 PM PST

  •  I don't mind much because I don't watch (0+ / 0-)

    much TV.  I gave up on TV entertainment long ago because my reality looks nothing like what they've got going.  It is truly a great wasteland.

    BTW, in addition to analyzing the percentage breakdowns by character, be sure to also check out key relationships.

    How many mixed ethnic couples are portrayed?  The last stat I saw (from Chicago Tribune) said about 9% of existing marriages are mixed ethic couples.  What percentage of these marriages show up on TV?  Less than 1%?

    I'm not liberal. I'm actually just anti-evil, OK? - Elon James White

    by Satya1 on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:30:52 PM PST

  •  I've also seen the first rule of the Bechdel (3+ / 0-)

    test that both women have to have names.  i.e., if Female Main Character and a female barista exchange a few words about the coffee order before Female Main Character goes back to talking to (or about) a man, that's not a pass.

    And, of course, the irony about Alien is that Ripley was written as a man initially.  

    © cai Visit to join the fight against global warming.

    by cai on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:32:57 PM PST

  •  Cosby's Entire Career Was One Specific Premise: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doctor RJ, Matt Z

    Portraying an American whose skin randomly happened to be black in a world where skin color had no significance to the character or stories.

    He began with his smash hit standup comedy career telling stories of childhood escapades, then advanced to become the first Black TV leading character portraying a tennis pro who sidelined as a US secret agent. Then in the Cosby Show he and his family were upper middle class professionals, and while there were episodes and moments that dealt with race, much of the time it wasn't a factor.

    People including Dr. King himself rave about Nichelle Nichols portraying a starship crew member, but that part was well inside the box, her duties being essentially receptionist, arguably because she is female. Cosby on the other hand played a secret agent working among the world's rich and famous, or your long lost neighborhood treehouse buddy, or a medical professional. THOSE are outside the box, way outside.

    I think our mainstream white society desperately needed the example Bill Cosby gave us in several different roles. We needed to see that physique doesn't determine human nature. There are many ways to teach that lesson, and Bill Cosby chose a way that he could do it effectively in several different settings, seeing that so many others followed their many different approaches.

    I recent years he has changed tack and begun addressing the African American community directly. Unlike much of his earlier work, he speaks not at all of my experience or viewpoint, which is entirely his right, so it's none of my affair to critique.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:41:27 PM PST

    •  Good post (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MHB, Matt Z

      But even The Cosby Show suffered the same fate as nearly every other show -  it got old and tired, and the premise wore thin.   Example:  the kids grew up, were no longer "cute", so the show had to invent a flimsy excuse to bring in a new, cute kid.   Cousin Oliver, is that you?  lol

      So, while it started out as exceptional and ground-breaking, it eventually just became like every other run-of-the-mill show and lost its uniqueness.    I suppose that in itself could be seen as a victory?

  •  Enjoyed reading the diary. Learned much but (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dougymi, Doctor RJ, Simplify

    left with more questions.  Seems the solution based on the greater parts of the diary is to change the statistics or pass tests.  This argument though accurate and helps identify the problems doesn't offer a solution. You back up against the argument of "goals" to balance the numbers and pass the tests.  Chasing advertising dollars is the driving force as the diary makes clear.  Perhaps with America's changing demographics the audiences will eventually want to see themselves much like white America does.  And programing will reflect this. Spanish TV and radio is getting huge and in some markets is the largest segment.  Advertisers flock to this programing.  No one sits around wondering why there isn't more whites, blacks or asians in the programing.  The answer is obvious.  It's not who they're trying to attract.  Maybe with the greatly expanded number of channels and segmented programing it will come down to each segment of the racial population will having their own networks.  The problem is we won't have a shared experience. We will be even more polarized. I don't have a solution.  I'm suspect of the Darwinian theory that the best talent should win out.  It's much easier just to create a channel(s) to meet the market you want to attract.    

    If I comply with non-compliance am I complying?

    by thestructureguy on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:44:14 PM PST

    •  Yet the ad $ may be a lie they tell themselves (0+ / 0-)
      Why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test
      JUNE 30, 2008 by JENNIFER KESLER
      [W]hat tipped me off was that whenever film students pointed out how movies/shows for, by or about women had indeed profited, film professionals wouldn’t hear it. Those movies/shows were exceptions! Or it was really the alien/Terminator/Hannibal Lechter people wanted to see, not Ripley, Connor or Starling. Etc. It couldn’t be that people were actually happy to see movies/shows for, by or about women, because that was impossible – end of argument.

      Why discriminate if it doesn’t profit?
      JULY 9, 2008 by JENNIFER KESLER

      The first article is especially good.

      Government and laws are the agreement we all make to secure everyone's freedom.

      by Simplify on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 02:44:21 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Friends added Aisha Tyler for a few eps (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doctor RJ, Matt Z

    it was so obvious

    Politics is like driving. To go backward put it in R. To go forward put it in D.
    Drop by The Grieving Room on Monday nights for support in dealing with grief.

    by TrueBlueMajority on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 07:54:52 PM PST

    •  Recycled The Same Plot (3+ / 0-)

      From Entertainment Weekly: Mar 07, 2003

      Don't accuse the ''Friends'' gang of not recycling. An April 24 story arc, in which an attractive African-American woman (former ''Talk Soup'' host Aisha Tyler) becomes involved in a love triangle with Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and Ross (David Schwimmer), seems strangely similar to a 2001 episode in which an attractive African-American neighbor (Gabrielle Union) became involved in a love triangle with -- you guessed it! -- Joey and Ross. The déjà vu wouldn't be that notable except that ''Friends''' depiction of New York City is notoriously lily-white.
  •  Gawd I feel old tonight. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MHB, Matt Z

    First episode of SNL. Andy Kaufman lipsynched the Mighty Mouse song.

    George Carlin was the host.

    Janis Ian.

    It was called Saturday Night then.

  •  Sigh... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:


    I agree with everyone who criticizes SNL for lack of diversity for lack of African-American women.  Or women in general (as far as writers are concerned).  But where is every other ethnic group that has a major footprint in this country?  Where are they?  Hey, for decades I've worked with folks from India (both Hindu and Moslem).  Where are they?  And yes, I refrained from saying "Asian", because, well, do I really have to explain it?  But speaking of Asia, what about folks whose roots are in, like maybe, China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tibet, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia (oh, no, wait... they are Arabs, even though they live in freakin' Asia)...  I could go on and on...  

    I would really like to see the TV look just a little more like what I see in an IT department, or New York City, or something like that.  Excuse my rant.  

    "No matter how cynical I get, I just can't keep up." --Lily Tomlin

    by paulex on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 09:17:29 PM PST

    •  For Indian/South Asian Characters... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      LihTox, johnosahon

      Look to many NBC and Fox sitcoms.  Last year every NBC Thursday sitcom had at least one major character of South Asian descent: Danny Pudi on "Community," Aziz Ansari on "Parks and Recreation," Mindy Kaling on "The Office", Maulik Pancholy on "30 Rock" (and also on "Whitney").  "Sean Saves the World" has Parvesh Cheena.  Kaling now has her own show, "The Mindy Project."  Hannah Simone from "New Girl" has an Indian father.  So while Indian-Americans may still be underrepresented, they are, at least, represented.

  •  "Buffoon" characters and humor (0+ / 0-)

    For simplicity's sake, I'm gonna use black/white in this discussion, but it certainly can pertain to any minority...

    It seems at first glance that this problem with "token black characters who act like stereotypical buffoons" (paraphrased) is mostly concentrated in the comedy genre.   I don't see any complaints about "serious" dramas, crime-procedurals, horror, or other genres - mostly just the comedies.  

    Why is that, do you think?
    Could it be something far less sinister than this diary implies?
    Could it be simply that blacks and whites have very different senses-of-humor, that we just don't find the same things funny?
    I used Jackee' Harry in another post, but she's not the only one.   I don't see anything interesting, entertaining, or funny about Tyler Perry, and yet there he is, churning out projects regularly.   I don't find Martin Lawrence funny at all, but how many "Big Mama" movies were made?   Arsenio Hall was popular and funny for a brief period of time before disappearing from the radar, but now he's on my TV every weeknight with a reboot of his old talk show.   Eddie Murphy was once the funniest guy on earth IMO, but hasn't made me laugh in 15 years, unless you count animated movies where he lent only his voice.   Kevin Hart is hysterical and might be the hottest black comedian out there right now - but I could see getting tired of him pretty quickly if his act doesn't evolve (or from simple overexposure).   I haven't even addressed actresses or comediennes (do men and women just not find the same things funny?)

    So what gives?  Is sense-of-humor just something where blacks and whites will never agree?   Is it just personal preference, or might there be something cultural involved?

    I really have no idea - but I know it's not my imagination.
    A little help?

  •  Great diary. Thank you. (0+ / 0-)

    The juxtaposiion here just made me laugh:


    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.


    The whole diary is excellent. It should be requeued on a work day so more folks catch it.

    © grover

    So if you get hit by a bus tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent today, your last day on earth? Live like tomorrow is never guaranteed, because it's not. -- Me.

    by grover on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 12:15:34 AM PST

  •  bafoonism (0+ / 0-)

    Seems to be affecting portrayals of men more and more often.. More on television than movies but it's definitely noticeable

  •  Why is Bobby Moynihan playing Chris Christie? (0+ / 0-)

    Why not Keenan Thompson?  

  •  Russo test (0+ / 0-)

    The problem with the Russo test is the requirement that the character be identifiable as gay or bisexual.

    For example, there is a gay character in the Harry Potter films, one who is central to the plot and who isn't defined by his sexuality.  But the films fail the Russo test because he is never identified as gay.

  •  I have an interesting corollary to all this (0+ / 0-)

    Leaving aside cast quotas, in instances where filmmakers are allowed to write and film detailed stories which are meticulously true to the cultures in which they are set, using native actors, the more universal the story itself becomes to audiences watching elsewhere.  Examples: the film about Native Americans "Smoke Signals", which stays true to life on the "rez" as Sherman Alexie saw it, or "A Separation" about life in modern Iran under Islamic law, or "Y Tu Mama Tambien", set in Mexico, and even "Pan's Labyrinth", which - though a fantasy movie set in WWII fascist Spain - was deliberately filmed in its original Spanish despite the studio's offer to allow a bigger budget if the script were rewritten in English.  The point being: by being culturally correct (to the exclusion of "other" kinds of actors beingn used solely for the sake of "diversity"), the more universal themes in each story shone through more clearly.

  •  Starz "Spartacus" passes the Russo Test (0+ / 0-)

    The characters of Agron and Nassir are gay.  It's obvious and open...along with all the other explicit sex of the show.  In fact, there are gay (or at least bisexual)  gladiators that appear in the gratuitous sex scenes throughout the various series.

    Agron definitely meets the test.  He's a main character.  He fights along side Spartacus and is one of his close confidents.  He is never related to differently because he is gay.  In fact, he is one of the few former slave survivors at the end of the final episode, that make their way to freedom in the north.  Nassir is perhaps a little more stereotypical, though you could argue that he meets the test, as well.  

    "Spartacus" probably portrays homosexuality more openly than any other show I've ever seen on TV.  That said, homosexuality and bisexuality were common, accepted behavior in the Roman empire, or so written history tells us.  

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site