In 1997, Disney Studios broke new ground in casting with Cinderella. Viewers were treated to a white king and an African American queen who somehow managed to produce a Filipino heir. It’s biologically impossible, but once you enter the realm of make-believe, anything can happen.
Thanks to evolving adoption policies, such a culturally diverse family is not really the flight of fantasy it would have been when an earlier version of the musical was produced back in the ‘50s. I applaud Disney’s nerve, and I would love to see more television productions follow this example. However, I am realistic enough to know that the family in Cinderella is still the exception and not the norm. And what is true of the face of that U.S. society is also true concerning the face of U.S. television: accurate representations of minority groups are still the exception, not the norm.
Few people would dispute that tv has historically been overly generous in its portrayals of straight, white, Christian characters, to the exclusion of most “others.” Still, this is changing, and groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) can now keep tally of the number of gay, lesbian, bi, and transgendered characters on television. Twenty years ago, that tally was zero; today, it’s seven. Similar statistics are available for other groups, as almost every religious, ethnic, and racial class of people has seen an increase in the number of characters on tv who resemble them.
That’s good news. And certainly, more needs to be done to insure that the media continue to become more inclusive. Which brings us back to GLAAD. In a recent PopMatters column, Stephen Tropiano discusses the organization’s recent conference on the representation of gays and lesbians in the media. GLAAD members were discouraged that the current television season has seen a decrease in the number of homosexual characters on network tv. Tropiano rightfully argues that GLAAD had overlooked the number of gay characters on cable, which increases the representation of homosexuals on tv significantly.
Furthermore, a look at GLAAD’s season by season scorecard, listed on its website, indicates that its criteria for inclusion have apparently changed; during the 1996-1997 season, GLAAD included the cartoon character Mr. Smithers from The Simpsons, Gil Chesterton of Frasier, and a host of gay characters on the soaps in its list of GLBT characters on tv. None of these characters was included in this year’s tally, although all are still featured on their respective shows: so, it is not surprising that the count for the 2002 season has declined.
However you read the numbers, Tropiano agrees with GLAAD that African American homosexuals were still underrepresented in the media. Tropiano and GLAAD have a valid claim, but I am left wondering why the same argument is not raised concerning Latino, Asian, or senior homosexuals. You rarely see such characters. Shouldn’t they get a piece of the action as well? Of course, you rarely see any Latino, Asian, or senior characters at all on tv, especially in lead roles. Clearly, all these groups, gays included, are statistically underrepresented in the media.
Gays and lesbians make up 10% of the population, yet only accounted for 2% of tv characters in the 2001-2002 season. Should the networks and cable raise the level of homosexual characters to 10%, to make tv representation more “realistic” or “fair”? If so, it follows that such efforts will also be made to more accurately show blacks, Asians, Latinos, Jews, Middle Easterners, seniors, and a myriad of other groups as well. Talk about a demographic and scheduling nightmare. Undeniably, these groups deserve more airtime, but the statistical calculations necessary to insure accurate representation of all minority groups are enough to confound even the most proficient mathematician.
Keep in mind, when we talk about inclusion on tv, we’re not just talking about primetime. There are also talk shows, game shows, news programs, sports events, soap operas, and children’s television to consider. Had GLAAD included cable and all the other types of programs on television, its report would have been even grimmer. Surely, the gay men and women who want to climb the ladder in sports broadcasting or children’s programming should be considered as well.
So, how much inclusion is enough? Daytime is already fairly diverse, and primetime is improving, albeit slowly. Should we now be asking why there are no Asian game show hosts or Latino talk show hosts? If so, who? Margaret Cho hosting Wheel of Fortune? The Late Show with George Lopez? The pool of recognizable Asian and Latino talents is slim, which means producers would have to be daring and hire an unknown to lead their new programs, a move which producers are typically unwilling to do. Producers of the new Pyramid, a revamped version of the old $25,000 Pyramid, had the perfect opportunity to launch a new talent, but instead, chose Donny Osmond to host. Based on $25,000 Pyramid’s previous success, it’s safe to assume that the new program will also succeed, regardless of who is hosting, meaning that the producers passed up a perfect opportunity to make game shows a little less “white.”
Equally important to consider, though, is how quickly we can expect change to come. The burden of change lies not only with the networks, but also independent producers who make the pilots for television, casting directors who fail to think outside the lines, writers who create colorless landscapes, and so many other links in the chain. Unfortunately, all parties too often put forward the argument that “the American public isn’t ready for… x,” to justify their shortsightedness.
However, viewers have shown that they will accept new and different characters on tv, as long as they appear on quality programs. In the last two decades, viewers have tuned in to shows about a household of senior women (Golden Girls), an upper class African American family (The Cosby Show), a group of gay and lesbian friends (Queer as Folk), an overweight, working class couple (Roseanne), and a gay man and a straight Jewish woman (Will & Grace). Most of us don’t care about whose face is on the screen, as long as it moves us, somehow. So, if the problem does not lie with the acceptance level of the American public, it must be with those who provide us our programs.
The solution is more complex than putting more gay black characters on tv. In the ‘60s, the U.S. government knew it was unable to convince the good ole boys of the Deep South to change the way they treated black citizens, so it passed laws to ensure change: if you can’t legislate attitude, legislate behavior. Still, you can’t legislate inclusion on television—imagine Congress trying to figure out who should be on your tv set and during what hours. A frightening thought, at best. No, inclusion will only come with a change in attitude, when network executives, directors, writers, et. al., are diverse enough—in their thinking if not in their experience—to bring all points of view to the table. And we may not be a long way from that.
The face of America is changing, so much so that by the year 2050, whites will comprise less than 50% of the population for the first time. The Latino and Asian populations are experiencing dramatic growth, and they, along with other minority groups, from gays to blacks, continue to struggle and succeed in the fight for fair representation in government, business, and media. Concurrently, women become increasingly visible in corporations and on ballots across the nation. The time is fast approaching when such previously underrepresented groups will become major players on all levels through the sheer strength of numbers.
As many Civil Rights activists argued in the ‘60s, if you want to change the system, you’re going to have to do it from within. So, while Tropiano and GLAAD are right that we need more accurate representations on tv, the advocates of inclusion who argue “we need it now” might change their focus. Instead of carping about the decisions being made by others, they should be working to insure that the people making production decisions are receptive to new ideas by placing minorities in strategic positions throughout the entire chain of command.
Regardless of how much that chain may change, though, tv will never accurately represent “America.” Our nation is too diverse; we truly are a melting pot of ideas and cultures, and there isn’t enough airtime to portray them all adequately. Somewhere in America is a black, Jewish, lesbian Republican, and she is just going to reconcile herself to the fact that she will never see a primetime drama about someone like her. She might see a black lesbian or a female Jewish Republican, but neither of those characters truly represents her. One could argue that there are only 5-10 women in the entire United States who fit this profile, tops, but then, where do we draw lines? What is the per capita ratio that makes a group worthy of representation on tv?
The point is this: inclusion, however desirable, is going to be far more difficult to achieve than some advocates would have us believe. There are far too many variables and unanswered questions for change to occur overnight. Or even the course of a few television seasons. Despite the changes in the attitude of American society since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, innocent African Americans are still being persecuted and killed for their skin color. If society as a whole is still struggling with issues of inclusion and diversity, why should we expect television to be any faster or more resolute in dealing with the problem?
Organizations like GLAAD should remain vigilant in their pursuit of equality in the media, but they must also recognize that change won’t come on its own accord. Yes, we need more black gay characters on tv, just as we need more female Middle Eastern characters, senior Asian characters, and white Muslim characters. But someone has to create such characters in believable formats, the networks have to get the balls to broadcast their stories, and all other links in the chain must work to make diversity a priority as well. Score keeping won’t get this done; vigilance and action will.