When Deadline posted its deplorably tone deaf, borderline racist (in that there was once a border somewhere, and Deadline has long since crossed that line) story titled “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings—About Time or Too Much of A Good Thing?,” it tagged it “Controversial” on its website
But Shonda Rhimes had another tag for the article: “ignorant.” Amid a Twitter mob wielding 140-characer pitchforks berating the article Tuesday night, St. Shonda tweeted her own, what has become definitive, reaction. “1st Reaction: HELL NO. Lemme take off my earrings, somebody hold my purse! 2nd Reaction: Article is so ignorant I can’t even be bothered.”
Unlike, Shonda, we’re no saint. Yes, the article is ignorant. Yes, it’s clickbait. Yes, the instant outrage surrounding its content may be encouraging enough to counteract any malice the piece might have caused. But we’re still bothered. And you should be, too, because the sad truth is that Hollywood execs may not be.
Here’s the rub: this has been a breakthrough, groundbreaking, year in TV—which is sad enough as it is. “Finally!” moments are gratifying and glorious, but they’re also depressing. They mean that far too much time has passed with injustice as the norm. What the Deadline article suggests is the grossest possible reaction to such a moment. It’s dangerous, even.
Why? The New Republic’s Jamil Smith says it best: “What troubles me is the decision-makers in Hollywood who will read that Deadline tripe about black actors in television and say, ‘Exactly.’”
The message of the Deadline piece embodies the worst kind of implicit racism. It’s a permissive kind of racism, the kind that whispers a problematic idea in a cautious way that allows others who share that idea, but have been too afraid to speak out, to agree: “I know, right?” This whispered idea suddenly becomes a loud one. In this case, it’s a loud idea that we should have been deaf to a long time ago, and it’s scary to think that people in positions of power might still be listening.
The first swing in the article makes good contact with an encouraging point. Thanks to the success of freshman shows like How to Get Away With Murder, Empire, Jane the Virgin, and Fresh Off the Boat, casting directors are considering a more diverse array of actors than ever for parts that would traditionally—because Hollywood has long been terrible—always go to Caucasian actors. A casting director says, “I feel that the tide has turned. I can pitch any actor for any role, and I think that’s good.”
Fool, that’s not good. That’s freaking great. Freaking despicable/terrible/awful/horrific/catastrophic/insane is the next line in the piece: “But, as is the case with any sea change, the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction.” This is the crux of the argument, and the thing that Shonda Rhimes, Twitter, me, and, hopefully, you are so upset about— the idea that in a race to capitalize on the popularity of a handful of series featuring diverse casts, networks are going overboard with diversity at the expense of Caucasian actors. That poor, constantly ignored group in Hollywood: the whites.
The idea that embracing diversity will somehow be harmful to a tradition of white people on TV is laughable, and baffling. There will never be a day that a white person turns on a TV and does not see him or herself represented. No, that’s a reality that ethnic communities have suffered through for decades and is now—thanks to a small group of television shows—only being marginally remedied. There’s an icky “there goes the neighborhood” vibe to all this, perfectly captured by HitFix’s Louis Virtel: “Congrats to Deadline for their article I Just Have a Bad Feeling About Those Two New Black Families in Town.”
The popularity of Empire and Fresh Off the Boat and black-ish have illuminated the entertainment industry. They explicitly appeal to audiences that have been egregiously underrepresented on TV, and reap the benefits of that in ratings. They prove that mainstream audiences (read: “white people”) will embrace stories that reflect the lives of other cultures, and that those stories don’t have to be stripped of their cultural specificity in order to be embraced. These shows are having inside conversations, and outside audiences are responding to them.
Now, here is where I think Deadline may have been trying to make a decent point. There’s a horrible tendency in TV to copycat what’s working. Is a TV show on that network a hit? Let’s make our less good version of it over here. As storied as its racism is Hollywood’s risk-averse unoriginality, which is why on a given year you’ll see a spate of Friends copycats (it worked for NBC!), Homeland rip-offs (people love that CIA stuff!), or zombie nonsense (The Walking Dead is huge!).
What we should be fearful of is that we may soon see a flurry of shoddily conceived, unengaging versions of Empire all across to TV. We shouldn’t want that, because we shouldn’t want bad TV. That would be a reactionary effect of Empire’s success in an industry that is notoriously reactionary, to a fault.
It’s the proactive effect of Empire’s success that we shouldn’t be afraid of. We shouldn’t be confused or startled that executives are demanding more diversity on their networks. We should encourage it. Sure, tokenism is terrible and nobody wants that. But that’s not what’s happening here. It’s not going to be the case that undeserving actors are going to be cast in roles just because of their race. As Shonda Rhimes’s series have long proven, there is a large group of talented minority actors waiting for their moments.
Just as there’s been no shortage of white blonde girls to play parts on TV all these years, there’s no shortage of minority actors to play them now.
Creating change is an active behavior. Are characters going to have to be retooled occasionally, as the Deadline piece suggests, in order for it to make sense for them to be cast with ethnic actors? Yes. This is not a bad thing. It is a necessary thing.
As so many people spoke out about after the Selma snubs and the #OscarsSoWhite Academy Awards controversy, diversifying Hollywood is going to take purposeful, intentioned effort. It will not happen naturally. It will require giving minority voices control—putting them in the director’s chair and producing their TV series—and it will require sometimes thinking, “Hey, could this role we were going to give to that girl from How I Met Your Mother be played by a black actress? Yes? Let’s do that. The cast is too white.”
“Too white.” That’s the thing we should be focusing on. Not “too black.” Not “too ethnic.” Not “too much of a good thing.”
Perhaps this case and the case of Alessandra Stanley, the New York Times critic who was raked through the coals (which were deservedly hot, if you ask me) for her piece alleging that Shonda Rhimes and Viola Davis’s character in How to Get Away With Murder were both “angry black women,” spotlights just how much training we all still require to talk about race—and race in Hollywood, specifically—intelligently. Or at least without coming off as racist goddamned idiots.
Even when a series like Empire becomes a big hit, we can’t help ourselves from fretting over whether it perpetuates stereotypes. When Fresh Off the Boat gets made, we worry that it’s not using its platform responsibly, that it’s not portraying the full spectrum of the Asian American community.
What we’re consistently not getting is that visibility is the thing, why there’s no such thing as “too much” ethnic casting. Visibility is what will eventually get us to stop thinking in stereotypes. It’s what will make us stop reducing Shonda Rhimes’s powerful characters to “angry black women.” It’s what will stop people from wondering whether a rise in ethnic casting is a version of tokenism or affirmative action, and not simply a conscious effort to make television finally mirror real life.
With visibility comes normalization. With normalization comes nuance. And with nuance comes, we can only hope, an end to controversial stories like this. Because when all that work is done, “ethnic casting” won’t be a phrase that exists or a phenomenon worth writing about. It will be an instinct, as it always should’ve been in the first place.