By Guest Contributor Diana Lin
Prime-time television shows may be a lot more diverse than we give them credit for. And before you jump down my throat, think about it: Darren Criss from Glee? Part Filipino. Morena Baccarin on V is of Latin American origins. And Jesse Williams of Grey’s Anatomy—part black, part Scandinavian. See? That’s three more actors you didn’t think of as POC.
People of color have long struggled with representation on network television. We are obviated on sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother, where there’s never a single minority to be seen, much less in a positive light; we’re tokenized on shows like Justified where Erica Tazel’s Rachel Brooks exists simply to fulfill a racial quota in an otherwise all-white cast; or else we’re trigger-happy stereotypes in material like The Chin-Chens, which premiered a trailer so problematic it was subsequently removed. And the flip side of all this is yet another issue: color coding.
Coding occurs when the projection of identity upon a person (of any color) eclipses his or her actual ethnic identity. It is a widespread phenomenon in all media, with the oft-cited examples of Cameron Diaz and Jessica Alba as actors usually coded as white. Diaz has made no bones about her lack of identification with her Cuban background, while Alba, after facing criticism, has attempted to negotiate her identity by choosing some loaded roles.
So does this mean we’re approaching a post-racial media era? Not a chance. The pervasiveness of white as default in media leads causes casts to appear monolithic, even if actors of color are embedded within. The result isn’t diversity, because the audience views the cast demographic exactly as though the characters are white. It is unfortunate because race-neutral roles are often main characters with better developed storylines and conflicts, opportunities for minority actors to bust out their acting chops.
Cases in point:
Blaine from Glee: As one of the lead Warblers at Dalton Academy, Criss’s character Blaine is cool, confident, and dashing. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember the last time I witnessed a gay male lead that embodied all these qualities. But the fact that Criss’s biracial background goes unnoticed, primetime television has missed yet another opportunity to subvert old tropes: yes, a gaysian man can have pan-sexual appeal, yes, he does have cis-hetero characteristics.
Anna from V: Morena Baccarin’s coding was spelled out to viewers from the get-go. When the alien visitors arrive on Earth, the reporter played by Scott Wolf remarks, “You all seem to be what we consider attractive.” The observation resonates, because with the sole exception of Morris Chestnut, all other visible aliens are white. I don’t know if the subtext could be any clearer: if aliens wanted to ingratiate themselves with the inhabitants of Earth, they would not elect to blend in with the most populous ethnicity in the world (the Han Chinese), but instead they would dress themselves up in really good looking white people. Of course, this plays neatly into the narrative of white as default and as the dominant standard of beauty. Baccarin fits neatly into this narrative, her own background obscured by the whiteness of the cast.
Jackson Avery from Grey’s Anatomy: William’s case is also interesting. The show’s producer Shonda Rhimes, one of the few African Americans helming a primetime show, has done an admirable job providing audiences with a diverse cast in Grey’s Anatomy. The characters of Bailey, the Chief, Yang, and Torres are clearly developed as African American, Korean American or Latin@ characters. Avery, Williams’ character, is much more ambiguous, as showcased when Avery’s grandfather, a legendary surgeon, appears in all his white prestige without the show so much as a touching upon a multiracial family discourse. This is juxtaposed against the development of Cristina Yang’s character, where the running joke of her “Jewish faith” colors her reactions to social situations. Whether this was because producers felt that minority representation was at saturation point in the show or not remains to be seen, but Grey’s certain missed a chance to engage in some riskier family dynamics.
All this said, we shouldn’t forget that we, as viewers, have some agency in this respect, that coding is in a way our projections of what color a character should be. But ultimately, within the media industry, it’s the POC viewers who lose when characters are coded as white: we are invisible even to ourselves, no nuances or complexities are brought to the same tired roles, and valuable opportunities for dialogue or positive representation are lost again and again.