Sorry But Criticizing A TV Show For Its Lack Of Diversity Does Not Equal ‘Woman Hate’

By Guest Contributor Jen Wang, cross-posted from Disgrasian

I’ve heard this argument in discussions about the lack of diversity on HBO’s Girls and I’m hearing it again now with ABC Family’s Bunheads. The argument is: If you’re criticizing this show, which is for, by, and about girls/women, you’re misogynist.

Bullsh-t.

Emma Dumont, Kaitlyn Jenkins and Bailey Buntain from "Bunheads." Courtesy: ABC Family/Randy Holmes

This week, Bunheads creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, of Gilmore Girls fame, responded to criticism made by Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes about the lack of diversity on Sherman-Palladino’s new series about ballerinas with this exact argument:

“I’ve always felt that women, in a general sense, have never supported other women the way they should…I think it’s a shame, but to me, it is what it is.”

Sherman-Palladino, who says she has never met Rhimes before, went on to say that with the increased demands on showrunners–particularly while getting a new program on the air–there’s no room for criticism among peers. “I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t go after another woman. I, frankly, wouldn’t go after another showrunner,” she said.

Showrunner-to-showrunner professional courtesies aside–think how awkward running into each other in the ladies’ room at the Emmys will be!–Sherman-Palladino’s assessment of the situation, not to mention her assertion of victimhood, is utterly facile and self-serving.

Here is Rhimes’ actual tweet:

It’s important to note here that Rhimes directed her criticism at @abcfbunheads, the official Twitter for the ABC Family show. ABC Family is a subsidiary of Disney-ABC, which owns all of the shows Rhimes has developed, created, or had her name attached to since her TV career began. In reality, her tweet is less an attack on Sherman-Palladino than a calling-out of the network Rhimes has made richer. The people who resent the lack of diversity criticism directed at shows like Girls and Bunheads will be the first to tell you that the lack of diversity on TV is a systemic problem. Which is why Rhimes being called a woman-hater for pointing out that there isn’t even one non-white ballerina on Bunheads is such a fucked argument. Rhimes criticizing the lack of diversity on a show on her network in a public forum is her fighting that system, not her sowing the seeds of a bitchfight. She’s not embarrassing Sherman-Palladino; she’s embarrassing the system.

Last thing: the people who think criticizing a show’s lack of diversity equates to woman hate are the same ones who keep asking, Why don’t you haters go after shows run by men? Why don’t you go after shows like Entourage or Two-and-a-Half Men that only show the point-of-view of white men?

The answers are simple. First of all, there’s been plenty written about the lack of diversity on TV in general by the same people who’ve critiqued the lack of diversity on women-run shows like Girls and Bunheads. On this very blog. And this one. And this one, for starters.

Second, the shows that we’re often the most critical of are the ones we care about the most. You know, the shows we fancy to be for, by, and about us. Even when those shows turn out to seem not to care about us at all.

Related Reading:
[TV Guide: Shonda Rhimes Disses Bunheads for Lack of Diversity]
[EW.com: ‘Bunheads’: Amy Sherman-Palladino responds to Shonda Rhimes’ criticism on lack of diversity]
[xojane: No Black Ballerinas: “Bunheads” Could Do Better And Here’s Why]
[Jezebel: Why We Need to Keep Talking About the White Girls on Girls]
[HuffPo: HBO’s ‘Girls’ Isn’t Racist, Television Is Racist (And Sexist)]

  • Anonymous

    TV in general has become more White, I do remember many shows where a lot of the characters were Black or Hispanic and I haven’t really seen new shows and casts to take their place. I’m sure most people wouldn’t mind Bunheads having a White cast, if the overall media representation of non-White people was more balanced.

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  • kkm

    sadly. it’s the old sisterhood trumps our other intersection identities argument that white women often make that ends up silencing the rest of us (women of color).

  • jvansteppes

    People keep emphasizing that Hollywood is controlled overwhelmingly by white men, which is true, but white women aren’t improving matters by refusing to be part of the solution. Perhaps some Guerilla Girls can get in touch with Amy Sherman-Palladino and Lena Dunham.

  • Anonymous

     @nicthommi:disqus : While I have read and send others over to derailing for dummies many times, it seems that you did not read my other comment at all (see further down). That’s a shame. I posted them at the same time. The second comment explicitly addresses your point- cause I wanted to be clear that that’s not what I meant.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/5YW7F65MA5WAVBWEPVR4SVSH7Q Daniel

    Thank you for pointing out the con that’s getting put over on women of color being sold that this show is important, and just exactly who this show is important for.  Where was the call for universal sisterhood to get behind Issa Rae and get her web series picked up by the same network that gave the keys to the kingdom to Dunham?

  • dersk

    I think you’re reading more into kdlmn’s post than was there. The post didn’t at all defend the situation – heck, the last sentence is completely counter to your description. It just put some nuance on the writer’s perception of what the controversy has been about.

    And given that the whole story essentially revolves around the question of whether it’s a show’s responsibility to reflect ‘reality’ vs. the actual circle of friends being written about vs. even pursuing a social agenda (cf the post about how white ballet really is), I thought it was totally relevant to bring up a point about how portrayals that are disproportionate to reality can have unintended consequences. Sorry for the runon sentence, there.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been reading this blog for a couple years and I rarely post, but in regards to this particular situation I have some extra knowledge, I guess. I have been involved in ballet for about 24 years, now. I used to dance professionally, quit to go to college, started again in grad school, now I perform again and I’m training with the Royal Academy of Dance to become an instructor. I’ve been part of the casting calls for dancers (I live near LA) and I’ve been involved in some tv shows, commercials and music videos, as well. So, I’ve been involved in ballet for a long time and on all levels and I have a reasonably good idea about how the ballet world works. I know Emma personally, she attends a studio where I teach. The other girls are also dancers in their daily lives and I’ve seen them around for the past few years.

    According to Emma and several of my students who also attended the audition, it was a pretty small showing and the demographics were quite similar to what they are in your typical ballet class – the overwhelming majority of the dancers were White. Does it surprise me that the dancers on the show are all White? No. Is it realistic that they are all White? Honestly, yes. To be blunt about it… the Whiteness of the dancers is probably the most realistic part of this show. The lack of realistic dance sequences and the ignorance about the teacher’s showgirl background are huge complaints in the ballet/dance community, at the moment. But it is what it is. Ballet is very White in reality, it’s a huge difference when you’re in a city like LA and you’re outside with a lot of different people… then you walk inside and see 48 White girls and 2 Asian girls.

    I understand the complaint about the lack of diversity, but at the same time, I can see why it’s all White characters and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was accidental in this case, because the ballet world is extremely White/European.

    • Anonymous

       While your perspective from the ground level is appreciated, this show doesn’t seem to present itself as a documentary. Surely “realism” could have been bended a little here for the sake of offering more to viewers than an all-white palate of characters?

      • Anonymous

        I will admit that I have my own set of issues with the way that ballet is portrayed in the media (and most dancers feel similarly) and because of that, I tend to get defensive about it. I’m tired of all the stereotypes.
        On that note, Bunheads had already pissed me off for many other reasons, including the way they portrayed Vegas showgirls. To be blunt, I dislike the show, and race has nothing to do with it. The dance community has its own share of complaints about the show, already. But at the same time, we all feel a bit obligated to support it, simply because ballet never gets any airtime, making the stereotypes even worse.
        As I had mentioned to another poster, it would have been interesting to add these elements, but this show is not that good. It’s just not.
        Keep in mind, I am not defending or agreeing with the choice of casting (although the young dancers/actresses are very talented and deserving), what I am saying is I know why the casting ended up the way that it did.

    • http://www.blasianbytch.com BlasianBytch

      Yes ballet and dance in general is very “white” but that doesn’t mean Misty Copeland is a figment of my imagination.  Even Ballet magazine does articles on why dancers of color are marginalized for not having “dancer bodies” Which is usually a paper thin excuse to boot out those who can’t pass for white. 

      • Mickey

        Paula Abdul once told a story regarding her body in a ballet class. One of her teachers asked her to do a routine performance before other teachers and students. When she finished, she was applauded and the teacher said to the thinner ballerinas, “See, she doesn’t even have a dancer’s body and she can dance.”

        I also recall an episode of “A Different World” where Whitley goes to teach ballet at a center geared towards underpriviledged youth. One of the girls said that Whitley was not a ballerina because she was Black (the girl was Black as well.) She was asked to stay because it was believed that someone like her was needed there and to show young Black girls that Black ballerinas existed.

        Although ballet is viewed as an overwhemingly White-dominated sport, more needs to be done to show young girls of color that there is a place for them in this world as well. I even noticed that there were no POC ballerinas in the movie “Black Swan.”

      • Anonymous

        Let’s face it, in the world of ballet, it’s pretty much impossible to have a “dancer’s body” unless it is covered in white skin.

        There was a great article in the NY Times a few years ago called something like “Where are all the Black Swans” and even the dancers who have the talent AND the “right” body type have a hell of a time finding a position in any ballet company, let alone as a principal dancer (like Lauren Anderson). I saw an interview with her many years ago where she talked about how the black dancers who have the right ballet chops are STILL steered out of ballet and into modern dance.

        They love us if we will stay in our place and do “ethnic” contemporary dance but they don’t want us in ballet.

      • Anonymous

        I never said that dancers like Misty don’t exist. What I did say is that dancers like Misty are extremely rare. Do I agree with the reasons behind her being such a rareity? No, I don’t. And the body image stuff is a whole other can of worms that I didn’t even touch because it’s complicated, horrible and I could go on for days about it. Some of that issue is race-related, but I would say a lot of it is not race-related, as well.
        I understand your annoyance and I’m annoyed by it all, too. All I’m saying, here, is that at the audition, a few White girls/women came and that is who they had to choose from. I was trying to offer a valid explanation for this particular situation, I am not trying to explain other issues, here.

    • Brandon

      That’s all fine and good for Bunheads.  The problem is that almost every single piece of pop culture has some sort of defense like this.  People seem somewhat comfortable attacking the system that create white supremacist pop culture, but always have excuses for the individual pieces of that culture.

    • Frowner

      But couldn’t the show address that?  What about casting one of the three as a young woman of color and then having some plot lines that address this?  (Of course, they’d probably screw it up – but in a world where they would actually cast a character of color, maybe they’d be smart enough to do a good storyline).   I think a show can acknowledge that a milieu is majority-white and still reflect the experience of people of color in that milieu.  What would it be like, for example, for Theoretical Dancer’s family to be supporting her in this largely white environment?  How would Theoretical Dancer deal with the similarities (ballet, probably class background) and differences between her and the white dancers?  Would people say screwed up stuff to her?  Would they exoticize her?  Could there be a cameo appearance by an actual famous dancer of color?  Could there be a non-tokenizing exploration of the complicated ways that race and dance intersect?

      Or heck, you could create a show with two young dancers of color (and their white friend! If you’ve got to include a white person) as main characters, and show that there are, for example, both African American and Asian American women in ballet.  What would it be like to have people constantly bracketing you both as “the dancers of color” regardless of whether your background was similar or not?  Would you be friends?  Would you find each other annoying but stick together anyway? 

      I would actually watch a show like that, even though I think the fascination with ballet as an archetype of femininity (a theme which recurs in US culture every 15 years or so) is kind of freaky-deaky. (Not to impugn actual ballet dancers – but ballet is fetishized the way lots of other athletic/artistic endeavors are not.)

      • Anonymous

        I appreciate you coming up with ideas that would improve the show, I think you have some good suggestions, here. I would like to see the show address that kind of thing, but given the light, fluffy vibe of the show and their treatment of other issues (like the whole showgirl thing), I don’t think this show is up for such a challenge.
        I hate the ballet fetish, too. It’s not very fun to deal with.

    • J.

      It’s funny how realism is selectively applied like this. Tell you what. Shows like Bunheads can justify their lack of diversity by citing realistic demographics when – and ONLY when – the reverse also applies. Meaning, shows set in places like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco must have more than just one or two token POCs, and, in certain cases, the POC characters should actually outnumber the white ones. 

      • Anonymous

        Don’t forget Miami…I have to laugh at shows set in Miami where all of the characters are non-Hispanic whites.

        • J.

          Hah, yes, of course! I’m sure there are plenty of other cities as well… I just picked those other three because those are the one I’m most familiar with. Grew up in the Bay Area, went to college in Los Angeles, and now live in NYC. In all three places it’s practically impossible to toss a rock without hitting a POC, but you wouldn’t know that from watching television. But of course people never cite demographics then; instead, they just claim how it’s perfectly realistic for white people to be only friends with fellow white people and this is a show about this specific (white) experience and…. the rationalizing is endless in its creativity.

          • Anonymous

            Yes, and apparently it is totally normal for only white people to have jobs, b/c having shows set in workplaces that still manage to be all white is pretty normal too.
            Don’t forget the argument about how fake it is to just “ram in” a POC when they wouldn’t be present in “real” white people’s lives.

      • Anonymous

        I’m not going to lie, as a ballet dancer, I am rather angry at the ridiculous way ballet is treated in the media with BS like Black Swan. So when I see something that is somewhat realistic regarding ballet on tv, I get kind of excited. You’ll just have to forgive me for that weakness and I’d also appreciate it if you didn’t project your anger at the mainstream media onto what I’ve said, here. We all read this blog because we don’t like a lot of what we see in regards to race on tv. I know a few excellent Black ballet dancers and unfortunately, they weren’t at the audition. Summer is a bad time to film a show using amateur ballet dancers, because they’re all off at summer intensives, anyway. That was short-sighted of them, but that’s Hollywood for you.
        I also suggest that you take a look at ballet companies in LA, such as Los Angeles Ballet. You will quickly see that the real demographics of the ballet world are what I claim, whether the surrounding city is White or not.

    • ERose

      It is true that it’s really easy for people of different races to live side-by-side and not really be in the same social circle, and in this particular case, I’ll also say that even when I lived in Seattle, POCs were super rare in my dance studio.
      However, I’ve never noticed any TV show that didn’t bend reality when they felt like it. And in the case of Amy Sherman-Palladino, she included an Asian character in a show set in small-town Connecticut – where the “reality” argument would have carried even more weight. Plus, one of the more popular ballet movies, Center Stage, had two POC main cast characters and no one got down on the film’s realism because of it. Basically, it needs to be less unusual to see POCs in the media doing real people things, and I feel like the realism argument doesn’t hold up in the context of the whitewashed media culture.
      As much as I don’t like feeling like I’m shooting down shows that succeed in important ways, or giving some dude the chance to jump all over the women that make it into the media sausage fest, I also don’t like the way that every single time, someone will find a reason why their favorite show gets a pass on inclusion. Everyone can find a plausible excuse to have an all-white cast, so at some point, the excuses get pretty worn. If you had characters of color in the shows where reality would more or less demand the, you might get off not having them where that reality argument has a point. Since you don’t, the “reality” standard ends up a pretty flimsy argument.

    • ERose

      It is true that it’s really easy for people of different races to live side-by-side and not really be in the same social circle, and in this particular case, I’ll also say that even when I lived in Seattle, POCs were super rare in my dance studio.
      However, I’ve never noticed any TV show that didn’t bend reality when they felt like it. And in the case of Amy Sherman-Palladino, she included an Asian character in a show set in small-town Connecticut – where the “reality” argument would have carried even more weight. Plus, one of the more popular ballet movies, Center Stage, had two POC main cast characters and no one got down on the film’s realism because of it. Basically, it needs to be less unusual to see POCs in the media doing real people things, and I feel like the realism argument doesn’t hold up in the context of the whitewashed media culture.
      As much as I don’t like feeling like I’m shooting down shows that succeed in important ways, or giving some dude the chance to jump all over the women that make it into the media sausage fest, I also don’t like the way that every single time, someone will find a reason why their favorite show gets a pass on inclusion. Everyone can find a plausible excuse to have an all-white cast, so at some point, the excuses get pretty worn. If you had characters of color in the shows where reality would more or less demand the, you might get off not having them where that reality argument has a point. Since you don’t, the “reality” standard ends up a pretty flimsy argument.

  • http://twitter.com/eshowoman Friday Foster

    Shonda has hired plenty of white women, but when she points out white female exclusivity & privilege she is a misogynist??  Misogyny is only applicable to white women???  Amy Sherman-Palladino cannot imagine a world with diversity and she wants support for that white whine??? 

    • Anonymous

      Pretty much. Any time you try to have these discussion you get a lot of “wah-wah why aren’t you criticizing the white men?” and you can give them examples until you are blue in the face but they will ignore it and continue with the white whine and claims of misogyny (which is a common fall-back position anytime you criticize some white women). As usual, our womanhood is less important than theirs, and we are supposed to shut up and be happy standing at the end of the line waiting for crumbs.

  • Anonymous

    To be more blunt—prolly shoulda covered this last go ’round—oh, nevermind… I think everyone got what I meant. Tho I will add this: Anyone who thinks it’s accidental that nearly 90% of  all women in major/minor roles on TV—both cable and network are still White women  probably thinks Shonda Rhimes is being  ‘mean and petty’.

  • Anonymous

    To be more blunt—prolly shoulda covered this last go ’round—oh, nevermind… I think everyone got what I meant. Tho I will add this: Anyone who thinks it’s accidental that nearly 90% of  all women in major/minor roles on TV—both cable and network are still White women  probably thinks Shonda Rhimes is being  ‘mean and petty’.

  • Anonymous

    It’s another reminder of how “women” only includes women of color when it’s convenient for “women” to do so. If a lot of “women” had their way we’d only focus on “women” and stop being so “divisive”.

  • Anonymous

    It’s another reminder of how “women” only includes women of color when it’s convenient for “women” to do so. If a lot of “women” had their way we’d only focus on “women” and stop being so “divisive”.

  • Anonymous

    As someone who loved Gilmore Girls before AS-P left it, I have to say that I was disappointed by her BS mysogyny argument while mostly ignoring what’s being said of the casting of her new show. I’m surprised she didn’t accuse Rhimes of racist for being so race obsessed (but I did read that response in the cesspools that are comment section).

  • Anonymous

    As someone who loved Gilmore Girls before AS-P left it, I have to say that I was disappointed by her BS mysogyny argument while mostly ignoring what’s being said of the casting of her new show. I’m surprised she didn’t accuse Rhimes of racist for being so race obsessed (but I did read that response in the cesspools that are comment section).

  • Anonymous

    Sorry,  I don’t think I was clear enough in my other comment on something VERY important:
    I absolutely agree with Jen on her criticism of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s appalling response to Shonda Rhimes’ warranted criticism.
    BUT my ‘suspicion’ isn’t with Disgrasian or with Racialicious or any such websites who do a tremendous job in writing about lack of diversity in popular culture. And as you’ve pointed out keep doing this.

    It’s with White men whose own offices are not inclusive in any way *suddenly* discovering a lack of diversity on Girls… which they never saw before in any of their touchstone male-centered TV series… and have yet to address again in new male-centered TV series.  

  • http://www.blasianbytch.com BlasianBytch

    This is an age old tactic for silencing already disadvantaged groups of people. 

  • Anonymous

    Huh? That was not how I interpreted the Girls debate: What I (and others) have wondered is why so many WHITE MALE journalists who never before cared for diversity, whether gender or race, especially not in their own editorial office, suddenly cared for it when it came to Girls… Which unfortunately has remained the only time they have voiced this… Suspicious.

    About racial diversity on Girls and Bunhead: I dislike the stereotypical annoying representations that Girls has included (the Asian intern…). However, I don’t think that Lena Dunham should include Black and Asian and Latina friends of hers if her circle of friends in reality is lilywhite. Instead, she should have a character comment on how lilywhite their circle of friends is. Faux inclusion can be detrimental.

    I learned an important lesson on this via Prof. Susan Douglas’ book “Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild”. Although the title doesn’t show it her book details thoroughly how overrepresented career women are on American primetime TV series (if compared how many the ACTUAL REAL WORLD, not the MTV version, has). That might seem like a good thing… The problem is that studies have found that people after seeing shows in which women are presidents, CEOs etc. believe that women have ALREADY achieved equality and that sexism does not exist. Thus the willingness to support women actually goes down after watching such series.
    –> I would have never thought of this unintended consequence. My strong guess is that the same applies for people of color in powerful positions or (regarding Girls or Bunheads) as wealthy uppermiddle class people. Support for affirmative action and understanding that racism is alive and well would go down.

    Nonetheless, that of course doesn’t mean that both Bunheads and Girls shouldn’t include people of color.