While race on Rhimes’s shows is omnipresent, it is not often discussed explicitly. This has led to a second-order critique of her shows: that they are colorblind, diverse in a superficial way, with the characters’ races rarely informing their choices or conversations. Rhimes, obviously, disagrees. “When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah,’ ” she says. “That’s not how the world works. I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.”
This season on “Scandal,” race has been more openly discussed. In one scene, Olivia remarked to Fitz that she was feeling “a little Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson” about their relationship, one of the first overt references to its racial aspect. Rhimes had written the line into three previous scripts and taken it out each time. She finally included it, but only as a flashback, later in the show’s run but early in Olivia’s relationship with Fitz, when Rhimes knew it would have been on Olivia’s mind. “I don’t think that we have to have a discussion about race when you’re watching a black woman who is having an affair with the white president of the United States,” she explains. “The discussion is right in front of your face.”
— “Network TV Is Broken. So How Does Shonda Rhimes Keep Making Hits?” by Willa Paskin, May 19, 2013
By Managing Editor Arturo R. García and Guest Contributor Kendra James
Issa Rae: Well, this is how web television supporters say it’s supposed to work. Now, can Rae and Shonda Rhimes deliver?
Earlier this week, Rhimes, the showrunner behind Scandal and Grey’s Academy, sold a sitcom to ABC reportedly titled I Hate LA Dudes. On the surface, it doesn’t sound that different in tone from Rae’s acclaimed (if occasionally problematic) Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.
But in going from the wilds of YouTube to Pharrell Wiliams’ i am OTHER channel and now to serving as co-executive producer and writer on a broadcast television show, Rae becomes the first notable web creator to complete the circuit. This brings pressure on multiple fronts: not only does she become, for better or worse, a test run for creators and executives looking to see how her style and fanbase translate to a “mainstream” stage, but you have to figure no small percentage of ABG fans will seek reassurance that the comedy that drew them to that show survives the migration.
On the other hand, with Rae making the airwaves not long after Mindy Kaling’s own ascension, we also have to ask ourselves: how much does progress need to be progressive? —AG
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.
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.
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.
By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid
Of course, I could talk to author/activist Tim Wise about 5,000 things all day long; he’s a fascinating conversationalist. I even asked him a question on my mom’s behalf about the Tea Party. (I relayed his response to her.) We flowed from the problems of “colorblind” rhetoric as social/political policy to what we do at the R, pop culture…including the politics of porn.
Andrea Plaid: Let’s talk about addressing race and racism on TV, with the discussion about Mad Men and how it does or doesn’t do that. What do you notice about how race and racism is addressed on TV, especially on shows that take place in contemporary times, like The Cosby Show, Friends, and Grey’s Anatomy?
Tim Wise: Mad Men, from what I understand, is a fairly realistic portrayal of that time. The question is, Why do people love [the show] so much, why do they so enjoy a period piece like this one, which portrays a slice of life, and a period where people of color aren’t present? That’s interesting to me sociologically. But my question is not about Mad Men so much, as it is about other shows like Friends, which is in the contemporary period in New York, and yet there are no people of color around, or Grey’s Anatomy or the Cosby Show, where we can have representations of folks of color, and “race,” but rarely if ever deal with racism per se. So, they can have the occasional, or even central characters of color in the case of Grey’s or Cosby, but it’s as if these people never deal with racism in their lives. It’s not that every episode needs to be about race, but when virtually NO episodes are, that’s unrealistic. I mean, even a show my kids watch, in re-runs, That’s So Raven (with former Cosby star Raven Symone) had an episode about racism: a really good one in fact. If they could do it, why can’t these shows for adults do it?
AP: The flip of that is how working-class and poor whites are portrayed as a group of people others can feel free to turn their noses at due to their outspoken bigotry and/or their impoverished lives. Latest case in point: Arlene and Sam Merlotte’s family, the Mickens, on True Blood. Your thoughts?
TW: Well, there’s a long history of portraying bigots as backwoods “trash” or whatever, because it allows the hip, urbane TV viewer to assume an outsider stance, where we can say “oh, thank God I don’t know people like that!” Or, “I’m not like that.” It’s why whenever one of the talk shows, like Jerry Springer or whatever would have on a racist family, it would always be some family from rural Georgia or whatever, missing teeth, mispronouncing words, or whatever. But of course, people can be elites and incredibly racist, without slurs, without bad dentition, without any overt signs of bigotry, because they have the power to do their stuff in private: old boy’s networks for hiring and contracts, zoning laws that restrict where people can live and where they can’t, etc.
by Guest Contributor Melissa Silverstein, originally published at Women and Hollywood
The thing that I love about Grey’s Anatomy is how great the women of color are. Strong, decisive, smart…awesome. Sandra Oh, Sara Ramirez, Loretta Devine. My favorite character is Miranda Bailey played by Chandra Wilson. No one even comes close to my love and respect for her.
But as I was reading this past weekend about some lame comments from ABC Chief Stephen McPherson at the Television Critics Association gathering about how they (ABC) just didn’t like Brooke Smith’s character Erica Hahn on Grey’s, — “the character was not working for us, and the dynamic with the relationship was just not working for us…” — I realized that all of Grey’s Anatomy’s white women are pathetic.
Think about it. The strong ones — Addison Montgomery was spun off to her own show in LA and seems to have lost her compass, and Erica Hahn was fired because her chemistry with Callie just wasn’t good enough, and maybe she just came off as a bit too strong. Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) has always been one step from pathetic. She holds the story together, but she is no pillar of strength. Izzie (Katherine Heigl) has gone over the deep end this season appearing in a bad version of the “I See My Dead Husband” Sally Field, Jeff Bridges and James Caan 80s romance Kiss Me Goodbye. Sadie the sadist is gone as of February and she never did anything of note except almost kill herself. Lexie is shagging Mark and who knows where that one is going. And now they’ve brought in Jessica Capshaw as pediatric surgeon Arizona Robbins to supposedly be the new girlfriend of Sara Ramirez’ Callie. First and second impressions have not been good. She pretty much comes off as a bubbly idiot and even Miranda looked like she wanted to belt her.
While it’s so unprecedented that the women of color are written so well and strong on Grey’s (cause they hardly exist of most others shows), I don’t think it should or will diminish from those characters if we pump some strength into the white women.
I think it will make the show better.
by Carmen Van Kerckhove
By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the controversy surrounding the actor Isaiah Washington, who plays Dr. Preston Burke on the hit show Grey’s Anatomy. If you’re not familiar with the story, you can read a pretty detailed account of the events so far in this New York Times story.
So what do you think? Should Washington be fired for his homophobic slur? If Washington wasn’t black, would ABC have moved more quickly? If the situation had involved a white actor calling his castmate the n-word, would things be any different? I don’t mean to play oppression olympics here, of course, I just think there are some very interesting race implications in this story worth exploring.
I also can’t believe that Washington had the balls to tell an outright lie in front of all his coworkers and the international press corps. People who are so comfortable lying, even when they know that everyone knows they’re lying, have always amazed me. I used to work for a woman like that, and she’d always put me in these incredibly awkward positions where I had to choose between revealing her lie or having everyone think that I wasn’t doing my job.
by guest contributor Maia, originally posted at her blog, Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty
I’ve started watching Grey’s Anatomy really regularly (they’re repeating Season 1 in NZ), I’m not quite sure why – because I don’t really like it that much. I don’t think it’s well-written, by half-way through season two I hated almost all the characters. But watch it I do, if nothing else it gets things to blog about it.
Shonda Rhimes (Creator of the show) said that she wanted Grey’s Anatomy to look like America, and she did quite well. Of the four authority figures we see most regularly, three are african-american, and one of those is female. This is a world where you can live in a trailer park and grow up to be surgeon. Rich or poor, male of female, Korean, African-American or white – anyone can work at Seattle Grace.
Compare this to Scrubs, the authority figures are all white men, and while you can be a doctor and female or a doctor and African-American, the women of colour are all nurses.
There was this episode of Scrubs where all the main characters were speaking to the camera about their lives. I don’t remember the reason but Carla (the Latina Nurse) was telling a story about when she was a girl, and how she came to be in the job she was in. She was in a store and someone was injured in some way and a doctor came in and saved the patient. Her segment ended with her saying “That’s when I realised I wanted to be a doctor.”
The show didn’t have to tell us why Carla didn’t become a doctor, because it was really clear. What I loved about Scrubs is that it showed a society where racism, sexism, and the class system were all problems. Continue reading