By Guest Contributor SL Huang
Oh, I know the answer, of course. A white nuclear family is what networks think everyone can relate to. And even if people can’t relate, they see and recognize that “ideal” and know what sort of cultural message the writers are trying to send. It gets across the message of Normal, Everyday, Good Old Down-Home FAMILY to people.
But you know what? It’s started pissing me off.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love that more television shows are including diversity. I dig it. I’d much rather they include people of color somewhere, anywhere, than not at all.
But I’m starting to see the “ethnic sidekick” problem on family shows: that the ethnic or mixed families are being shown in contrast to a “normal” and “ordinary” family, and are therefore implicitly not normal or ordinary themselves.
Let’s take Modern Family. Now, I love Modern Family—I think it’s a smart, sharply-written show and that it does a lot of good with the diversity of characters it does show. But part of the premise is clearly that the two families that are more “modern” versions of what family can be are being contrasted against the white nuclear family of a happily married mother and father and their three children living in suburbia. The two families being contrasted? The mixed-generational couple of Jay and Colombian immigrant Gloria with Gloria’s son Manny—who becomes a stepson to Jay—and the gay couple with their daughter adopted from Vietnam. All of the diversity in the show is bundled into the families that are billed as having “complications.” What if, instead, Claire’s husband had been cast as an African-American man, and her kids were all half black? Or, even more scandalously, what if Jay’s first wife had been an Asian woman, and Claire and Mitchell were both happa? You might argue that it wouldn’t be the same show, and, well, of course not. But it’s a show that bills diversity as part of its message, and all I’m saying is, what if the diversity weren’t billed as being so “different,” but instead mixed in with what we’re meant to see as “normal”?
The new show The Neighbors is an even better example of this happening. The aliens who have taken human form have seemingly done so without regard to race (although, of course, the person billed as “their leader” chose to be a white man . . . who would have suspected?), and the lead alien family has a mother who appears black and an oldest son who appears Asian (the father and younger son appear white). It’s cute, and I’m glad they do have that diversity, despite the always-troubling aspects of aliens being the only people of color on a show (both Stargates, I’m looking at you). But, of course, the family who moves into the alien development, the “normal” human family we’re meant to contrast the aliens against, is all white. Because white is normal. And human. It’s the weird alien family who cry tears of green goo out their ears who have people of color among them; diversity is acceptable there. Why not have had the human family be mixed-race, or Hispanic, or Asian? Oh, I know why, of course; I said it at the beginning—writers and producers think viewers can’t relate to people of color. But, well, maybe I’m sick of being forced to relate to white people.
I’ll throw one more example into the mix, since I’ve been so sick I have been watching EXCESSIVE AMOUNTS OF TELEVISION lately. I have to admit to being a fan of the ABC Family show Switched At Birth, despite teen drama not usually being my cup of tea, and as far as I can tell (not being Deaf myself), it’s pretty awesome at giving people great insight into Deaf culture and experiences. And I’m all in favor of any show that treats a minority culture with respect and gives it attention, because media has a huge impact on how we all interact with each other culturally (plus all the Deaf actors who have jobs because of that show; mad props for that casting—Sean Berdy in particular should win an Emmy). But this show does the exact same thing I’ve mentioned above: it contrasts the Kennishes, the white, upper class nuclear family, with the Vasquez women—the family that has a very poor single mother raising a Deaf daughter, the “different” family, and, oh yeah, the one with a mother who just happens to be Latina. I do give Switched At Birth props for addressing race—Bay struggles with the fact that she’s suddenly Hispanic when she always thought she was white—but we still have the stable, nuclear family being the white one and the “different” family having the diversity. What if Regina Vasquez had been Caucasian and Kathryn Kennish had been Latina, with everything else remaining the same? What if the children of the rich nuclear family with with ex-professional athlete father had been the children of color instead of the other way around?
I have to admit, “family” shows (by which I mean shows about families) are not what I usually watch, so maybe this trend is not as universal as I think it is. But for a sample size of three, we’ve got three shows that contrast “different” families with “normal” families, and in all three cases, the “normal” family is the white one and the “different” families are the ones that have the racial diversity in addition to their other “differentness.” Just once it might be kind of cool to see the “normal” family have a little melanin. Wouldn’t it?
Now, we could argue about the merits of a show making out one family to be more “normal” than another in the first place. For example, there’s nothing textual suggesting that Claire and Phil’s relationship in Modern Family should be seen as any more stable than Jay and Gloria’s or Cam and Mitchell’s, nor their family any more “normal” or “ideal.” But I think it’s naive to think that the writers weren’t trying to set up the Dunphys as the white-picket-fence, 2.5-kids-and-a-dog type of “normalcy” so that they could contrast the other two families against them. And I’m equally certain that for all three of the shows I talked about, the casting in terms of race was very deliberate, as it serves to heighten the contrasts between the families.
And does such casting serve to provide that heightened contrast effectively for most viewers? Reluctantly, I have to admit that it probably does. But it doesn’t mean that I can’t feel irked, nor feel like it isn’t a problem that we’re still constantly billing minority races as the families that are “different.”
[This post has been brought to you by either Lyme disease or typhus, whichever one I have, as I am STILL SICK and therefore watching far too much television.]