Magazine article The American Prospect

Diversity Follies

Magazine article The American Prospect

Diversity Follies

Article excerpt

Here's what I saw on TV last week: Good-looking, doe-eyed white youngster to his good-looking, doe-eyed sister: It's not like I'm still in the closet. Dad already knows I'm gay." Click. Black guy in suit to white guy in suit: "This is important. I want to show the gay community that I stand out here at city hall." Click. Blue-shirted white man in restaurant, to Brad Pitt look-alike across the table: "Did you see that guy flirting with me?" Friend: "Why don't you ask him out? What, gay guys don't date?" Click. Male mayor, fondling Washington Monument paperweight, to female aide: "Is there anything about me that seems gay?" Laughter. Click. High school football player in full makeup under his helmet, surrounded by other football players in full makeup under their helmets, to player on the opposing team: "Try to find the homo now!" Click.

It's certainly not hard to find the homo, which is a great relief if you've previously been mostly invisible at the center of American culture, but somehow I'm not ready to celebrate. After all, not long ago The Cosby Show seemed to put the nail in the coffin of all-white TV, and hour-long dramas like ER and NYPD Blue are as racially integrated as can be, yet this season, as Kweisi Mfume of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pointed out to high publicity, the major networks planned their entire lineup of new shows without a single major character of color. In the spotlight, the networks briefly scrambled to add black and Latino characters to their shows. Sabrina the teenage witch is mentoring an Afro-Caribbean teenage witch, with a Latina teenage witch waiting in the wings. But by now, the networks' conciliatory press re]eases are back in the filing cabinets, and it's business as usual. It can't hurt to be more visible, for sure, but on television, you can be made to disappear just as abruptly.

For decades, advocates for marginalized groups have rightly pointed out that they are underrepresented on network television. The NAACP argues that since African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, "our presence should be appropriately reflected during prime time and on all levels." The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) point, out that "the gay community encompasses less than 2 percent of total portrayals." Ed Morales suggests in The Nation that "although Latinos make up 11 percent of the country's population, they are represented by only 2 characters on network programs." You hear the same thing from Asian-American activists, organizations for the disabled, and Native-American groups. In a democratic culture, it seems fair to expect the mass media to reflect society's demographics.

The head count strategy can be misleading, though, if not downright counterproductive. It does nothing to eliminate stereotypes from television; in fact, stereotyped roles are often the only available means, initially, of upping your numbers. And the numbers game encourages dangerous oversimplification of social categories and competition among minorities. "The number of gay characters on the networks' schedules," media reports repeated, "is equal to the number of black, Latino, and Asian characters combined." In that framework, you only play for one team, and the teams are pitted against one another. And percentages don't tell you a whole lot about how the television territory is really divided up racially and ethnically. When you look at television as a whole, the picture is not actually one of a decrease in the number of characters of color. Instead, the trend has been toward greater overall visibility for African Americans, continued absence of Asian and Native Americans, and a push of black and Latino audiences away from television's power center. All-white Friends worlds on the major networks co-exist with all-black Steve Harvey worlds on less powerful networks and on cable.

Whether the concern is sheer numbers of representations or their stereotyped content (kung-fu Asian, Hispanic maid), the problem is often framed in moral terms. …

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