From 'Girls' to 'Bunheads': Does every TV show have a diversity responsibility?
"Hey @abcfbunheads: really? You couldn't cast even ONE young dancer of color so I could feel good about my kid watching this show? NOT ONE?" she asked.
"Bunheads" is a show about a Vegas showgirl who relocates to small-town California and becomes a dance instructor at her new mother-in-law's dance studio. Starring Sutton Foster and Kelly Bishop, the show has no regular cast members of color. In the first dance class scene, there are "young dancers of color" -- but they're in the background, and don't have any lines. Instead, the focus turns to the conversation of four young white teenage girls, lamenting their body issues and ballet school prospects. These are the four characters the audience is supposed to root for. These are the people with names, and lives, and problems. These are the ones who deserve our attention.
Is that acceptable?
The question of diversity on television has been raised frequently lately, with a lot of discussion centered around HBO's "Girls." The show, which has been trumpeted as a representation of real twenty-something women, doesn't have any non-white characters -- a glaring omission when you consider that it takes place in present-day Brooklyn and Manhattan. There's also the issue of some unsettling comments made by one of the writers. If you missed the controversy, Gawker has an excellent write-up.
"Girls" and "Bunheads" are hardly the first whitewashed shows on television. In fact, some argue that the media's attention to the issue -- the fact that people are taking notice of the lack of diversity -- is, in fact, a sign of progress. In the case of "Girls," writer Lena Dunham has insisted that she was writing about her own experience, and because she'd never experienced being a black twenty-something in Brooklyn, she felt uncomfortable writing about that.
"Not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn't able to speak to," she told NPR's "Fresh Air." "I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls."
"Bunheads," of course, can hardly be compared to "Girls." For one thing, "Girls" is on late at night on HBO, and it's packed with drugs, sex, profanity, and nudity. "Bunheads" is a family show, largely aimed at young girls who watch summer TV with their moms and dads. Young girls who, perhaps, could benefit from seeing a little bit of heterogeneity on their screens.
Rhimes -- who is famous for her color-blind casting -- specifically mentioned her daughters in her tweet about the show. The real question here is whether TV bosses have a responsibility to represent diversity in the content that they're producing -- especially when that content is targeted at easily influenced children and teens. In creating a television show, should a showrunner, studio, and network make a distinct, concerted effort to include a diverse cast of characters?
It's an issue that extends beyond race. This season on The CW, which has the youngest target demographic of the broadcast networks, LGBT characters were surprisingly underrepresented. With Eric ( Connor Paolo) and Teddy ( Trevor Donovan) having exited "Gossip Girl" and "90210," no memorable, recurring gay characters remained on any of the network's scripted series.
In early drafts of "The Secret Circle," one of the main characters -- Melissa, played by Jessica Parker Kennedy -- was gay. The show was based on a series of books first published a decade ago, and because Melissa was one character who didn't exist in the source material, there was a license to update the story. Initially, Melissa had a crush on her best friend Faye and was struggling to come to terms with her sexuality. After the show was further developed at the studio and the network level, Melissa became a straight girl with a thing for bad boys. At some point, some powerful person decided that was the story worth telling.
There's an argument to be made that if a showrunner/network/studio is producing a show about six teenagers, they have a responsibility to include characters that aren't white or -- if the characters are sexually aware -- aren't heterosexual. If a group of four ballerinas in a television dance class are given actual character development, perhaps they shouldn't all be white girls, shown in clear focus as their African-American and Asian counterparts mill about in the blurry background.
Of course, a young person's development is mostly in the hands of his or her parents and teachers. That's where instilling self-confidence and teaching tolerance should begin and where it should end. But to deny that television, books, and other media have a marked influence on children's development is naive.
If we want young people to feel strong, it can't hurt to show them strong characters who look like them. If we want young people to be tolerant and kind to people who look different from them, it can't hurt to give them the opportunity to see those people on their screens every week.
We're not condoning pushing gay characters to the forefront for the purpose of provocation. ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars" is admirable for its inclusion of a lesbian teenager as a lead character. Emily's ( Shay Mitchell) love life is given as much attention as that of her straight counterparts, without moving into salacious territory for publicity's sake.
We're also not suggesting that every show should include "token" minority casting. If a white actor is the best person for a role, then by all means, that actor should get the role. But if every role on a show is most suited to a white actor, perhaps there's a larger issue that needs to be addressed, be it in the writing, the development, or in our conditioning as a society.
To be fair, The CW is introducing a very diverse crop of new shows this fall. "The Carrie Diaries," and "Emily Owens, MD" establish great stories about gay characters right away in their pilot episodes, and all five of the network's new series have racially diverse casts and people of color in well-developed supporting and lead roles. ABC Family is known for its racial diversity and, as we mentioned, has told memorable, strong stories about LGBT youth.
That said, there is still significant progress to be made when it comes to television that's aimed at a young audience. Last year, the Disney Channel was at the center of a minor controversy about the fact that it depicted straight crushes, romances, and kisses, but no gay ones. There's been no sign of a shift in that policy.
The media has the power to shape culture -- and with that power comes great responsibility. In a turbulent time when cyber-bullying is literally a life and death situation, allowing a minority group of young people to see reflections of themselves in the cultural zeitgeist is important. Are there other shows that Shonda Rhimes' kids can watch to see young people of color? Yes. Are there shows that gay teenagers can watch to see a coming-out story or a romance to which they can relate? Yes.
Should there be more of them?