Thursday, December 19, 2013

Black and White TV

A new Writers Guild of America report on women and minorities in television offers some encouraging news. In the past 12 years, for example, the number of minority writers has roughly doubled moving from 7.5% of all writing jobs to 15.6%. The biggest increases were in the number  of Asian-American and Latino writers, especially those working in "multicultural dramas."

Similarly, the number of women writers has risen from 25-30% over the past decade, promising, perhaps, but still far less than the 50+% of the population women actually represent. Perhaps this is why, the authors of the report had considered subtitling the report “Pockets of Promise, Minimal Progress.” Overall, the numbers look better—more representative of what our country looks like—but are these numbers truly encouraging?

Is there reason to be optimistic? Let's look closer at some of the numbers: "only 9% of pilots had at least one minority writer attached [to their writing staff] and just 24% of pilots had at least one woman attached, according to the report." Shockingly low, no?

Here is a recent picture (see right) of a panel of Emmy nominated writers. Ask yourself who is represented? Who is not?

And the numbers are even more stark when you behind the camera. According to Think Progress, in an article called "TV Directors get Whiter and More Male," the percentage of episodes of television in the 2011-2012 television season directed by white men rose from 72 percent to 73 percent. White women directed 11 percent of episodes, the same as last year. And women of color and men of color basically traded work: men of color directed 13 percent of episodes, down from 14 percent last year."

With a disproportionately high percentage of white writers and directors, it perhaps not surprising that news for actors of color is similarly frustrating. Among actors on TV there had been reason to hope in 1998 when Andre Braugher took home a leading-actor Emmy in 1998 for his work on "Homicide: Life on the Street," becoming only the third black actor to win in that category (Bill Cosby and James Earl Jones got there first). But in the last 14 years, there has been only one minority nominee: Braugher again, for the swiftly canceled ABC medical drama, "Gideon's Crossing."

Sunday, December 08, 2013

TV Tokenism

Just how much TV do you watch in a given week? No need to out yourselves here. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "After work and sleep, TV viewing is the most commonly reported activity in the U.S., taking up just over half of all leisure time." Does it affect how you see others? Most people would say that watching TV doesn't have a profound effect on themselves, though the very same people believe it has a great effect on others.

If you're like most Americans, you watch a lot of TV, and if you own a mobile phone, about half of you are using it while watching the "boob tube", sometimes texting and tweeting during commercials and content. Advertisers and researchers have coined the term, "Connected Viewers", as a more sophisticated term for these screen zombies.

And speaking of zombies, the mid-season finale of AMC's smash hit drama, The Walking Dead aired last week, so I guess I now have time to write this post tonight :) I thought of this series specifically because I saw a particular tweet from a celebrity fan:
Of course, if you haven't seen the show, a lot of this Twitter-speak may seem confusing. But I was struck by the final hashtag, "please develop Michonne's character". Played by Danai Gurira, who also is a film actor and a writer, she is one of the few prominent African-American characters on the show since it began three years ago. But what's Kelly Choi complaining about? The Walking Dead has featured an African-American character since the very first season. Isn't that a mark of progress?

My guess is that characters like "Michonne" simply serve as "tokens": racial minority actors who are featured as 2-dimensional characters just so the show's creators (or perhaps the network) can claim they are being inclusive and "diverse". Consider the quote below and ask yourself if you think Gurira's characterization of the USA as "open" is actually true.

"I find it distressing that stories about African people who are in this country and people of African descent can sometimes be marginalized. It doesn't make any sense to me. I think we're in a place as a world, as a country, where we are open to a lot of other stories.... If the story's good, the themes are universal."