Television is a powerful medium. It has just as much potential and power as literature and art to recreate and re-imagine certain concepts, concepts which time has shown to be problematic. TV writers can utilise their medium to showcase new, groundbreaking stories. Yet, it is astonishing to see the ease of which ‘the powers that be’ are always on cue to depict their white characters (whether in the lead role or supporting), as interesting, flawed and multi-faceted; these characters range from ones who are easy to root for, to the lovable baddies. Unfortunately however, when it comes to the creation of minority characters, the very same writers forget the intricacies which make their other characters so interesting, and instead fall back on one-note racial stereotypes. Just look at any random procedural on network television, which casts a minority actor in either a token role, or in a bit-part role in a weak attempt to diversify.
These actors, and the characters that they play, exist to fill out notorious and ridiculous tropes such as the ‘sassy, finger-snapping, black woman’; this is done without much explanation as to why the character lacks the reservation of their counterparts. Why is this? It may well be that reducing minority characters into caricatures, and therefore dehumanising them, is an easy way to get ‘cheap laughs’ from predominantly white audiences.
These audiences may have preconceived notions of different races, which have been constantly perpetuated by the media. They may also feel as though this viewpoint is further validated by the unrealistic portrayal of certain characters, and as a result feel that their racist preconceptions are justified, and are in turn likely to tune in again to the program another day. Television is, after all, a money-making game.
Writers may also choose to reduce characters of colour into stereotypes because they just don’t want to put in the time, money or research to write a fully fledged minority character. Minorities face many battles in their lives, ranging from the effects of institutionalised racism to the exclusion by their peers for their sexual orientation. Writing about those trials and its effects into the character may indeed sour the tone of an hour-long medical drama, or a Chuck Lorre comedy, however, these very same writers are able to successfully write about the trials of a white, male anti-hero.
Some writers, notably, Lena Dunham, even go as far as to completely ignore, thereby invalidating, the experiences of women of colour. Her TV show ‘Girls’ is supposed to focus on the trials of being a woman, yet Dunham completely writes women of colour out of the show. This is a common criticism leveled at ‘Girls’; Dunham must either be under the impression that all women, regardless of race, experience the same problems (but this is far from the truth), or has forgotten that feminism should be intersectional when it comes to race, class and gender.
It almost appears that minority characters are merely an afterthought when it comes to creating television shows, and this is also true as far as content and story are concerned. This is problematic, mainly because it helps to both create and contribute to the idea of an ‘all white world’, where only white people’s feelings are viewed as important. Thus, when people of colour or those who identify as LGBTQ start to speak up of their struggles, it is as though they are silenced by a white, hetero-normative majority. For most black people, their whole life is impacted by the very fact that they are black, and is further shaped by the racism they face. Because television ignores this and focuses on racist tropes, white people tend to be unaware of very obvious institutional racism. The arguments of a black individual are often ignored, and the assumption that they are simply ‘pulling the race card’ is heard all too often.
Television could very easily highlight these unpleasant truths, yet these problematic depictions still continue to be shown.