In yesterday’s winner of the “Onion Headline or Actual Journalism?” award of the day, Nellie Andreeva of Deadline posted an article titled “Pilots 2015: The year of Ethnic Castings — About Time or Too Much of a Good Thing?” In the piece, Andreeva writes — as many others have before her — that the successes of new series like Empire and Fresh Off the Boat have led to a surge in “ethnic castings” during this year’s pilot season.
However, instead of applauding these long-overdue changes, as her fellow observers have, Andreeva wonders if “the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction.” Because now, some parts are designed specifically for actors of color. There are now parts that white actors can’t audition for.
Andreeva goes on to say that some lead and co-lead roles not specifically written for actors of color (whom she continually refers to as “ethnic,” as though white actors are somehow devoid of ethnicity and culture) have been given to such actors anyway. And there are also parts being written specifically for black actors — like shows about black families. And some shows that should be all-white, historically speaking, are being cast — gasp! — more diversely.
She then goes on to say that “ethnic talent” is not the reason why the aforementioned shows have been successful; they’re successful because they’re good shows, not because they have diverse casts. Plenty of non-diverse casts have also been successful, she argues, as though the world had somehow forgotten about Friends and Seinfeld. She concludes by arguing that making a deliberate attempt to cast diversely is as unfair as casting only white people — and maybe even counterproductive financially, because now that there are 3 black shows on broadcast TV and a smattering more on cable, “growth in that fraction of the TV audience might have reached its peak.” (I am not joking — these are actual words from an actual article in an actual publication that actual people take seriously. You can read it for yourself.)
You know the feeling you get when you’re so dumbfounded by someone’s argument — at how poor the logic is, how absurd their points are — that words completely escape you? That you don’t even know how to respond, because doing so would require you to articulate facts so basic that you’ve long taken them for granted, like that the sky is blue or the sun is hot? That’s exactly how I felt by the end of Andreeva’s article. On a logical level, I was completely flabbergasted. And I was personally offended, too.
Let’s start with the facts: Andreeva suggests that having roles specifically for people of color may not be a good thing, because it means that white people no longer have access to every part under the sun.
To which I reply: Quelle horreur.
Never mind that the overwhelming majority of parts throughout television history have been written specifically for white actors, leaving actors of color to fight for scraps — often one-dimensional sidekicks or hackneyed stereotypes.
Never mind that the most recent Hollywood Diversity Report, released last month, reveals that though people of color make up 40% of the US population, they make up less than 6.5% of leads on broadcast TV shows. People of color fare better on cable, holding 19% of lead roles — but if we’re comparing TV to the general population, that’s still half as many as they should have. Put another way, white people are overrepresented significantly among cable leads and grossly among broadcast leads. (The report looked at shows in the 2012-2013 season, before How to Get Away with Murder and Jane the Virgin were on the scene — but five new shows with leads of color won’t significantly change those numbers.) And we haven’t even gotten to the disparities between white people and people of color among directors, writers, creators, and executives, which are even more staggering.
Never mind that though it’s tempting to look at the five or six counterexamples from this season and declare that people of color have arrived, when you look at the overall picture, the number of shows with white leads still dwarfs the number with leads of color on any night of the week. By any measure, white people are not suffering when it comes to TV. White audiences can turn on the TV at any time and see a wide range of white people and white families depicted. White actors have a disproportionate number of roles to strive for. White people are actually overrepresented compared to the general population, and the handful of new shows featuring people of color barely makes a dent in the domination that white people have on this market.
And never mind that in contrast to Andreeva’s claims, shows with diverse casts actually do yield higher ratings than those with non-diverse casts. Yes, these shows succeed because they’re well-written and well-acted and have all the other things that universally make for good TV. But they also succeed because they offer something for everyone, because people of all races can watch these shows and see themselves represented. That’s not a coincidence, despite what Andreeva seems to think. The data indicates that casting diversely is good business — and even more importantly, it validates the experiences of a wide range of audience members and not just those of one group.
But let’s push all that aside for a second. Let’s ignore the mountain the data for a moment and get to what really gets my goat about Andreeva’s piece.
If I want to see an Asian American family represented on TV, I have one choice: Fresh Off the Boat. One. Not only that, but it’s the only choice I’ve had in 20 years, since All-American Girl went off the air. I’ve been alive for 32 years, and in only 2 of those years has there been a family on television that even remotely reflects my own.
If I want to see a white family represented on TV, I have a hundred options, probably without exaggeration, at any given time. I can find a wacky, quirky one on Modern Family. I can find a super-conservative one on 19 Kids and Counting. I can find a single-parent one on About a Boy. I can find one with a trans parent on Transparent. I can find a childless one on Mike and Molly or House of Cards, depending on what kind of mood I’m in. Until about a month ago, I could find a rich, complex, multigenerational one on Parenthood. I can find ones I’d never dream of on Duck Dynasty and Honey Boo Boo and any number of reality programs. And on and on and on.
So if I am a white actor — or, hell, even a white non-actor with an unusual story — I have a good number of options when it comes to landing a spot on TV.
But if I’m an Asian American actor? There’s only one show specifically for me. Maybe I can get a part as a white person’s neighbor or co-worker on another show, or maybe I’m already famous enough that casting agents will consider me for a part written for a white person. But in terms of shows where I’m actually going to be in demand, I only have one option.
And this is why I find Andreeva’s piece so infuriating. Because as a white person, she has everything. And as an Asian American person, I have one measly show. It reminds me of the parable that Nathan tells King David in the book of 2 Samuel, after David sleeps with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba: Andreeva is the rich man, with the very large number of sheep and cattle, taking away the one little ewe that the poor man has. I only have the one lamb, and it feels like she’s telling me that this is unfair because it’s not available to her.
No, Nellie Andreeva, it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that white people are overrepresented on TV. It isn’t fair that it’s significantly harder for a person of color to get a role on a TV show than it is for a white person. It isn’t fair that people of color have so few options when it comes to seeing their stories told on television. And it isn’t fair that you can write this article in a legitimate publication claiming that somehow, because of five — five! — new shows, there’s some kind of injustice happening to white people.
No, Nellie, we aren’t anywhere near too much of a good thing. We aren’t even close to enough.