Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tokenism

I stayed out of the diversity stuff because...well, I've been down that road a ton lately and didn't really come to any new conclusions or have new thoughts. But...then I did. And oddly, it was Saved by the Bell that did it. Work with me on this one.

I've been going to the gym early in the mornings, hopping on the stationary bike and trying to work off my gut. Usually, by the time I hit the gym, TBS has started in on what seems like a full morning of Saved by the Bell re-runs. I bring my own MP3 player, so I never plug in and listen, but I watch the pretty pictures go by. Saved by the Bell holds an odd place in pop culture. It's a good demarcation for the line between Gen X and Gen Y (or whatever you want to call them). For people my age and older, we were way past it. It was what little kids watched. For people a couple of years younger, it was, amongst certain demographics, a touchstone. Yeah, the jokes are corny and the characters are lame, but they're beloved. It was always a bit of a mystery to me, especially since I didn't have younger siblings around during its prime years. After watching it, mute, in snips and pieces over the last month or so, it's...still a bit of a mystery. But there's something there I noticed that speaks to theatre's diversity issues and its young audiences issues.

For those out of touch with pop culture, Saved by the Bell revolves around a group of friends at high school in California. This group is all solidly middle-class, suburban and pretty generic as a bunch of teenagers in the late 80s/early 90s. It's also pretty multicultural, for 1989: the shopaholic is black, the jock is Latino, though neither has stereotypical names nor is it ever particularly referenced. They're just a bunch of high school kids doing high school kid things, really. And that's part of what makes it so interesting.

I have a friend who, whenever one of those lists of the 50 most beautiful people comes out, used to remark about how there was always just one black or Latino or Asian person on there, or one of each. A token. A way of the magazine saying, "Yeah, we know these people exist and some of them are beautiful, but if we didn't include one, we'd get shit for it, but if we include more than one, we'd get shit for it. So be happy with what you got." The casting of Saved by the Bell feels like that. Like they went out and found an appealing black actress and an appealing Latino and shoehorned them into roles for the sake of diversity. It worked out fine, sure, but that wasn't the point.

I realized, sweating away on the exercise bike, that Hollywood's been doing that for years now. You can't have an ensemble cast on a TV show without some diversity. Sitcoms are the last realm where a group of friends is always only one race. Hell, now we've got mixed race families on the air. The expectation is: group of people? Multicultural tokens.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think TV executives do this because they're all good affirmative action loving progressives. They do it to sell soap. People are more inclined to watch a show when they see themselves on it. Plus it does keep people from complaining about the lack of diversity. At this point, though, I think it's mostly reflexive. Group of people = get some tokens to fill it out.

(An interesting side note, though, is the utter failure to build an ensemble show around a person of color. Many have tried, all have failed. Some barriers left to get over, huh?)

Theatre, though, doesn't do this. We do use tokens, but in a big picture way. That's what the Black Play slot or the Women's Play slot is. Tokenism. But we huddle all of the minority actors and playwrights and directors into one slot, and then no one sees them on the stage again until next year. The world we present on a regular basis is a world where there are only white people. Our default tokenism is in programming, not casting. But in trying to connect to younger audiences, especially audiences raised on shows like Saved by the Bell where race never rears its head, but they get the United Colors of Bennetton, presenting them lily-white worlds is a barrier. Or maybe just a liability.

Maybe, rather than focusing our energy on artistic directors and literary managers to increase diversity on our stages, we should be looking to the casting directors, moving to a place where, when races aren't specified, casting an all-white play is ridiculous. Why not just throw some color up in there, mix it up a bit. Let's move to another easy, superficial solution, so we don't have to really ask the tough questions about diversity and inclusion. We don't really want to answer those anyway.

3 comments:

joshcon80 said...

A touchstone is right. Lisa Turtle is my soul sister.

At any rate, I saw an interview with the producers of Saved by the Bell did what you mention in your last paragraph. It wasn't that they were purposely trying to tokenize for political correctness' sake (or so they say.) It's more that they happened to see a great black and Latino actor for roles where race wasn't specified and decided to go with them.

At the risk of seeming the philistine, theater could stand to borrow a lot from television's practices. Throw this on the list.

P.S. I was just thinking how weird it was that Margaret Cho's ill fated sitcom was the first and last sitcom about an Asian American family. How could that be?

Marissa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marissa said...

I blogged about this a few months ago when writing a short play in which the characters could be played by actors of any race. I thought the responsibility should fall to the casting director to ensure a racially diverse cast--but I've also heard tell of playwrights who encourage casting directors to select actors of different races, yet end up with an all-white cast anyway. It left me very much wrestling with the issue of how much of this is the casting director's responsibility, and how much of this is our responsibility, as playwrights... If you want a diverse cast, is it better to specify the race of every character in it, or to leave it up to the casting director?

My full post is here:

http://marissabidilla.blogspot.com/2009/08/post-racial-world-and-contemporary.html