Bunheads and “Message” Stories
Giveaway Note: I’ll be picking two winners in the Libriomancer Giveaway tonight, so if you haven’t entered yet, this is your last chance.
Blame Charlie Finlay and his friend Jessie for this rant. They’re the ones who brought this interview with Bunheads and Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino to my attention.
Context: Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy, posted on Twitter, “Hey… Bunheads: really? You couldn’t cast even ONE young dancer of color so I could feel good about my kid watching this show? NOT ONE?”
Unfortunately, the interviewer seems more interested in talking about what a shame it is women can’t support each other, and how Rhimes was oh so wrong to criticize a fellow woman. Sherman-Palladino indirectly addresses Rhimes’ question around the 3:05 mark, when she starts talking about all of the pressures of making a pilot episode, how she had to find dancers who could also act, and she didn’t have a lot of time, and “I don’t do message shows. I don’t give a shit who you learn your life from.”
Wait, what? The original question is why nonwhite characters aren’t represented, and you’re talking about “message shows”?
Every story has a message. Some stories are blatant and clumsy about it, but as the author of some rather silly stuff, I can tell you that even the the fluffiest, lighthearted tale has meaning. When someone like Sherman-Palladino chooses to limit diversity in her stories and justifies it with this kind of rationale, she’s damn well sending messages. Messages like:
- White people are normal. Nonwhite people require justification to exist.
- My target audience does not include people different from myself.
- My world is small and narrow.
Amy Sherman-Palladino has the right to create whatever kind of story she wants, and I don’t believe for a moment she intended to send those messages. Having watched a number of Gilmore Girls episodes, I think Sherman-Palladino has done some very praiseworthy things. I loved her characters, the dynamics and banter and conflict and love between them all.
None of which makes Rhimes’ question any less valid, or Sherman-Palladino’s answer any less weak.
I’m singling her out because the attitude and response here are so common. How many times have we seen authors and editors challenged for their lack of diversity, only to have them reply, “I refuse to bow to the bullies of the PC movement” or “I don’t believe every story has to be a Lesson about diversity” or “I have too much integrity to change my story just to meet your arbitrary quotas.”
I don’t care about quotas. I object to whitewashed stories because they’re dishonest. Because they perpetuate a long pattern of sidelining or erasing those who aren’t like me. Because our world is bigger than that.
June 20, 2012 @ 11:41 am
Sigh…there’s also the very simple aspect of the premise in Bunheads that Paradise is in California. I don’t care WHERE you are in California everyone is NOT white. Including well to do sleepy central coastal towns. Now I could be wrong…maybe they drove to some OTHER state’s coastal town from Las Vegas in one night, but if so I’d love to know how they did that. Also…pretty sure you can’t find a sleepy coastal town anywhere in America where everyone is white. It’s just…dumb. I get that it’s hard to find actors who can dance, there is truth to that. If it wasn’t true all those amazing Broadway dancer, actor, singers (like Sutton Foster) wouldn’t be so dang amazing. But they do exist and boy it would have opened up some story lines considering that even just from the pilot we get a sense that the Michelle character is all about bringing some knowledge of the outside world to this tiny little town and most importantly these sheltered girls.
June 20, 2012 @ 12:28 pm
great post, jim, thank you for this!
i think someone on charlie’s fb wall said
it very well, if you can’t get ballerinas
and main cast PoC, perhaps work hard on casting
supporting roles with that in mind. or special
guests during the week. or even just extras.
when i play Spot the Asian in any film or
television show, even an extra is a good thing.
it’s sort of sad how little i’m asking for.
(and how often i’m disappointed.)
i DO think that what she said about “message”
shows was a knee jerk reaction and an unfortunate
one. her “defense”. just because you feature PoC
in media or books doesn’t mean it has to be an
June 20, 2012 @ 2:49 pm
Ugh. I have a sad. I’d heard good things about Bunheads, and was thinking of giving it a try. I loved Gilmore Girls, so I am basically tripping over myself to give Sherman-Palladino the benefit of the doubt. If she’d even said “Pilots are hard, time constraints blah blah blah, but we’re working hard to include characters that more girls can identify with going forward,” she might still have it. But given this gross, dismissive response, I don’t really want to support her or her show anymore.
June 20, 2012 @ 4:17 pm
Like Cindy, I also play Spot the Asian when watching TV, and having just one hugely increases my desire to give the show a chance. By being inclusive Sherman-Palladino would get more people to root for the show.
I’m not sure I entirely buy the not being able to find non-whites who can both act and dance. I’ve seen them in the theater in southern California. Usually in the chorus, but still. They’re there.
Daniel D. Webb
June 20, 2012 @ 11:34 pm
The excuses people make for not including women, minorities and what-have-you in their works of fiction do verge on the pathetic, but I think in most cases the reason for such omissions isn’t malicious, or even conscious. Basically, the brain puts out whatever is put into it. Malcolm Gladwell has written well on the subject.
In my own experiences writing, I’ve found I have a tendency to create largely white characters…because I know largely white people. Caucasians dominate the media in North America, and human mental wiring makes that self-perpetuating, because as long as people see mostly white people, creators of fiction will tend to produce more of the same, often without realizing what they’re doing.
The problem, for me, comes in finding a way around the issue. You can always take the step of deliberately creating a more diverse cast of characters…but for me, at least, character creation is a deeply intuitive process over which I have less conscious control than in areas like plotting. When I try to force characters into a mold that doesn’t suit them…the resultant work seems stiff and stilted. It lacks the natural feeling that I associate with good writing.
I’m not trying to dismiss the problem, but to examine it, and in fact I’d love thoughts from other writers on ways around it. How do you work around the mind’s tendency to fall into narrow paths?
June 21, 2012 @ 11:14 am
Broaden your horizons.
Get to know more people of color. Read their blogs, buy their books. Follow them on twitter and other social media. Listen when they’re talking about their lived experiences, without getting defensive or trying to make the conversation about you. Here’s a few links to get you started (with apologies to our host if this kicks me into the moderation queue):
All of our minds have been colonized by a society that tells us that white people (and men, straight folks, cis folks, rich folks, educated folks, able-bodied folks) are inherently better than everyone else. Even if we’re trying our hardest not to be prejudiced, we’re poisoned with it from the cradle to the grave. If you want to keep that poison out of your writing, you’ve got to try to decolonize your mind.
Jim C. Hines
June 21, 2012 @ 11:18 am
“apologies to our host if this kicks me into the moderation queue”
It did. I kicked you back out again. No worries 🙂
Daniel D. Webb
June 21, 2012 @ 11:28 am
Wow, I was expecting discussion, not actually helpful resources. Thanks!
June 21, 2012 @ 6:10 pm
It’s an enormous problem on t.v. and has been for awhile now, though it’s not always the entire fault of the show runners. They may produce the shows but they don’t get to control casting as much as people seem to think. Shonda Rimes does have minorities on her two shows, but Gray’s Anatomy has an almost entirely white cast itself, including the regular extras, and that’s simply not very realistic for a city hospital. Private Practice also has a very token minority presence. So I have to wonder if Rimes was speaking a bit out of her own sense of frustration that she’s not allowed to have a more diverse cast. Nurse Jackie — inner city hospital, only a few non-white characters, etc., and many sitcoms and non-essemble dramas. So women are making way more inroads in television in the last five years or so, behind and in front of the camera, but getting networks or even cable to commit to true multi-racial casts, as opposed to the one black person or one Asian, is still seriously lagging, although there have been good signs here and there.
I have to wonder then if there isn’t a certain amount of confusion from women producers who, like Palladino, have fought to get women-centered shows on the air, or establish new parameters for them like the very uneven Girls, and find themselves being told that this is not sufficient and they have to have multi-racial casts or they’ve failed, while male producers aren’t being taken to task for the same issue (beyond general rumblings that there are too few non-white actors in t.v.) The Newsroom, for instance, has a large but mostly white cast, and I haven’t heard anyone busting Aaron Sorkin’s chops about it. When Palladino fought to get Gilmore Girls on the air back when, it had almost an entirely white cast and I don’t remember anyone in the media ever asking about it. That it’s becoming a litmus test, a challenge for new shows is great to get them to be able to think about making shows more realistic and push for that with their producing studios and networks. But if it becomes only the litmus test for female producers, then that’s missing the point and trying to undermine women in television as inferior creators. What a lot of t.v. producers face, from what they’ve said in interviews, is that they can often only get support to have non-white actors in major roles on series if that actor’s non-whiteness is viewed as a salable story point — a “message,” although I think that’s getting a bit better in t.v. at least. Palladino is not unfamiliar with this sort of thing from Gilmore Girls where she wrote good material with Lane and her mother as characters, but she’s definitely not going to attempt something like The Wire. So I have to wonder about how the question was posed to her or if she just reacted defensively off the racist pier to a more general question.
I also don’t get ABC Family in this. That channel is sort of a cross between a regular cable channel and a competitor with Disney, Nickelodeon and other kids channels, and those kids channels have done a good bit better at the diversity issue. Why wasn’t ABC Family pressuring Palladino to have some non-white dancers among the students? Why not give her more time to find them? Did they force her not to on the grounds that they didn’t want to get into having non-white characters? Or did she drop the ball and now they are unhappy?
Ultimately, I’m not going to watch Bunheads because the subject matter doesn’t interest me and it’s not something I can easily catch. And I’m very unhappy with Palladino’s response to the issue. But I do know that in the past she’s been fully capable of writing great non-white characters and of good work that has broken new ground in t.v. So I hope that this will be a learning experience for her, the show, ABC Family, etc. But I do also want to see this sort of question come up across the board to the whole show line-ups being offered, and not just serve as another method of framing women producers, writers and protagonists for shows as not good enough.
Jim C. Hines
June 22, 2012 @ 9:56 am
“I have to wonder then if there isn’t a certain amount of confusion from women producers who, like Palladino, have fought to get women-centered shows on the air, or establish new parameters for them like the very uneven Girls, and find themselves being told that this is not sufficient and they have to have multi-racial casts or they’ve failed, while male producers aren’t being taken to task for the same issue…”
I think this is an excellent point/question.
June 22, 2012 @ 5:13 pm
It’s just kind of disturbing. There’s yet another attack on “Girls” on the racial front at Salon.com. It’s the only show, other than some harrumphing about The Bachelorette, a “non-scripted” show, that I’ve seen being discussed this way except now for Bunheads. And it’s uneasily paired with a lot of venom that a 25-year-old woman got her own show on HBO. No one goes after Larry David for Curb Your Enthusiasm’s vast whiteness. No one screamed about how dare they replace Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men with another white guy for an all white cast. I haven’t heard anything about the new shows that have been announced for Fall on ethnicity of casts positive or negative, and the CW is doing, for instance, the Carrie Diaries, a prequel of Sex and the City. But then again, I don’t read the whole Internet, so it may be going on. I am all for the prodding on race, and I was sorry that Undercovers didn’t succeed, but I’m hoping that it’s not selective, this discussion, because there’s plenty of room to ding everyone on this front.
June 24, 2012 @ 11:02 am
I remember the first time I was in New York two years ago and walking up 5th Avenue. One of my thoughts was: “Oh, all these US-shows taking place in NY are wrong. They should have a lot (A LOT) more colored characters, because that’s what I’m seeing right here and right now. Why don’t they have more PoC to reflect the actual reality? They are painting a totally wrong picture of the US.”
Of course I know that tv-shows rarely depict reality as it is, but still. It is a slice of US-culture those of us outside the US get and it paints a very distorted picture which again leads to stereotypes and stereotypical writing.
I’m sometimes remiss in writing PoCs but I usually try to include people of different cultures (with different languages) because that’s something I’m very familiar with.
June 24, 2012 @ 8:03 pm
And yet there were 2 dancers of color and one supporting character of color in the second episode. Why ASP didn’t merely say, “Wait, there are characters of color in later episodes,” I’ll never know.
Messages, Editors, and Books (oh my) | N. E. White
June 25, 2012 @ 9:37 am
[…] past week, the lovely Mr. Jim Hines posted about messages in stories. His rant is aimed at a new TV show that I know nothing about, but I think the point he makes is […]