Interest groups need to rebottle old whine

Scanning minority activists’ recently issued “report cards” grading network TV’s diversity efforts, I couldn’t help thinking (A) how glad I am to be done with school; and (B) it’s time for these groups to adopt a more contextual and nuanced view — packaging their old whines, as it were, in a new bottle.

Just a few years ago, the same organizations surveyed the primetime landscape and noticed the major networks appeared caught in a snowstorm, displaying a sea of white faces. Their legitimate complaints yielded pledges from execs to do better.

For the most part they have, with programs such as “George Lopez,” “Bernie Mac” and “My Wife and Kids” all casting minorities in lead roles. ABC even ordered up a glossy miniseries about Native Americans, “Dreamkeeper,” only to punt the project into the barren wasteland between Christmas and New Year’s, in what amounts to a vote of no confidence.

Still, it’s misguided to distill the complex question of diversity into a dry recitation of raw data, as some seem inclined to do. Rather, critics must acknowledge the symbolic progress that’s been made, or risk turning into Charlie Brown’s parents.

Television, after all, functions as a symbol of society, not an accurate portrait. Any talk of inclusiveness needs to be filtered through that prism — an approach best explored through the experience of TV’s two most represented minorities, African Americans and gays.

In sheer numbers, one would think those factions have little about which to complain — especially if you include the WB, UPN and sundry cable networks, which interest groups tend to self-servingly omit. (A small disclosure here: My wife works at UPN, which deprived me of the opportunity to review “The Mullets.”)

Yet once you get beyond the numerical prevalence of African Americans and gays, the examination shifts to the quality of those images — and whether we have moved forward from negative stereotypes of pimps and perverts, respectively.

From that perspective, a heightened gay presence by itself hasn’t mollified the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, even if a show like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” presents its “fab five” almost as superheroes — rescuing hapless straights from their fashion flubs.

“It amplified visibility beyond the number of images,” says Joan Garry, GLAAD’s executive director, who expects “Queer Eye” will spawn “a rush of projects all about fabulous gay white men who are fashionistas.”

That TV will copy success is hardly a news flash, but Garry worries about where the cloning process will lead. “We look at things with more nuance than five or six years ago,” she says. In regard to “Queer Eye,” she adds, “It reinforces stereotypes that promote a certain picture of our community that isn’t entirely accurate…. We need to see more women, more people of color. While some of us are affluent and fabulous, many of us are not.”

It’s at this point where Garry’s argument starts to lose me. Because compared to any baseline of past portrayals, gays are far better off — so widely accepted in TV as to have become a common yuppie fashion accessory.

Entirely accurate? No, not any more than “Lou Grant” was a fully accurate depiction of life around a newspaper, or most hospitals see as much action as “ER.” But accepted beyond ingrained public prejudices? Undoubtedly.

By harping on shortcomings, activists overlook this larger picture and place the networks in a classic Catch-22 — in essence saying, “We want to see ourselves, but we want to see ourselves exactly as we want to be seen.”

No offense, but that probably translates into a 7 audience share, tops. Let’s put it this way: The drama faithfully depicting my life would send people fleeing to any available alternative, including the Weather Channel and Discovery Health. So let’s agree you’re as boring as everyone else. Now we’re going to need to tart things up a bit for primetime.

In her book “All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America,” sociology professor Suzanna Danuta Walters levels a somewhat different criticism, citing the limitation of gays to “two possible modes of representation: the exotic but ultimately unthreatening ‘other’ (the cuddly cross-dresser), or gays as really straights after all, the ‘aren’t we all just human beings’ position that reduces cultural specificity to a bland sameness that ends up assuming and asserting the desirability of the mainstream.”

True enough, but that quickly dismissed mainstream is where the bulk of viewers are — including the millions currently watching ABC’s bland “It’s All Relative,” which features a loving gay couple. By contrast, Showtime has the luxury of exploring gay life at greater depth in “Queer as Folk,” but like most forays into “cultural specificity,” it plays to a niche audience — TV’s equivalent of the arthouse crowd — and it has been a great success by the pay channel’s less exacting standards.

So while it’s right to keep these issues front and center, when it comes to lobbying big media companies, nothing gets their attention like money — and that means proffering methods of pocketing it, not toothless threats of boycotts.

That’s why director Warrington Hudlin, who co-founded the Black Filmmakers Foundation, counsels that group’s members not to bitch and moan, but rather to constructively engage Hollywood, convincing execs that hiring minority talent is simply smart business.

“It’s a matter of whining not being effective,” he says. “If you’re going to make a difference, that’s not the way to go…. The people who are making the decisions are operating in their own self-interest.”

Counting and grading was necessary in 2000, inasmuch as it offered a means of shaming the entertainment biz into taking action. By now, however, we’ve graduated to a new stage — one where the context of minority representation will be key, even if numerical gauges fluctuate and in some instances (say, Asian Americans) remain woefully low.

Having recognized that a Bernie Mac or George Lopez can indeed attract a broad cross-section of viewers, networks have every incentive to find the next talent who can do the same. As for shaming them, really, if “Fear Factor” and “Extreme Makeover” haven’t done it, why assume a few low grades from the NAACP will?

Doing the right thing is always admirable, and most execs would probably like to. Yet when Job 1 is trying to save your own job, doing well is, as Hudlin suggests, the more compelling sales pitch — and the daily grades issued by Nielsen, ultimately, will be the ones that programmers take to heart.

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