Friday, April 3, 2015

Too Much Diversity?

It has been a fantastic year for supporters of more racial diversity on television.  Shonda Rimes successfully launched "How to Get Away With Murder," new sitcoms "Black-ish" and "Fresh Off the Boat" have been doing well, and "Jane the Virgin" got a lot of love.  And then "Empire" happened.  Now every casting director is adding more actors of color to the new crop of pilots for next season. And, perhaps inevitably, this has lead to some awkwardness from people in the industry and the media, backlash over perceived or actual quotas, and other signs of discomfort over the shifting status quo.  And this is a shift in status quo, not simply a trend.  

That brings us to the unfortunate Deadline article that has been making the rounds, originally titled Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings—About Time or Too Much of A Good Thing?  (They've since removed the second half of that title).  Deadline has been roundly scolded for the tone of the article, and for suggesting that with regards to diverse casting, "the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction.”  Is it legitimate to worry about the studios' copycat tendencies leading to a slew of inferior "Empire" knockoffs?  Sure.  Is it okay to point out that executives are way too fixated on the predominantly African-American cast being one of the reasons for the show's success?  Of course.  Is it acceptable to suggest that the rush to cast more non-white actors is therefore a mistake?  Oh, hell no.

It's likely that the high demand for "ethnic" actors is probably going to taper off at some point, but that doesn't mean that it should, or that it's how things are supposed to be.  The underrepresentation of anybody who isn't white on television has been a problem that Hollywood has very good about ignoring for years.  Now they finally have some big incentives to address the issue, and it's disheartening to find that the immediate reaction from some corners is resistance and defensiveness.  And it's so damn disingenuous.  The complaints about the best actor not being hired for the job just because of their race, are as old as the hills.  Why are we only supposed to care now that the hypothetical slighted actor is white?

Acting has always been a job where optics are part of the job description, so the fight has been about changing roles and changing artistic and business sensibilities so that casting more diverse actors is seen as a plus.  We are finally, finally  at that point where the industry is investing serious resources into creating content around non-white talent, or at least talent that is no longer race-specific.  And that means promoting and developing non-white talent has become a priority.  And all the support systems around them too.  Hollywood is seeing some long overdue change for the better.  Right now this is only on the television side of the business - films are still depressingly behind the times - but hopefully the shift in attitudes will spread.

But getting around to the title of this post, should we be worried that there will be so much emphasis on casting non-white actors going forward that white talent will end up being neglected?  Is it possible to have "too much of a good thing" when it comes to diversity?  Again, acting is one of the few professions where race can actually be a qualification for a job.  According to the Deadline article there are quotas being enforced on some shows to ensure diverse casting - which could be entirely appropriate depending on the show.  Theoretically we could end up with an industry where white actors end up in the minority.

I think that is extremely unlikely to happen.  What's driving the current pro-diversity trend, after all, is audience demand.  If television audiences hadn't made "Scandal," "Empire" and "Fresh Off the Boat" into hits we wouldn't be seeing the rush for shows with more non-white cast members now.  Audiences clearly aren't going to get tired of watching shows about white characters even though they're no longer the default protagonist on television, so white actors shouldn't be concerned. 

Ultimately, "too diverse?" is a question that is entirely up to the viewers at home.  And right now, they have yet to show any indication that they're unhappy with seeing more black, Latino, Asian, Native American, Middle-Eastern, and other minority faces.  So you can hardly blame Hollywood for giving people what they want.

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