NOTE: Sorry I’ve been so incommunicado, folks. My new job is kicking my ass, and stealing all my free time!
Thanks to a mention on We Love Soaps, I found an article about soaps and diversity that ran last March in The Atlantic.
The author, Aaron Foley, is an African-American writer who’s also written extensively about Detroit, including his new book, How To Live In Detroit Without Being a Jackass.
The whole topic of diversity, and the ways we tell stories, the images IN those stories, is something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while.
There’s been some other think pieces, blog mentions and Tweets by TV critics like Emily Nussbaum, Linda Holmes and Maureen Ryan, all thoughtfully examining diversity.
(Great thoughts from the above critics, though we’ve also had tone-deaf, truly bizarre columns on TV diversity from Alessandra Stanley and Nellie Andreeva.)
Daytime is such a bizarroland when it comes to diversity. As Foley’s piece explains, a lot of shows had promising characters and really wove those stories into the fabric of the show. That’s the great strength of soaps, in any case: the ability to slowly tell a story, slowly introduce a character and examine their life in miniature.
But the heyday for many black characters — ones who were truly front burner and not just the Problem Of The Week kind of story — was in the 80s and early 90s.
We had Angie and Jesse at All My Children, Jessica Griffin at As The World Turns, Hamp and Gilly at Guiding Light, and Quinn at Another World, to name a few.
It wasn’t perfection at that time, to be sure. A production staff of mostly white producers, white writers and white network suits didn’t always know how to sketch out these characters. If they did succeed, they were often defined by their jobs, as Quinn and Gilly often were.
Sometimes, a cultural signpost might give writers an idea for a story. When the late Natalie Cole released the tribute album to her father’s body of music, GL suddenly decided that Gilly, who had previously been depicted solely as a capable TV producer, was a songstress singing Cole-style music.
She may have been a businesswoman by day, chanteuse by night, but when it came to romance, Gilly (and actress Amelia Marshall) still couldn’t have a romance with a character she had combustible chemistry with: Alan-Michael Spaulding (played by the very excellent, and very white, Rick Hearst).
The roots were there, but as we know, the daytime storyscape started changing in the mid-to-late 90s, and as the money started drying up, so did many other things. Diversity. Risky storylines. Anything that was new, or different.
And the portrayal of characters of color have been hit-or-miss since then.
Yes, I’ve expressed concerns about the transgender story’s structure and execution, but Karla Mosley’s turn as Maya on B&B has been an utter revelation, in all its twists and turns, and should net Mosley a Lead Actress win at this year’s Emmys, if any justice exists.
(Edited 1/31/2016 to add: Nope. no justice; Mosley wasn’t even included in the pre-noms. WTF, people?)
But the remaining characters of color on our shows? Well, Foley’s article says it best. There isn’t much to speak of at this point.
And not to minimize that very fine analysis, but when we’re talking about daytime, the lack of diversity goes beyond characters of color.
Daytime regressed from its wonderfully pro-feminist stances in the 1980s and 90s – stories that recognized every kind of woman – to weird baby-rabies stories. The idea that in the 21st century, so many female characters would be defined by a man and a baby is just inconceivable.
Even worse is the atmosphere where female characters almost always fall for the antihero-slash-psychopath (hello, Luke and Sonny) or the rapist, or the bad guy, and it’s presented as a “supercouple” fighting all the odds.
Sure, people make mistakes; sure, a human, flawed man is more interesting than Mr. Perfect. But many shows raise up moral cesspools as the star attraction. The idea that Sonny Corinthos is back at GH’s center is confounding to me.
The very idea that the fabulous Cady McClain, one of the smartest, most talented daytimers ever, was forced to play a story on Y&R that amounted to a reboot of the Glenn-Close-in-a-bathtub scene from Fatal Attraction is truly mindblowing (and a waste of her considerable talents).
For all the recent firsts on LGBT stories, we still have not had an adult, multilayered, complicated LGBT character (perhaps the aforementioned Maya is close to being the exception).
DAYS’ Will and Sonny may have been a fan favorite, but that story was a safe one, still playing the same steps of young men coming out to their families, as did ATWT’s Luke and Noah/Reid before them, and without that challenge as a story catalyst, the plot fell apart (and ended controversially with Will’s murder – another post topic for another day).
More to the point of what several of the critics listed above mentioned is this: Regardless of the lens you’ve viewing the show through, we really don’t see much diversity on screen at ANY perspective.
I may be showing an age bias here, but I can’t tell any of the CW shows apart. All the characters look alike, act alike, speak in the same way. There’s a serious sameness.
And though I love Scandal, and have great respect for everything Shonda Rhimes has done and the many excellent stories she tells, even her shows have a sameness to them. The characters talk alike, and see life with many of the same sensibilities.
And it’s not up to Rhimes, or any one creator, to carry the burden for all shows. But there are many things we simply don’t see on scripted TV: poverty, rural settings, depictions of faith, and blue collar life, to name but a few ideas.
We only see many of the things I just listed on reality TV, as points of derision, with the participants made into jokes (Honey Boo Boo and family) or caught in a bizarre cultural crossfire (Duck Dynasty).
I suspect the answer for that is the corporate structure of all our media platforms, and thus primarily economic – which contains obvious pieces of racism, sexism and homophobia, but also goes much deeper.
Network TV is in a freefall, and rather than widen their offerings to attract a wider audience, many programmers have gone with only the tried-and-true.
We have gruesome procedurals for the older crowd, the law-and-order crowd, the Mean World There-Is-Something-Under-Your-Kitchen-Sink-That-Will-Kill-You crowd.
And we have supernatural demons, zombies, and Pretty Young Things for the 18-to-34 crowd, fighting life and death — with perfect hair and skin tone, of course.
We almost never see anything we haven’t seen before. We almost never see anything (Downton Abbey being one of a few exceptions) from other English-speaking countries – nothing that doesn’t reinforce our own worldview constantly.
Related rant: I think it is BIZARRE IN THE EXTREME that we have another English-speaking country right above us, and yet we almost NEVER see Canadian programs, and seldom collaborate on the production of a show.
Just as, to me, it’s beyond bizarre that we have BBC America as a channel offered to many US markets/platforms, and yet for big chunks of time their main show is and was….Star Trek: The Next Generation? Huh?
You’d think that the runaway success of Empire would have encouraged more risk-taking, but it’s only encouraged a number of Empire copies.
Since daytime is literally on its ninth life — we are waiting to hear the fate of Days of our Lives as I write this — it’s disappointing but unsurprising that most of the diversity in ANY form has been gutted from the remaining shows.
Let’s not even pretend that GH and DAYS didn’t slash airtime for all their gay characters in response to ratings panic. DAYS‘ Will is dead, Sonny is offscreen and Paul is dying on the vine. On GH, Brad and Lucas are MIA.
And it might be too late for daytime. These 1966 plots in a 2016 bag aren’t going to cure the collective anemia that’s endemic in most daytime shows.
That’s why I’m so excited about shows like Transparent, which sees its world through a particular, uncompromising view, and why streaming might be the best hope for well-rounded, diverse storytelling.
We still want to tell each other stories, but it can’t always be the same story, the same myth about the same people. There are more stories to be told, and more listeners who want to hear.