Last night, Deadline’s TV editor Nellie Andreeva trolled hard with an article questioning whether or not diversity on TV has gone too far. Unsurprisingly, her controversial arguments — backed repeatedly by the problematic phrase “ethnic casting” — drew an almost immediate backlash on Twitter from writers, viewers, industry-watchers, and even showrunners like Shonda Rhimes. Given some of its head-scratching, tone-deaf, and indefensibly racist undertones, “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings – About Time or Too Much of Good Thing?” warrants an in-depth look into what, exactly, makes her words so troublesome.
1. “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings – About Time or Too Much of Good Thing?”
Let’s start with the headline. Just when Shonda Rhimes thought it couldn’t get any worse than the word diversity, Andreeva takes us back to the 19th century, when racists still referred to nonwhites as “ethnics” — and got away with it. FYI, for those unfamiliar with the term’s etymology, we are all “ethnic.” The very word, by Merriam-Webster’s definition, means “of or relating to races or large groups of people who have the same customs, religion, origin, etc.” That’s right! White people are “ethnic,” too. And using the term to suggest anything otherwise — in this case, that it denotes only people of color — is a dangerous, slippery slope. Also, “casting term” — as she defends her use of the word in the article’s first sentence — or not, it’s irresponsible to repeat it.
2. “But, as is the case with any sea change, the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction. Instead of opening the field for actors of any race to compete for any role in a color-blind manner, there has been a significant number of parts designated as ethnic this year, making them off-limits for Caucasian actors, some agents signal.”
But whatever will white actors do with all the “ethnic” actors stealing their parts on TV? Oh, that’s right, still enjoy the other 70 to 80 percent of network-TV parts. But someone, please, check on all the white actors and make sure they’re okay!
3. “However, because of a mandate from the studio and network, one of the roles had to diverse [sic], so the pilot could only cast one of the top choices and pass on the other to fulfill the ethnic quota.”
If you are truly of the mind that Hollywood now has some sort of “ethnic quota” to fill, given minorities still only make up about 5 percent of lead roles on TV shows, then I have a magic carpet ride to sell you.
4. “Because of the sudden flood of roles for ethnic actors after years of suppressed opportunities for them, the talent pool of experienced minority performers — especially in the younger range — is pretty limited.”
This is a thinly veiled way of saying that nonwhite Hollywood isn’t as talented as white Hollywood by comparison. And no one, especially actors like Keke Palmer, Hudson Yang, and Rico Rodriguez (i.e., members of the “younger range” of “experienced minority performers” that sentence seems to slight the most), should have to stand for such an absurd and racist assumption.
5. “Star names were in demand as usual, as were hot young guys and girls and occasional foreigners with that ‘sparkle.’”
Remember that slippery slope to a racial slur I mentioned earlier? “Occasional foreigners with that ‘sparkle’” officially slides all the way off. There is absolutely no excuse for this kind of offensive language.
6. “Some of it has been organic. Last year, the leads in Extant and How To Get Away With Murder, originally not written as black, became ethnic once stars of the caliber of Halle Berry and Viola Davis became interested.”
There are many factually questionable assertions in this piece, but this is one I can confirm by my own original reporting as untrue. The implication here is that Viola Davis’s character, Annalise Keating, was originally written as white and then, by kismet, cast as black. But when I spoke to Channing Dungey, an executive vice-president at ABC, earlier this year for a story on the Empire effect that appeared on Slate, she told me that HTGAWM’s creator, Peter Nowalk, “did not at all specify [Annalise’s] ethnicity” when he pitched the show.
7. “ABC and 20th TV cast Patten, who is black, knowing already that the male lead had been conceived as Hispanic.”
Well, if we’re going to go around ID’ing people’s races for the hell of it, let’s at least get it right. Patton — not Patten — is biracial. (As is the previously mentioned as “black” Halle Berry.)
8. “There also have been a number of drama co-leads on which the networks chose to go ethnic this year.”
I’m willing to guess Andreeva would never write the phrase “on which the networks chose to go white this year” — a choice Hollywood does, in fact, regularly and very intentionally make — so there’s no sense in pretending like it’s the other way around. It is not a choice to cast nonwhite actors in lead roles; it is a mathematical demand for accurate representation of an increasingly nonwhite American society in the entertainment we consume. Treat it as such.
9. “Uncle Buck and Love Is A Four Letter Word are among several projects where the original white protagonists have been changed to black this season.”
But let’s not harp on the hundreds (probably closer to thousands) of times Hollywood has taken roles based on nonwhite real-life people — not just fictional characters — and whitewashed their entire stories down to the actors who play them, right? (Or even worse, misrepresented someone’s race entirely by casting, for example, an Indian actor in a Pakistani role, or a Puerto Rican actress in a Mexican-American role.)
10. “The TV and film superhero ranks have been overly white for too long, workplace shows should be diverse to reflect workplace in real America, and ethnic actors should get a chance to play more than the proverbial best friend or boss.”
I was with this sentence until it got to the “best friend or boss” bit. How about we have more nonwhite actors in positions of power on television? Didn’t realize that that, of all things, was a stereotype Hollywood should be avoiding when writing nonwhite roles.
11. “But replacing one set of rigid rules with another by imposing a quota of ethnic talent on each show might not be the answer.”
Again, we have this fantasy “ethnic quota.” Don’t worry, Hollywood is not about to see some overhaul by affirmative action anytime soon.
12. “While they are among the most voracious and loyal TV viewers, African-Americans still represent only 13% of the U.S. population. They were grossly underserved, but now, with shows as Empire, Black-ish, Scandal and HTGAWM on broadcast, Tyler Perry’s fare on OWN and Mara Brock Akil’s series on BET, they have scripted choices, so the growth in that fraction of the TV audience might have reached its peak.”
Oh, well, thanks for the bone. Now that blacks have, like, six shows with a cast who looks like them, no need to worry about overrepresenting us, I guess.
13. “Since broadcast TV is a historically reactive business, that will determine whether the trend of ethnic casting will come back with a vengeance next season.”
Kim Kardashian’s platinum-blonde hair is trendy. “Rich-girl” hair is trendy. Kylie Jenner’s lip liner is trendy. Race is not trendy. Let me repeat: Race is not trendy. Positing color-blind casting or the uptick in nonwhite roles on TV as a “trend”only further insults one’s racial identity as a disposable part of who they are. Many, as Flavorwire’s Pilot Viruet did this month, have pointed out and explored the cyclical nature of TV’s relationship with nonwhite programming. It comes as fast as it goes, but that in no way indicates a trend. Black, Latino, Asian, Indian, Native American, etc. skin will never go out of style, and it’s certainly not something to ooh and aah at when every once in a blue moon a hit show with a mostly black cast like Empire comes along. I don’t doubt that Nellie Andreeva was simply trying to gauge the industry’s tepid attitude toward this supposed new wave of multicultural TV. But her reporting (and side commentary) reads as little more than toned-down propaganda from rich white male network executives scared of adding a little too much color to their prime-time blocks.