Two’s a crowd

At least, when you’re talking about people of colour in a lot of popular TV series, it is.

This is what I have noticed over the past couple of years while bonding with AM on the couch watching many, many TV series on DVD. There will often be just one major Black or Asian character in the core group of characters, but rarely more than that.

Spooks, That 70’s Show, Big Bang Theory, Hustle, Torchwood, Angel, NCIS, Burn Notice, Sanctuary, Jericho – the list goes on.

In Spooks, which spanned nine seasons & quite a few cast changes, it was particularly obvious. There was only ever one non-white character in the MI5 team. It was kind of bizarre, as though the director was thinking “Oops, better replace the token Black!”, each time one left the series. But it also looked like the director was also trying to phase them out – as each one died a horrible death, he’d be replaced by one that was slightly less central to the action. The Black/Asian characters became more and more peripheral to the plot as the series went on. There was more equal opportunity for the bad guys, who came in a vast variety of skin tones. No surprises there I guess.

I just find it astonishing  – and depressing – that in the 21st century, tokenism still reigns supreme on television. What it says to me is that studio bosses are allowing racism to rule, whether deliberately or not. Either they don’t want non-whites on their shows because of their own racism, or they are afraid of what it will do to the ratings. Apparently the Australian soap Neighbours drew flack from viewers recently for introducing an Indian family into the regular cast. Channel 10 had to remove “angry” comments from their website when this was announced. Makes me embarassed to be Australian. But at least Channel 10 was moving with the times and recognising that not all Australian neighbours are white.

Maybe it is just a matter of time. The Slap, which recently aired to much acclaim, had a multicultural cast that resembled a bit more closely the neighbourhoods and networks in which people increasingly live, in multicultural Australia. (It even had an intercultural marriage and mixed kids!) Perhaps this is because it was based on a novel by a Greek Australian author, Christos Tsiolkas, who didn’t have the anglo blinkers obscuring his view. So let’s hope that as our multicultural society produces more actors, artists and authors from diverse backgrounds, things will change.

I’m not saying it will be easy. It’s not just tokenism that’s the problem, there’s also the phenomena of race-bending, a term I recently discovered thanks to a bunch of fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender “who were appalled by the casting discrimination that occurred during the production of the The Last Airbender film adaptation.” I haven’t seen this film but apparently characters which in the comic series were ‘dark-skinned’, metamorphosed into white people for the film. As a constructive outlet for their anger and disgust, the fans set up an organisation dedicated to campaigning against this kind of misrepresentation.

It’s an important issue to campaign on. With so few parts for non-white people to start with, to deliberately recast Black or Asian characters as white is outrageous. For example, Racebending campaigned for Asian Americans to be cast in a film based on the Japanese science fiction novel All You Need is Kill. However Tom Cruise was cast in the lead. An opportunity missed.

Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, Hollywood seems to feel the need to remake everything in its own image (e.g. Life on Mars, Being Human). Do they really think Americans are so self-centred they won’t watch anything that’s not white-Americanised? I suppose with the billions invested in the industry it’s too big a risk to take. Which neatly shows that the long-standing linkage between racism and economics is still strong.

It was greed and financial gain that set Europeans colonising the rest of the world and enslaving Africans hundreds of years ago. The same motivations are still at play in the entertainment industry, which now commands such a powerful influence in shaping our perceptions and values. It’s crucial to challenge this racist and industrial attitude to the cinematic arts, and insist on film and television that’s more truly representative of the wonderful diversity of humanity.


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