Diversity Follies

Here's what I saw on TV last week:

Good-looking, doe-eyed white youngster to his good-looking, doe-eyed sister: "It's not like I'm still in the closet. Dad already knows I'm gay." Click. Black guy in suit to white guy in suit: "This is important. I want to show the gay community that I stand out here at city hall." Click. Blue-shirted white man in restaurant, to Brad Pitt look-alike across the table: "Did you see that guy flirting with me?" Friend: "Why don't you ask him out? What, gay guys don't date?" Click. Male mayor, fondling Washington Monument paperweight, to female aide: "Is there anything about me that seems gay?" Laughter. Click. High school football player in full makeup under his helmet, surrounded by other football players in full makeup under their helmets, to player on the opposing team: "Try to find the homo now!" Click.

It's certainly not hard to find the homo, which is a great relief if you've previously been mostly invisible at the center of American culture, but somehow I'm not ready to celebrate. After all, not long ago The Cosby Show seemed to put the nail in the coffin of all-white TV, and hour-long dramas like ER and NYPD Blue are as racially integrated as can be, yet this season, as Kweisi Mfume of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pointed out to high publicity, the major networks planned their entire lineup of new shows without a single major character of color. In the spotlight, the networks briefly scrambled to add black and Latino characters to their shows. Sabrina the teenage witch is mentoring an Afro-Caribbean teenage witch, with a Latina teenage witch waiting in the wings. But by now, the networks' conciliatory press releases are back in the filing cabinets, and it's business as usual. It can't hurt to be more visible, for sure, but on television, you can be made to disappear just as abruptly.

For decades, advocates for marginalized groups have rightly pointed out that they are underrepresented on network television. The NAACP argues that since African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, "our presence should be appropriately reflected during prime time and on all levels." The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) points out that "the gay community encompasses less than 2 percent of total portrayals." Ed Morales suggests in The Nation that "although Latinos make up 11 percent of the country's population, they are represented by only 2 characters on network programs." You hear the same thing from Asian-American activists, organizations for the disabled, and Native-American groups. In a democratic culture, it seems fair to expect the mass media to reflect society's demographics.

The head count strategy can be misleading, though, if not downright counterproductive. It does nothing to eliminate stereotypes from television; in fact, stereotyped roles are often the only available means, initially, of upping your numbers. And the numbers game encourages dangerous oversimplification of social categories and competition among minorities. "The number of gay characters on the networks' schedules," media reports repeated, "is equal to the number of black, Latino, and Asian characters combined." In that framework, you only play for one team, and the teams are pitted against one another. And percentages don't tell you a whole lot about how the television territory is really divided up racially and ethnically. When you look at television as a whole, the picture is not actually one of a decrease in the number of characters of color. Instead, the trend has been toward greater overall visibility for African Americans, continued absence of Asian and Native Americans, and a push of black and Latino audiences away from television's power center. All-white Friends worlds on the major networks co-exist with all-black Steve Harvey worlds on less powerful networks and on cable.

Whether the concern is sheer numbers of representations or their stereotyped content (kung-fu Asian, Hispanic maid), the problem is often framed in moral terms. Timed right, public finger-wagging such as the NAACP's can make a splash and lead to short-term changes. But "the moral argument just doesn't hold water in Hollywood," says GLAAD's Entertainment Media Director Scott Seomin only half-jokingly, "because there are very few people with morals here."

Perhaps, then, what's needed is not so much a forced commitment to democratic norms as a change of personnel. The industry is overwhelmingly white. African-American producer/director Paris Barclay—who with white producer Steven Bochco is launching City of Angels, a hospital drama with a nearly all-minority cast—argued in The Chicago Sun-Times that "most of the people who develop and oversee network TV shows are white males who live in Malibu, Brentwood or Bel Air. They don't know a lot of black people." Thus, the NAACP and others propose, the solution is to get more personnel of color behind the scenes. "You can have this kind of invisibility on a network schedule," says Lisa Navarrete, spokesperson for the National Council of La Raza, "because minorities are not in positions where decisions are being made."

Yet having your own folks inside television is neither a guarantee of cultural change nor a requirement for diverse imagery. Writers routinely write outside their experience; gays and Jews have been prominent in Hollywood for quite some time, but the corresponding on-screen imagery has been sparse and pitiful. "If the argument that you have to be one to represent one were right," says Georgetown University sociologist Suzanna Walters, author of the forthcoming book Beyond Out: Framing Gay Visibility in America, "TV would be one big Jewish-gay-land." It is not, and, I'll go out on a limb to predict, it will never be. There are excellent reasons for diversifying the entertainment industry—basic justice and equity, for instance—but a correlation between industry personnel and broadcast imagery is not one of them.

A truly diverse industry would, though, increase the chance that, in the endless meetings and phone-callings that characterize Hollywood, someone might actually notice absences and stereotypes, or notice and care, or notice, care, and be able to do something about them. The further inside the industry you are, moreover, the easier it is to pitch your images to the right people. GLAAD's Seomin, for instance, was a publicist at Paramount Television for seven years and knows what, who, and how to pitch. "The argument that really gets me places," he says, "is, 'Don't you want to make more diverse, interesting characters that aren't like other people?'" When the WB network was developing Mission Hill, an animated sitcom about a group of people living in the same building, Seomin met with producers. "They wanted to know what hadn't been done, gay- and lesbian-wise. I said, 'Well, we've never seen an elderly gay or lesbian couple.' Now the show includes Wally and Gus, a couple for 40 years who are in their 60s." The pitch wasn't that sexual diversity is right and good, but that an elderly gay couple, since no one's seen it before, can give you an edge in a rough market. In the first episode, when the elevator doors open, Wally and Gus are making out.

Of course, once the novelty wears off, even old gay cartoon characters outlive their usefulness to producers and are as likely to disappear as to become permanent fixtures. The winds of TV decision making are notoriously mercurial, and the best you can do as an insider media advocate is ride them.

When Seomin met with ABC's advertising people, he brought along Wall Street Journal articles about gay spending habits, which, he says, "made us look like we're all billionaires." Let them believe the myth of gay disposable income, Seomin thought. Guy Aoki, founding president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), says similarly that he doesn't mind "using the model-minority myth, the idea that we supposedly do pretty well for ourselves, to my advantage." The "moral obligation" argument typically rests on a claim about some group's buying power. La Raza's Navarrete, for instance, contends that "our strength and our success will depend on getting the networks to understand that, at a time when they're hemorrhaging audiences, targeting these fast-growing communities makes not only moral sense for them to do, but financial sense as well."

However, appealing to "financial sense" can just as easily cut in the other direction. The African-American TV-land story is the flip side of the gay and lesbian one: Networks are unconvinced that abandoning black markets to UPN, WB, BET, and the like is costly. As Steve Harvey, whose WB show consistently ranks first among black viewers and in the mid-hundreds among white ones, put it simply to The New York Times, "[The networks] know they can make money without black faces on television."

Even when it does work, playing the TV market—sell our images back to us! commodify us, please!—provides highly compromised satisfactions. It's no great surprise, for example, that, as GLAAD itself has often pointed out, the new gay characters on television are almost exclusively affluent, male, urban, and white: the image of the desired demographic reflected back to itself. It's no great surprise, either, that when a coalition of African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and Native-American groups formed to address television's diversity difficulties, they did not see sexual diversity as part of the picture. Depressing, for sure, but—given the assimilation of white gay men inside television's center while straight people of color are being pushed in exactly the other direction, and given that this assimilation succeeds partly through the marketing of gay whiteness—not surprising.

Pushing back is a necessary response to the ridiculous mismatch between who lives in this country and how, and who is visible on television and how. Still, there is something holy-grailish about the pursuit of television diversity. In part, that is simply because, as University of Pennsylvania scholar and GLAAD activist Larry Gross suggests, "changes in minority representations, like most showbiz decisions, are influenced by imitation and panic and superstition" rather than proceeding according to some coherent plan; in sync or out of sync, there's only so much you can actually do in such a capricious environment.

Even more disturbing is that the pushing itself often just replaces one pile of rocks with another set of hard places. Minority groups emphasize the importance of seeing themselves reflected on television, and yet the assumption that audiences watch to see themselves—that the way to reach mainstream audiences is with mainstream characters—is exactly why network TV diversity is so limited. It's also why getting into the TV mainstream is so often an empty victory. You are almost always communityless, the addon black character in an allwhite world, the funny gay man in an allstraight world.

Becoming visible, even on such lousy terms, is an important step. But you have to be careful not to get carried away with the excitement generated by seeing your very own recurring character in a TV series and knowing that everybody is watching. It is far too easy to see television visibility as a political endpoint rather than as a deeply flawed political opportunity. While Calista Flockhart kisses Lucy Liu on Ally McBeal—a diversity twofer, that interracial lesbian kiss!—antigay ballot initiatives proliferate, and racially discriminatory public policies continue. TV visibility may be a necessity and a pleasure, but it guarantees nothing more than itself.