I was literally taken aback when I got on Twitter last night to find this parasitical article by Deadline’s Nellie Andreeva, with the lacking-tact title “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings-About Time or Too Much of a Good Thing?” (linked using donotlink so it won’t get the clicks).
I would love to be able to brush this article off as just clickbait. I brush Madonna off all the time for that very reason. (Why else would she bring up the exact same problematic statements Patricia Arquette said in her latest interview? She just wants to be seen, and I’m not going to play her annoying “I want attention!” game.) But Andreeva, who is listed as a veteran in the entertainment reporting game, should have some kind of idea about how troubling a post like this could be in Hollywood, a town whose primary business practice is to block minorities out of major roles.
However, lacking proper judgement, Andreeva went on to write this piece, which includes this fantastic piece of “woe to the marginalized white actor” sentimentality:
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 agent signal. Many pilot characters this year were listed as open to all ethnicities, but when reps would call to inquire about an actor submission, they frequently have been told that only non-Caucasian actors would be considered. “Basically 50% of the roles in a pilot have to be ethnic, and the mandate goes all the way down to guest parts,” one talent representative said.
What’s really strange is that Andreeva suggests the idea that a lot of the casting is inorganic, as if to say that casting minority actors for roles of non-specific ethnicity is somehow wrong or doesn’t make sense. Basically, she’s saying that non-specific roles should automatically be given to white actors because obviously, why shouldn’t they get them? They’ve gotten them in the past, right? To Andreeva, “ethnic casting” is only organic when a minority is cast in a role that has non-specific ethnicity (i.e. everyone, including the more-apt-to-be-picked white actor, has a chance). Otherwise, to use her logic, the non-white actor hasn’t really earned the role. Somehow, they aren’t as qualified for the role. None of this makes sense.
Andreeva tries to iterate and reiterate that she’s for diverse casting by writing:
A lot of what is happening right is long overdue. The TV and film superhero ranks have been overly white for too long, workplace shows should be more diverse to reflect workplace in real America, and ethnic actors should get a chance to play more than the proverbial best friend or boss.
But she slashes all of that by writing in the very next line:
But replacing one set of rigid rules with another by imposing a quota of ethnic talent on each show might not be the answer.
She then throws in a very muddied point that seems to suggest that banking on an all-minority cast might not work as a money-making venture all the time by contrasting the success of The Cosby Show (and, strangely enough, Seinfeld) with 2010’s failed spy show Undercovers starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe.
Television has been successful with shows that had both all-white (Friends, Seinfeld) and all-black (The Cosby Show) casts on the strength of their premise, execution and talent performances and chemistry. It is for the same reason that Scandal, HTGAWM and Empire have done so well with Kerry Washington, [Viola] Davis and Taraji P. Henson as the respective leads.
Trying to duplicate those series’ success by mirroring the ethnicity of their leads is a dubious proposition-if that was the key, 2010’s Undercovers…should’ve been a hit.”
Okay. As you can (hopefully) tell, there are a lot of horrible assumptions in this article and I’ll go point by point.
• “Ethnic” does NOT mean the same as “minority” and it definitely doesn’t mean the same as the American definition of “white.” When I and a lot of people use the term “minority,” it’s in relation to the actual populations that exist in America. For most of American history, non-white people have been in the minority, thus the use of the term. However, we’re about to not be the minority in a few years, so I expect more posts like Andreeva’s to be written by people in the political, social, and economic spheres.
“Ethnic,” on the other hand, applies to everyone. We all have ethnicities. I took a quick look on the internet and saw that the last name “Andreeva” stems from Russia and Bulgaria. Looks to me Andreeva has ethnicity, right. If anything, she should be including herself in her own article. fair or light skin doesn’t mean that you don’t have ethnicity, and the idea that only darker-skinned people have ethnicity is erroneous at the very best and stupid at its very worst.
However, Andreeva, who, as I’ve stated above, is a part of the “ethnic” community she’s distancing herself from, is probably considered by many as “white.” In America, “white” means “Anyone who has fair to olive skin, has straight hair, and appeals to Eurocentric standards of beauty.” You can be Bulgarian or Russian and still be considered “white” in America. Even Rita Hayworth, who was actually Latina, was considered “white” because she could pass. Many people, including people from all racial backgrounds, have passed as white. When you’re white, you get the privileges a human gets. When you’re non-white, you get treated less than. Being “white” is a luxury.
• Why is it so difficult to understand that studios specifically asking for 50% minorities in their casts is a good thing? Andreeva seems to think that the mandate for half (or more than half) of TV casts to feature minorities is a detriment to the hardworking white actors out there who are looking for roles. Earth to Andreeva, but white actors have been getting tons of roles for decades.
Some white actors have to face being turned around at the door for their race? Well, boo hoo. I’m not going to cry about it. It’s what’s been happening to non-white actors the whole time Hollywood’s been in existence! Historically, white actors have had the luxury to cash in on roles simply because of their whiteness. Meanwhile, non-white actors have to “prove” that they’re right for the role, including roles that aren’t ethnicity-specific. It’s like Andreeva has a problem with stuff finally getting fairer in Hollywood.
• Andreeva makes a big to-do about how Undercovers didn’t mirror the success of The Cosby Show or Empire, but doesn’t make a big stink about the other all-white shows that didn’t live up to Friends or Cheers. Basically, she’s saying Undercovers failed because minorities aren’t always bankable, in her assumption. But with her omission of providing a counterpoint to her Friends/Seinfeld thread, she’s alluding to the idea that white actors always are bankable, that all-white shows that do fail are failing for a different reason. Race has nothing to do with Friends and Seinfeld because they’re just naturally great shows. However, Undercovers failed because of race.
Manhattan Love Story is a show that was quickly cancelled and had an all-white cast. What is Andreeva’s argument for that? If we go by what she wrote about Undercovers, Manhattan Love Story‘s not a hit because it “[tried] to duplicate those series’ success by mirroring the ethnicity of their leads.” The argument doesn’t make sense.
I watched Undercovers and I’ll tell you why it wasn’t a hit. It wasn’t because it was starring two black leads. It was because the show was boring as all get-out and had bad pacing. Nothing led up to anything, storyline-wise. Undercovers failed because of its writing team and/or showrunner, not because of Kodjoe or Mbatha-Raw.
In the TV explanation game, some critics would probably say that Manhattan Love Story failed because it was too generic of films like When Harry Met Sally and Annie Hall or because the plot was basically explained to you before the show ever got off the ground. But you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that would say Manhattan Love Story failed because “it’s too white.”
If Manhattan Love Story had a mostly or all-minority cast, the racial makeup of the cast would almost immediately be pulled into question. In fact, Fresh Off the Boat faced (and still faces) tons of scrutiny for being a show with an Asian cast, not because it’s a show about a middle class family. There’s still the worry of if other people (i.e. white viewers) can connect with the Huangs. Because, clearly, humans connecting with other humans, regardless of cultural heritage and racial makeup, is unheard of.
• Not all black people are watching Empire and Shonda Rhimes’ shows, just like not all Asian people are watching Fresh off the Boat. Viewers of all racial backgrounds are watching these and other shows featuring non-white casts. In fact, viewers have been asking for a multicultural TV slate for a while. They can handle it, and it shows—just look at how well Empire did this season! It broke every record there was to break! As one of Empire‘s writers, Eric Haywood, told me:
I feel you don’t get the kind of ratings Empire has been getting with just an exclusively black audience. I personally have white friends who tell me they love the show, never miss it, and it’s not just because they know me and know that I work there. They can quote lines back from the show to me and they have their favorite episodes. So I feel the appeal is much more than “urban.”
So there. The audience is okay with non-white people populating their TV screens every night. And thankfully, that same audience is letting their anger over Andreeva’s piece be known—there are pages of angry comments left on the piece at Deadline as well as countless more on Twitter (including Andreeva’s mentions). There’s even a hashtag now called #DeadineHeadlines, making fun of the article’s xenophobia.
Audiences and even a lot of industry people are on board with multicultural programming (especially, in the industry folks’ case, since they’ve realized that non-white actors bring in big TV bucks). But there will always be some people who can’t handle the “sea change,” as Andreeva puts it. Those people will just have to get with the changing tides.