“Who cares?” says Jerry Seinfeld about diversity in comedy.
I do. In early February, Jerry Seinfeld made remarks about his role in increasing diversity in media. He states: “People think [comedy] is the census or something, it’s gotta represent the actual pie chart of America, who cares?” I believe complaints about minority representation in media are not particularly calling for creators to diversify as an obligation, but question how the media is not reflexive of our diverse society. It would be understandable to say that there are just a minimal amount of funny/talented minorities, but I do not think this is true. Public policy tells us what society looks like. Media reflects the sentiments of society. Severe censorship of media in repressive regimes is effective because the media reveals social realities. The media is fundamental to shaping the perspectives of a nation, therefore if there is minimal representation in the media of a particular group, people rightfully question the true existence of said group. Media representation reveals true social perceptions and sentiments of the vast populace. Seinfeld’s apathy toward race reveals that he either does not interact with a lot of minorities or does not feel as though their narratives are vital to his own.
As previously mentioned, some might question whether the dearth of minority characters in media is due to lack of talent. Kenan Thompson certainly implies such inquiries in his recent comments about black female comedians. Thompson states “in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.” Being “ready” could mean many things, but I believe that Thompson is making a reference to the ability to conform to mainstream comedic trends. In order to learn how to perform in mainstream technique, aspiring artists need to be members of particular “feeder” groups. With acting, especially the comedy track, the vital feeder system generally indicates the projection of an actor’s career. Many of these feeder organizations, including Upright Citizens Brigade, remain predominantly white and male. These institutions base membership on potential, but it is hard to gauge the potential of an individual if the organization cannot rely on predecessors who allude to the marketable traits of nuanced aspiring comedians.
A further disadvantage is that the media is a self-feeding cycle. People can only demand what they see. We can’t know if we want something if we’re never exposed to it. Many people do not understand the ramifications of having minimal exposure of people looking like you in media. Lupita Nyongo’s speech on beauty shows how the media is so integral to self-identification and self-worth: “My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome, but all of the sudden Oprah was telling me that it wasn’t. It was perplexing.” Nyongo proves that the media does have a role in shaping the mindset of our society. She could not imagine the beauty of her skin tone without its representation in the media. If we continue to neglect the story of minorities, it almost the same as neglecting the lives of minorities, leaving us to question how we fit in the social construct.
Take an economical standpoint to diversity in media. In reference to the feeder system, the leaders of the feeder organizations have reputations to maintain. Since the white narrative has dominated most of media history, the leaders of feeder organizations are less likely to accept an aspiring actor if they feel skeptical about the actor’s mainstream reception (which is definitely influenced by the actor’s race, i.e. Rue in Hunger Games). The media is supplying what the consumers are demanding. Until recently, the media shows us that there isn’t much of a push for minority representation. I unfortunately put myself in the category of individuals that probably perpetuates the cycle of minimal minority representation in media. Ever since I reached my adolescence I realized that I was obsessed with gangster movies written by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola and Terence Winter. I have the biographies of Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Dustin Hoffman memorized. I even have a creepy posterof Al Pacino in my room. My obsession with gangster movies led me to attempt to watch as many Oscar nominated movies as possible, where the casts tend to have minimal minority representation.
Fast forward to Saturday nights in my friend’s dorm room. Deciding between which movies we want to watch I adamantly reject watching a ‘black people movie’. My father, who would take us every weekend to Blockbuster to rent movies, also liked gangster movies, but always made the effort to see as many movies with black leads as possible. I just never liked them. Imagine that. A black female rejecting the idea of watching other black people on the screen. It’s not because I don’t like black people, but rather because I felt that that the diversity and depth of black characters in black movies is always lacking. I want to demand more movies with black actors, but I’m usually disappointed by the movies with majority black casts. The story line of many black cast movies seem to have a didactic aspect to them (i.e. most Tyler Perry movies, Red Tails, Monster’s Ball, Crash etc.), which ultimately makes me reject the artistic aspect of the film. I generally don’t watch films for social lessons, but rather for artistic and entertainment value. It makes me wonder if the dearth of mainstream minority representation is not a question of minority artists being ready, but society not being ready. What if America is simply unable to imagine minorities in particular roles because of the implications of stubborn racial labels?
For this reason, being an underrepresented minority in many artistic endeavors also means that you have limited artistic freedom. I believe the limited narratives of minorities ties to the idea that we still feel like we have to prove our humanity to others. In an interview, Toni Morrison talks about how an artistic endeavor becomes raced. In response to a question about how her novels mainly consist of black characters Morrison states: “….The real confrontations for black people is white people. As if our lives have no meaning, have no depth without the white gaze.” For example, if a movie has a majority minority cast then it is raced, but a movie with a majority white cast is not raced. According to modern media, any movie that has a majority minority cast is ‘race-themed’. In USA Today, the Best Man Holiday was called a ‘race-themed’ movie, most likely for its leading all black cast. Why aren’t movies with majority white casts considered ‘race themed’ if the only thing separating the black cast and the white cast is their race? The public is so unfamiliar with seeing minorities play the normal everyday roles in media, that the idea of majority black cast seems racial rather than human. In her interview, Morrison says that she was “accused” of not writing about white people. She felt like she was unjustly attacked for not diversifying her work enough, as if her work could only be legitimized by the race of the characters. It is easy to point out the parallel with Seinfeld’s own complaint, but the main difference is that many minorities feel as though the inclusion of the white narrative is the only way to legitimize their work, while the average white creator includes minority narratives as a social obligation. One group is inclusive to get in the door, while the other is inclusive to maintain their position at the top.
I believe the problem comes down to changing America’s imagination. Viola Davis was recently voted one of the fifty best living actors, yet after many conversations I realized that most people are unfamiliar with her work and only think she has done movies like The Help. I don’t think that that Viola Davis is any less talented than Meryl Streep or Lupita N’yongo, but you probably won’t see them in as many movies or award shows simply because roles aren’t being created for them. America is still more comfortable with the idea of white leads and unfortunately creators are too. Fellow Stripes author, Lovia Gyarke, noted how the white literary traditions affected her own creative process and how she feels it necessary to create characters of color. I believe there needs to be a revolution from creators to create more diverse characters that represent more than just black and white, but the whole range of minorities living in America. Creators must do so not because they feel obligated, but because they create what they are experiencing. As creators we must question why our imagination are often times limited to a race having a particular characteristic therefore belonging to a particular story. Our media makes it almost impossible to separate ones race from a characteristic trait. We are a melting pot country that needs to see the melting pot qualities in media in order to transcend our superficial racial labels, because at the end of the day we’re all simply American.