Talk about a “Scandal”: Bunheads, the whitey-whiteness of TV, and why Shonda Rhimes is a goddamn hero
I love Scandal. The first season was only seven episodes, but they’re some of the most sharp, fast-paced, thrilling hours of TV I’ve ever sat through. Sure, it was improbable at times and featured a bit of silly banter but it was never predictable and Kerry Washington shone like the star she is as clever, controlled, morally ambiguous “crisis manager” Olivia Pope. (Yes, she’s the Pope.) (Oh, if only.)
What I don’t love is the fact that Kerry Washington is the first black woman to have the lead in a network drama in my lifetime.
I’m in my thirties! And since five years before I was born there hasn’t been a black female lead in an American network drama. (If you’re interested, it was one called Get Christie Love!, inspired by the blaxploitation films of the ’70s.) And while there have been Asian and Latina leading ladies in that time, let’s not pretend that TV has ever been full of diversity. It’s a white person’s playground.
So it’s maybe not surprising that when Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new show Bunheads first aired in the US, Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Scandal as well as Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, felt a little fed up.
Hey @abcfunheads: Really? You couldn’t cast even ONE young dancer of color so I could feel good about my kid watching this show? NOT ONE?
This seems like a fair comment.
One of the things that struck me about Bunheads was its lack of diversity. It’s great to see a show that’s so unabashedly female-centric and more concerned with telling stories than trying to be gimmicky (and which portrays performers with far more subtlety than Smash could ever manage). There are enough shows where women are nothing more than set dressing for it not to be an issue that all six leads in Bunheads are women.
But it is an issue that all six leads are white.
It would have been nice if Rhimes’ tweet had launched a respectful debate about the underrepresentation of women of colour [I know that's an Americanism, but it seems like the most appropriate term here] on TV. Instead, it sent Sherman-Palladino on a self-justifying rant in a horrible interview with Media Mayhem, which was notable for the fact that neither she nor the journalist who questioned her actually stuck to the point. That journalist, Allison Hope Weiner, said that what she took from the incident was that it was “inappropriate” for a woman to criticise another female showrunner, when there are so few of them.
Sherman-Palladino agreed, saying she would never “go after” another woman and that women in TV are not as supportive as they should be. She also pointed out that she only had a week and a half to cast four girls who could act and dance on pointe. Then she said that she doesn’t do “issues shows”.
It’s hard to know where to start with this clusterbleep of wrongness, but how about we begin with the idea that women should always support each other, no matter what?
Rebecca Paller of the Paley Center posted a blog post about the fracas, “Bunheads and Women: Why Can’t We Just Get Along?” in which she supports Sherman-Palladino and scolds Rhimes for her criticism, saying:
“You should have been more supportive of another female showrunner especially in this day and age when it’s so difficult to get a new dramatic series on the air.”
(Excuse me while I scream into a pillow until I throw up.)
Here’s the thing: if anyone, regardless of gender, makes a mistake in their professional life, you have the right to call them out on it. Sure, Shonda Rimes could have been more deferential, but why the hell should she be?
Saying that women have to be nice to each other at all times because there are so few of us in top jobs only promotes the idea that we’re special snowflakes who have to be treated like precious cargo. While there are men whose shows are similarly lacking in diversity, female solidarity doesn’t preclude valid criticism. And the competitiveness among women that Sherman-Palladino alludes to is surely a symptom of the patriarchy and the fact that it’s so hard for women to get ahead rather than a case of “bitches be loco”.
Even worse, for white women like Sherman-Palladino, Hope Weiner, and Paller to ignore the context of Rhimes’ remark is breathtakingly ignorant. America has a history of oppressing both women and people of colour and of stereotyping them in popular culture (the Academy is still rarely more impressed than when a black women plays a maid). And yet Paller mentions a possible Asian extra as proof that Bunheads is diverse, and says she’s “still not certain” why Rhimes saw fit to criticise Sherman-Palladino.
Shonda Rhimes is one of very few TV writers creating interesting black female characters. And she’s a black woman. That’s probably not coincidental. Sure, white men could be doing the same thing. But they’re not.
I don’t plan to go on about Girls in every post (I’ll take a break next month, promise) but the most disappointing thing about Lena Dunham’s defence of her whitey-white fictional world was that it’s based on her life. (I guess the only non-white people she knows are Asian prodigies and homeless black men who blur into the background.)
I don’t care if her inner circle consists solely of upper middle class white people (although I am curious about how that happens) but I do care that she apparently took for granted that her life’s that way, not even considering that her show could include a character who was black, or working class, or disabled, or transgender, and that viewers could still relate to that person. Because some of them are that person. Perhaps Dunham was reluctant to make what Sherman-Palladino so charmingly dubs an “issues show” but Scandal proves that a black character’s race doesn’t have to be her defining characteristic.
A few months ago, Vulture ran this interesting round table discussion with female showrunners to acknowledge the fact that there have historically been so few women in charge of TV shows, and to celebrate the fact that things are starting to change. Disappointingly, when talk turned to criticisms of Girls, this exchange actually happened:
E.K.: I think the lack of diversity on Girls probably has something to do with HBO’s willingness to let her be very specific, and tell her story. Whereas with network shows, there’s always a mandate. It becomes, “How are we gonna include this group of people?” or “We have to have some diversity.”
W.C.: And then every doctor is black.
E.K.: It becomes a token gesture. It doesn’t come from a place of sincere storytelling, or anything organic to the world.
It’s true, there’s been a lot of tokenism in TV over the years, with black doctors and lawyers and police officers clumsily slotted into the background of shows like politically correct afterthoughts since at least the early ’70s. But this was still progress, because before that television was so white-dominated that only by networks making a concerted effort to seek out non-white actors could things start to change. Even now (and by Dunham’s own admission) a lack of diversity is more often an oversight than some kind of brave creative choice.
As I said last time, TV shows matter. They’re probably our biggest shared cultural experience and how they portray (or ignore) members of historically marginalised groups can reflect and reinforce stereotypes in an insidious way. In a great piece for xoJane, Helena Andrew talks about Bunheads and the fact that, had her own ballet teacher not been black, she might not have realised that the white-dominated world of dance was something she could take part in, let alone enjoy:
In a world that was looking less and less like me just as I was beginning to actually take a look at myself (oh, hey, there puberty) seeing an impossibly elegant (and forgive me) strong black woman every week was more than just a drop in the bucket of my confidence. It was a monsoon.
Not seeing anyone like yourself in the world, including the world of television, is profoundly alienating, and yet Sherman-Palladino and Dunham seem to shrug off the idea that this matters, as if their life’s work has no effect on people.
Shonda Rhimes knows it does, and that’s why she spoke up.