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27 September 2010 @ 05:49 pm
Asians: The Other, Other (Forgotten) Television Minority  
I finally watched the Hawaii 5-0 premiere last night (courtesy of our DVR), and while I enjoyed it I also had misgivings.

I realize that the show strives to heavily repeat the success of the original show, with much of the same structure. But how is it that, in 2010, we still have the minority characters acting as local 'color' (in all senses of the word) in a setting where they should be the stars of the show? Is repeating the premise of the original show justification enough? Do we really expect nothing more from ourselves as viewers than the blinders we had on back in the '60s and '70s (the original show's era), where white men were almost always the center of the story?

Undercovers also premiered last week, which shows that black people have finally earned the chance to star in fluff shows for the masses. Gorgeous leads, somewhat silly setup, lots of jet-setting around. If the show does poorly, it will be for lack of 'substance' and not for the choice of its stars. I am old enough to remember seeing some of the first TV commercials to feature black actors as regular people, promoting regular products—and feeling my heart clench, because as dumb as the context was, that was progress. Undercovers is progress.

But where have we arrived, overall?

We have many more actors of color on television, in regularly-recurring (though rarely #1 lead) roles. But we also have a fairly regular formula for it too: white lead (usually male), other white actors (at least one of them female), one black person, and one Hispanic person. It's as if the casting director hits the 'magic formula' and thinks, "My work here is done." It's good that we've come far enough that this is our new "norm," but we seem to be stuck here. Of the shows I've watched in the last couple of years, these follow the formula to the letter: Without A Trace, Cold Case (bonus black character in some seasons), The Closer (ditto), Lie To Me, 24, Law&Order Classic, Castle, The Chase (premiered last week), Prison Break, Reaper, and Criminal Minds (well, the Garcia character's name is Hispanic, anyway). House, M.D. is missing the Hispanic character, and so are Law&Order:SVU, Fringe, Psych, and White Collar (last season's Hispanic agent was the weakest character). Some shows (and I adore them, but it must be said) are still overwhelmingly and oddly white: Chuck, Supernatural, Burn Notice, and others I've stopped watching (Desperate Housewives, Brothers and Sisters). Glee has double the minority characters for all 3 major groups. Lost and ER, both of which I gave up on years ago, had everything and everyone. But still, most of the characters were white. The new Hawaii 5-0 has Asian characters (in secondary roles), but there is an appalling lack of Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders. How is that even possible?

To clarify, when I say "Asian" I'm speaking as a North American, where our version of "Asian" covers ethnicities such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, and Cambodian. Europeans tend to mean East-Indian and Pakistani with that term, but that's a different group for us (and for the Hollywood media machine). Regardless, East-Indians/Pakistanis and Asians seem to get about the same rare coverage: Crossing Jordan, The Good Wife, House M.D., E.R., and Aliens In America (key to the premise). For other Asians, we have E.R., Grey's Anatomy, Hawaii 5-0, The Closer, and The Mentalist.

My list is probably fairly skewed, in that I tend to like dramas (particularly those with a police and legal focus) and rarely watch sitcoms. But I know there are more than a miniscule number of Asians in medicine, and the numbers for the legal profession and law enforcement have to be larger than a single agent in the fictional CBI.

I also know that there are more Asian men available for television casting than Daniel Dae Kim, though he's incredibly talented and handsome, and highly sought after for both those reasons.

It's wonderful to see (some) better roles for women, and to have greater diversity in casting. I don't want to downplay any of that.

But we have a long way to go, and there are questions no-one seems to be asking.

It isn't always "Who did The Powers That Be remember to cast?"

Sometimes, it's "Who, after all this time, is still consistently being overlooked?"



 
 
 
The Huntresshuntress69 on September 28th, 2010 01:23 am (UTC)
I am hooked, after one ep, on Undercovers. Yes I agree it is nice to see black actors in lead roles. H5-0 I truly enjoyed, and was all set to hate it, having grown up on the original - and yeah, I already wrote Steve/Danny slash LOL. While I haven't thought about minority actors in roles, I have thought about every show having beautiful 20-somethings who are picture perfect. I am finding that the new season, does have regular looking folks. Yes, they are pretty, I mean, they are actors, but I could actually see hanging out with some of them.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: TVhalfshellvenus on September 28th, 2010 02:47 am (UTC)
I really like the two leads in Undercovers, but the show didn't grab me. Nice feel, but not a "must see" (and that's all I have time for!) I've already disqualified The Chase based on the Pilot. No interest in watching that long term. Same for Lone Star.

I never watched the original show, but it occurs to me that this would be an excellent time to reinvent the perspective of that show- and Daniel Dae Kim would be just the actor to make that work.

It bothers me enormously that the show is set in Hawaii, and is about two white men where all of the locals (other than the one white guy) are put in a secondary position.

Kind of like "Cry Freedom," which still pisses me off even to this day. You have the story of South Afrika's transformation, and you're telling it from a white character's POV? Yet again? :(
realpestilencerealpestilence on September 28th, 2010 01:42 am (UTC)
"Asian" covers such a huge spectrum of cultures and people that it's really misleading, in a way. They're no more unified than "North American" is-less so, actually.

It's hard to excuse a new Hawaii 5-0 for not having more Hawaiin actors in lead roles-and not just the criminal element.

That's like making a new "Dances with Wolves" and casting all white people made-up to look like American Indians, instead of casting the real people.

Stupid and short-sighted! If they'd done it well, they could have gained a real international following in Asia, I think...people seeing actors on a new, hot tv show who looked kinda like them, imagine!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 28th, 2010 03:34 am (UTC)
"Asian" covers such a huge spectrum of cultures and people that it's really misleading, in a way.
It's a huge geographical area with a very diverse population. But the way in which Canadians/Americans and Europeans use the term seems to be based in the predominant population in their own area. Europe has a larger East Indian/Pakistani population than the U.S., so they could as easily mean either. For Canada/America, most of our population for a long time has been the other parts of Asia.

It's hard to excuse a new Hawaii 5-0 for not having more Hawaiin actors in lead roles-and not just the criminal element.
That's what frustrates me. It seems like the perfect opportunity to reinvent the show in a different way, and *whoosh*- right back to the old formula. :(

sassy, classy, and a bit smart-assy: Favoritismbadboy_fangirl on September 28th, 2010 02:26 am (UTC)
In defense of Castle they have an African-American boss (he's actually half black/half Puerto Rican), and a Hispanic detective--Esposito, Ryan's partner, is a latino of some sort.

I've been thinking though, as I read this list, there hasn't ever been a prime time show with a central-Asian family, and the few Hispanics ones I can think of get cancelled. So it must be just a demand and supply thing--not to say Asians and Hispanics don't watch TV, but their population isn't enough to keep shows on the air? I don't know. It's an interesting topic.

I do know that LOST and Glee both have been praised for their diversity, but the leads are most definitely white men and women--and heterosexual, for that matter. But, you know, it's more than it used to be.

The female aspect continues to get better (The Good Wife!), hopefully the other will follow.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: TVhalfshellvenus on September 28th, 2010 03:43 am (UTC)
Maybe I should move 'Castle' to the other category. But when you look at the background characters in each of the varying episodes, they are painfully non-diverse. :(

So it must be just a demand and supply thing--not to say Asians and Hispanics don't watch TV, but their population isn't enough to keep shows on the air?
But that assumes that if a show has an Asian/Hispanic lead that only Asians and Hispanics will watch it. I think that reality has been fading for quite awhile now, and again-- if there was anyone who could have led the new version of Hawaii 5-0 as an Asian lead (THE lead), it's Daniel Dae Kim. He has the reputation/recognition for it.

But, you know, it's more than it used to be.
It's better, and both of those shows have more diverse casts than most (partly because they're ensemble shows with a huge number of regular characters).

But I think too many of TPTB feel as if they've hit the formula that spells diversity, and now they don't have to try anymore. When in fact, they need to constantly re-evaluate their perceptions to make sure they're not stuck in a rut.
sassy, classy, and a bit smart-assy: Chobadboy_fangirl on October 1st, 2010 04:40 am (UTC)
I just remembered (because I'm watching it right now) that Nikita has a FEMALE LEAD who is half Asian (Vietnamese), but I swear in the Pilot or second episode they referred to her as a "white female." It stood out to me of course because I knew Maggie Q was at least part Asian.

Anyway, just thought I should add it!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: TVhalfshellvenus on October 4th, 2010 07:23 am (UTC)
Lots of people on my f-list are watching Nikita-- I wish it didn't college with Agent ChoThe Mentalist and Fringe. :(

And yes, this is a very good sign! Maggie Q is a great choice for the role, too- she has a background in both martial arts and modeling, as well as acting, which seems to be the essence of Nikita (if I remember the original French movie correctly). :)
mercurybard on September 28th, 2010 06:21 am (UTC)
Garcia on Criminal Minds was supposed to be a Hispanic man, but then Kirsten Vangsness came in and knocked their socks off, so they cast a blond, not-size-2 instead. They later explained the name on the show as coming via stepparent adoption. I'm actually impressed with the show for casting her instead of just ticking their diversity box.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: TVhalfshellvenus on September 28th, 2010 05:38 pm (UTC)
I agree-- casting someone fabulous (I don't really like that show, but I love her!) should carry huge weight.

Similarly, I've often thought that some of the black actors on Supernatural (despite the "Dead Black Man" trope other fans go on about) were cast because of the actor, not because the role was for a black character.

I don't know about Gordon-- his character too strongly echoes Gunn from 'Angel.' But why would you NOT cast Sterling if he showed up to audition?

And Robert Wisdom, well... he has this huge charm and teddy bear appearance and soft voice, and yet he can turn steely. He's everywhere on television, playing the same type again and again, and it's because he has that perfect combination of charming persuasion and lethal potential. You want to like and trust him, and you don't know if you should. That's all the actor.
mercurybard on September 28th, 2010 06:34 pm (UTC)
casting someone fabulous should carry huge weight
I agree whole-heartedly. Another instance that comes to mind is Idris Elba being cast as Roque in The Losers despite not resembling the comic character at all (well, except for the fake scar). When I was in high school, the directors used to genderbend roles all the time if they had a girl who would do a better job than one of the boys. We had a female Benvolio, among others.

Gordan was one of the many characters that I feel Supernatural utterly wasted. He had so much potential! They killed him way too soon!

It took a trip to imdb, but YES, Robert Wisdom plays that type of character perfectly...look at Lechero from a certain series we're both familiar with.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: TVhalfshellvenus on September 28th, 2010 06:42 pm (UTC)
I loved Wisdom as Lechero. I always have a little "Wait, who?" moment when I see his name, because that's a very ordinary name and while he might look ordinary he never comes off that way.
Maerhysmaerhys on September 28th, 2010 11:33 am (UTC)
The Whole Truth is in the same boat as all the other shows listed in that there is a Latino and a Black woman; the Latino is an out gay man, which I love but also seems to be a token twofer. -sigh-

Burn Notice is better this season but only in comparison to what it has been.

I am loving Undercovers and I think the storylines will get better. Abrams is not great with a take-off but he usually delivers.

Did you see last night's Chase? I haven't but saw the preview and had flashbacks, lol!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: TVhalfshellvenus on September 28th, 2010 05:43 pm (UTC)
I looked at the cast on imdb.com, which shows Rob Morrow (that plus the mediocre ratings are the reason I didn't even try this one out). But you're right- it's the same formula.

Is the gay man at least a middle-of-the-road guy and not effeminate? Because while we've had maintream lesbians on TV (and Glam lesbians), we're still mostly getting the tired old stereotype for men.

I am loving Undercovers and I think the storylines will get better. Abrams is not great with a take-off but he usually delivers.
The good-looking stars and Abrams' name are why I tried that one, and I'll probably watch again tonight just because. Because Boris Kodjoe is so incredibly handsome, that is...

I watched the premiere of Chase, and that was enough. I don't have much patience for Texas as a setting (god, the music alone), and 'Houston Knights' was the only show set there that really grabbed me. For all the wrong slashy reasons. ;)
Maerhysmaerhys on September 28th, 2010 05:47 pm (UTC)
Aejo (IIRC that is the character's name) is a typical lawyer in a suit. They purposefully outted him by talking about "his partner" and picking up a photo on his desk.

TWT is actually really good so I hope it keeps. I adore RM plus Maura Tierney is really excellent in it as well.

Chase is one that I am recording and play when I do everything else. I can't give up before I see Sucre chase down T-Bag though because that is just going to be hilarious for all of the wrong reasons, I am sure.

The show I am digging the most is Detroit 1-8-7, which is basically Homicide in Detroit. But, diverse cast, great acting, solid story lines. It's really excellent. And filmed in Detroit too, so the city is making money from it.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: TVhalfshellvenus on September 28th, 2010 05:59 pm (UTC)
I can't give up before I see Sucre chase down T-Bag though because that is just going to be hilarious for all of the wrong reasons, I am sure.
Oh, man. Will you warn me when that happens? Because I'd tune into Hulu for that ep, assuming they aired it. Too funny-- it was like watching the Burn Notice episode set in prison, with "The Key" and the escape through the Infirmary. Cracked me up.

which is basically Homicide in Detroit.
Hmmm... I actually hated Homicide (the whole style of the show), but I watched a couple of years of it for Andre Braugher, who was just incredible as Pembleton. So, how much like Homicide? Are all the characters unlikeable? Is the ambience negative and flat? Or is it mainly the setup that's like Homicide?
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 29th, 2010 07:44 pm (UTC)
Okay, I tuned in for Detroit 1-8-7 last night, and realized that was Michael Imperioli's new show. And now I'm sorry I missed last week's episode. :(
Maerhysmaerhys on October 1st, 2010 01:36 pm (UTC)
he's usually not a fave of mine but i really like him in this.

sorry it's taken me days to respond. :/
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: TVhalfshellvenus on October 1st, 2010 05:19 pm (UTC)
I can't complain- I'm weeks late with your fic now, which turned out to be trickier than I thought and escaped both the drabble length and probably any hope of not being Gen. :(

Where I really got hooked on Imperioli was his guest stint on L&O Classic. He had a run of a couple of months there, and I really enjoyed him as a cop in that show. Less appealing in Sopranos, but that was the role.
Ariss Tenohariss_tenoh on September 29th, 2010 06:51 pm (UTC)
You make a good point about the lack of other non-white characters on TV shows. I'm not American but watch a lot of US TV. These days there's white leads, token black guy, and I've noticed some shows now include an Asian (Chinese/etc) character usually as a female and one Indian. The Hispanic character is usually the bad guy.

It's an interesting look at American culture. Because if TV is reality, all the talk about equality in the US would sound strange to say the least^^
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: TVhalfshellvenus on September 29th, 2010 07:42 pm (UTC)
TV can reflect, lag, or lead popular culture, and sometimes it does all three at the same time.

24 had a black president ages ago, played so aptly by Dennis Haysbert that I'm sure there were people who would've voted for the actor for president! He was succeeded by his brother, and then by a female president (though she was a terrible president). Since 24 depicts non-consecutive years, we assume chunks of missing time between the seasons. But part of what builds new norms is media representation of fresher ideals. So by making minority/female presidents seem like a reasonable idea (which it WAS), the show put into people's heads that the race/gender thing was a non-issue.

The 'magic formula' I mentioned above is one in which television is lagging behind reality. The Powers That Be think they're being diverse, but they're not-- because they're putting no thought behind it other than fulfilling a formula.

When you think way, way back... Gene Rodenberry's pilot for Star Trek: TOS (in the early '60s) had a female second-in-command. The network balked, and that part was given to a male alien instead. Still, oddly, progress. Just not as fast as Rodenberry would have liked. But his bridge crew featured Uhura and Sulu as regular characters (and when some random person was in their place, you wished they were back). In that sense, Roddenberry was far ahead of where society was willing to be on a lot of fronts. But between Uhura (miniskirt and beauty aside, she was professional and competent at all times) and Diahhan Carroll's show, an utterly new image of black women was being presented way back when. I like to think that it, too, helped shape reality.

OTOH, how is it that we haven't come much farther than Roddenberry's TV vision some almost fifty years ago?

Edited at 2010-09-29 07:43 pm (UTC)
Ariss Tenohariss_tenoh on September 29th, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC)
how is it that we haven't come much farther than Roddenberry's TV vision some almost fifty years ago?

That's a very good question. On a related note, I was re-watching some older TV shows from the 90's and was struck by how diverse female characters were on those shows. They were strong and weak, brave and yet afraid, and embodied several types of clichés only to mislead the viewer later on. I found it interesting that the reverse isn't true in TV-land in the 2000's where women are back to being love interests as a main function. Again.

The representation of lesbian women on TV as characters has improved almost dramatically, while gay men are still being stereotyped on films and serials. I almost don't want to find a gay man on TV because he'll end up as a serial killer, doesn't get a happy ending, gets ekilled, etc.

Sorry if I'm rambling here but your post got me thinking^^
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: TVhalfshellvenus on September 29th, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)
They were strong and weak, brave and yet afraid, and embodied several types of clichés only to mislead the viewer later on.

Hmmm, I'm trying to decide what I think about this-- because the "chick-flick" types of shows and stuff don't interest me at all (more female leads in those), and there's always the fine line between character contradictions making a character seem richer and more humor (when the writers do it well) vs. seeming out-of-character (which everyone fears). So, am I not watching those shows? Am I, but don't notice it? Supernatural has always suffered from this, as did Prison Break. 'Fringe' very much has a strong, competent female lead (whose compassion is as great as those other characteristics). I love her, but other people (including women) think she's cold! 'The Chase' has a female lead (the white guy's more background), but the Pilot didn't really grab me. All of the ducklings on House are ducklings, and Wilson and Cuddy get a little more attention as satellites of House, but it's really all about the main character.

The representation of lesbian women on TV as characters has improved almost dramatically, while gay men are still being stereotyped on films and serials.
What's interesting is that lesbians are represented well nowadays, bisexual women not so much (and in Hollywood, apparently 90% of women are bisexual and about .5% of men), and gay men are still overwhelmingly the effeminate stereotype or the stealthy secretly-evil surprise!Villain as you mentioned.

For gay men, I suspect shows think "Progress! We have a gay character!", when instead it's "You're perpetuating a stereotype yet again."

Your thoughts got me all thinky and rambly too, which is the point of this kind of discussion! :)
happy is as happy does: 2 thumbs uphappywriter06 on October 8th, 2010 08:38 am (UTC)
If I had a icon of someone clapping, I would've used that one instead.

Since I'm going to be a parent of black child soon, I think even more about representations issues (sex, race, religion, and so) in different mediums. It's like is my kid going to have to settle when he/she watches TV? There's an appalling lack of shows with leads featuring people of color. (Women aren't that much better off.) It's like 'yeah for the progress we've made'. At the same time, it's like 'really?' Like being happy your kid brings home Bs when you know he can bring him As. He's just hit that magic formula that requires just enough effort.

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: TVhalfshellvenus on October 8th, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC)
It's like is my kid going to have to settle when he/she watches TV? There's an appalling lack of shows with leads featuring people of color. (Women aren't that much better off.)

Exactly. Sometimes TV helps shape the future reality, by depicting the ideal rather than the reality. But right now, it tends to lag behind, and Hawaii 5-0 in particular was what finally pushed me over the edge into rant.

I really don't think white people (as viewers) would balk a having more characters of color on TV. It's the reality of most people's everyday lives now! So why do most shows resist? People of color have been watching shows filled mostly with white people for years now. How come no one ever thinks of that when the reverse case is brought up?

And while TV is far from doing a great job in this regard, there are still more black and hispanic characters in Prime Time than Asian ones. It's frustrating to be in the boat of, "Well, it's not great for women and PoC. But it's even worse for specific PoC, in terms of representation." :(

I like your grade analogy, because that's exactly what this situation (with the 'magic formula' casting) feels like to me. "Good enough" to keep people off the studios' backs. Not actually as good as it could be, and not even trying to be better. :(

happy is as happy does: Can't talk. TV.happywriter06 on October 12th, 2010 04:20 am (UTC)
And while TV is far from doing a great job in this regard, there are still more black and hispanic characters in Prime Time than Asian ones. It's frustrating to be in the boat of, "Well, it's not great for women and PoC. But it's even worse for specific PoC, in terms of representation." :(
We went to one my colleagues', an Asian female, house for dinner last night. We got on the topic of race and ethnicity. She said that growing up in school and popular culture, the group she had to identify with was AfAmer/Blk culture, than Latino culture if Latinos had some representation and then Asian culture. I was thinking yeah, "My people have it bad and we're still better off. That's sad." There's no reason to not have equal representation.