Sunday, January 4, 2015

Diversity in Writing and Television

I spent a chunk of my morning today watching a Charlie Chan movie. If you've missed them, Charlie Chan happens to be a man of Chinese descent with thirteen children, a wife, and is a well versed homicide detective. One of the trademarks of Charlie Chan's character is that he speaks in an accent. It is easy enough to understand, but there are nuances that are built into the Charlie Chan character that are a part of the world of the 1940s.

There are parts of me that would love an updated Charlie Chan. Charlie Chan, as a character, was not easily fooled. Even when his older children, and eventually his grandsons, tried to help him, he was not at all bothered by the mess or noise that came with the world of excited youth. But, making a movie or even a television remake might be mired in misdirection these days.

Which leads me to other considerations of diversity. I'm a huge TV watcher. Thank goodness for the development of the DVR. I can write and work on watching some TV all at the same time. But there are two shows I spend a lot of time on, that sometimes I wonder about.

The first is "Two Broke Girls". The girls are working as waitresses in an up and coming neighborhood in a diner run by a man who happens to be Asian. This man is a recent immigrant to the United States and over the four seasons has been the subject of many jokes the least not of which is his height. I can promise you it has been demonstrated through the show multiple times that both the man and the two women that they mutually care for each other, the jokes are a part of how they show affection. But initially, and even if you step away from that, it does look like they are going round for round in the quest for who can be the most cruel.

The second show I watch is "Jane the Virgin". Pushing aside issues arising from the main plot line of the story, again here is a show about diversity in the world. I appreciate this show because Jane is a worthy character in her world. Ignoring her pregnancy and the plot lines involving directly to her pregnancy, she contributes and wants to contribute to her world. She views the world with both feet planted in thing that is most important to her: her family. This is in direct contrast to a Pilot episode of "Cristela", also of Latin background, that exists on another station. I'm annoyed at Cristela because while I can accept the family dynamic, Cristela is disregarded at work as just someone who happens to not be white. Cristela has a lot to contribute but her contributions are the punch line. I realize in the same breath of contrasting directly to Jane and Cristela: Jane is a telenovella, a drama, Cristela is a half hour comedy. But where Jane is valued and even when all the things she wants does not work out; Cristela is a series of gags at Cristela's expense.

And then this leads to the mid-year replacement of "Fresh Off The Boat". I saw early trailers for this TV show, and frankly, I will be surprised if it makes the rest of the season. An Asian family leaves their mostly Asian community and moves to a community where they are the minority. There are several culture clashes, namely when the oldest son goes to school and the smell of his lunch puts off his classmates this leads to the son asking for a more American lunch. While I think some of the interactions beyond the home in this comedy prove to be useful and not intentionally limiting, as an entire show, I don't know how to place value on this contribution to culture.

I am reminded of one of the first Asian family comedies: All American Girl with Margaret Cho. And that show completely resonated with me. The desire for cultural conditions that did not exist in with the complexities of traditional Asian American expectations. While I was much younger and some of the nuances did probably fly past me, the show was great at not isolating the family. 

But why bother with looking at these issues? Partly because I have been following the work of the Geena Davis Institute. They are primarily an organization that tracks and shares data on the equality of gender in the entertainment industry. They've done exhaustive research on the number of male/female characters and executives making shows in all sorts of shows and movies. The study that caught my attention was one that recently discussed the impact of non-named characters in shows. That the camera panning around a room setting the scene has not been 50/50 male/female. Even the perception of a charcter's gender in a background is default selected as male. The problem that this leads to: little boys and girls do not get a chance to see themselves as those characters. Not just in shows that are aimed at the kids, but shows their parents watch that kids might walk in on or hear their parents talking about.

Does this matter to shows I watch that take place in history? Not at all. If the goal of a historical drama or comedy is to represent that era then there is nothing wrong with the show not necessarily reaching the same benchmarks. There are more subtle, historically correct, manners to accomplish a certain goal, but social awareness should not the end goal of historical fiction.

So this leads into writing. I admit I have been profoundly affected by my mostly white washed upbringing. There is nothing wrong with being of European descent. The majority of my friends are from some European country, several generations ago, some as recent as having been made citizens in their life time. But I also know that there is nothing out there for me: a multi-ethnic person. So while shows like "Fresh Off The Boat", "Two Broke Girls", "Jane the Virgin", and "Charlie Chan" all have given snippets of truth in my life they have not been able to classify my experience through drama or through humor. And I put a lot of stock on humor.

So how do I help contribute? I really find it off putting to describe someone's physical characteristics. I think that's one of my weakest points in my writing. Even if I were not to be blunt about the physical features of my characters and more poetic, I know as a reader: I ignore those tidbits. And then the role of a person by ethnicity matters too: roles of leadership, roles of cleverness/intelligence, and roles of fear are not limited by ethnicity, physical ability, mental ability, or gender. But for me as a writer: all of these aspects have to be natural. They cannot be formulated like a boy band. Unlike the rules for a hero's journey or aspects of a continual plot, characters know no limits. At least in writing, unlike performances where I am limited to the types of people who have come forward. I am not shackled in my imagination.

I really do hope, one day, television will be better about social equality in modern settings. As a writer, I need to work on being more inclusive in my characters.

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