Genre and Culture in the Modern Golden Age of Television Pt. 2
**Editor’s note: This post is the second of our entertainment posts from our new contributor nostoryboard. Check her out on twitter at @mashclash and enjoy this three-part exploration on the issues of culture, race, and gender in the science-fiction stories that are told on TV**
Previously, I discussed the expansion in science fiction, fantasy, and horror programming and the particular issues shows like American Horror Story, Teen Wolf, and Game of Thrones has with representation of gender and race. Although those are just a selection of genre shows out there, I believe they are representative of industry-wide issues in programming. We can’t applaud a new golden age in television or in TV genre shows if what’s being put out there perpetuates the same character stereotypes and obtuse points of view that have been meted out since yesteryear.
The lack of vision in TV today stems from four things: valuing quantity over quality, lack of diverse source material, lack of racial and gender diversity in TV staff rooms, and the overall Hollywood culture.
The rush to profit from genre’s popularity has made for quickly produced shows of poor quality. Gender and race notwithstanding, there are writers without a background in science fiction, fantasy, and horror behind these type of shows. They are unfamiliar with genre canon, and because they don’t know the rules, they can’t possibly break them to produce new worlds and characters that have yet to be explored. Instead, we are left with rehashed concepts and tropes that were stale decades ago. Twenty years ago we had Quantum Leap, The X-Files, Stargate SG-1, and Xena: Warrior Princess, and while these shows weren’t perfect, they attempted to push new ground in genre TV.
Today, it’s hard to be innovative when the overwhelming majority of genre shows on the air are either adaptations of comics, literature, or historical events. Nearly all of the source materials for these adaptations are written by white men or follow the adventures of white men. Are we simply lacking in duskier, less-masculine narratives?
The realities of the world say otherwise, for in 2014 books written by black Americans, Asians, and Latinos are often delegated to sections separate from classic and modern literature sections in bookstores. We live in a world where publishers call the idea of black American authors being overlooked “hogwash”, while the publishing world’s biggest event, Book Con, has a lineup consisting of 100% white authors. We live in a world where neither the late greats of Octavia Butler or Walter Dean Meyers have ever been adapted for television or film. Before his death a few months ago, Meyers opined in the NYT’s Opinion section about the lack of children’s books with highly developed black characters. “Where are the black children going to get a sense of who they are and where they can be?” A similar question can be posed to us genre fiction lovers.
How can we expand our imagination to the fullest if we limit ourselves in any way? But here we are barely touching the sky. According to a recent Writer’s Guild of America study on diversity in TV writer’s rooms during the 2011-2012 season, only 7% of cable drama and comedy writing staffs were minority writers. Broadcast was only a few percentage points higher, but beat out cable in the percentage of women writers. Thirty-three percent of writing staffs were made up of women. Cable television only had 27.1%. Compare it to the U.S.’s demographics. Just over half the country is female, and about 37% are minorities. The staff numbers look a little off, don’t they?
Yet for people familiar with Hollywood, these numbers may be disappointing but not surprising. The industry is less of a meritocracy and more of who you know. Sure once you get a position, you’ll have to do good work, but getting there is the hard part and many women and minorities don’t have an in. I hear producers say all of the time that they don’t get approached with good scripts from writers of color. Maybe that’s true, but considering that a large majority of white people don’t have friends who aren’t also white, I’d assume the Hollywood social and professional pools aren’t that different. But even when a TV show or film is considered progressive, in the grand scheme of things that “progressiveness” is just baby steps. When Girls came out, it was a huge deal for such a prestigious channel to put its faith in a female showrunner and have a nuanced show about the lives of 20-something women. However, it rightfully got flack for being navel-gazing and lacking people of color.
Let’s play the game people who love derailing discussions about race and representation like to play. You know where they compare a random thing to Barack Obama’s historic presidency in order to stifle legitimate complaints? It’s 2014, and we have a Black President, but we’re getting the first black sitcom in nearly two decades. It’s 2014, and we have a Black President, but we’re getting the first Asian-led television show ever. It’s 2014, and we have a Black President, but Latinos are still mostly portraying servants and sexy vixens.
We’ve got some work to do, and in my third and final post, I’ll suggest some solutions to improve the current selection of science fiction, fantasy, and horror television shows. I believe it’s imperative to make a clean sweep of the industry and that progress is not an impossible task.