In case you haven’t heard, Caucasian actors are being victimized by casting practices at the television networks. They, after holding primacy on screen since the earliest days of television, may – horrors! – have a few less opportunities to secure roles in new television series this year because of an effort by the networks to produce stories about characters who may not be Caucasian and to seek more actors of color for television series for roles that may not have been written with actors of color in mind.
The mass media and trade media have spent months trumpeting television’s overdue commitment to diversifying stories and casts, so it was inevitable that someone might turn up to take issue with this “corrective” action. Nellie Andreeva of Deadline has stepped up to the plate, posting an article last night headlined “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings – Long Overdue Or Too Much Of A Good Thing?”
The article – or is it an essay, or perhaps an op-ed – attempts to tread a careful line. Launching with that equivocating headline, it’s quick to bring out a positive view of the casting practices it asserts are underway:
“The change is welcomed by talent agents who no longer have to call casting directors and ask them if they would possibly consider an ethnic actor for a part, knowing they would most likely be rejected. “I feel that the tide has turned,” one agent said. “I can pitch any actor for any role, and I think that’s good.”
But Andreeva immediately undercuts that view with an opposing perspective, in this case not attributed to anyone, even anonymously, so presumably the view of Andreeva herself:
“But, as is the case with any sea change, the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction. Instead of opening the field for actors of any race to compete for any role in a color-blind manner, there has been a significant number of parts designated as ethnic this year, making them off-limits for Caucasian actors, some agents signal.”
Andreeva follows up her opinion by citing two more unnamed talent agents (or is it a single person quoted twice) invoking stories about how white actors are being marginalized by the new practice.
“Basically 50% of the roles in a pilot have to be ethnic, and the mandate goes all the way down to guest parts,” one talent representative said.
“In one instance, after a number of actors of different ethnicities tested for two roles in a pilot this year, two Caucasian actors ended up being the top choices for the two remaining regular parts. However, because of a mandate from the studio and network, one of the roles had to diverse, so the pilot could only cast one of the top choices and pass on the other to fulfill the ethnic quota. “They need to say the best man or woman wins,” one rep suggested.”
Andreeva goes on to note both multiple shows where the original Caucasian protagonists have been changed to black, as well as true-life stories about Caucasians which have been adapted to star or include actors of color. Indeed, in the case of Broad Squad, a show about the first women to graduate from Boston’s police academy in 1972, Andreeva helpfully shows us a photo of that all-Caucasian class alongside her observation that the show’s pilot features a racial mix that more closely matches Boston’s current racial makeup today. In doing so, she’s invoking the historical inequality of the races 40+ years ago in order to question the portrayal of racial diversification today. The show isn’t a documentary.
In the false balance that runs through the article, in her 14th paragraph of 19, Andreeva gives with one hand, only to snatch away a positive view of the situation immediately thereafter:
“A lot of what is happening right now is long overdue. The TV and film superhero ranks have been overly white for too long, workplace shows should be diverse to reflect workplace in real America, and ethnic actors should get a chance to play more than the proverbial best friend or boss.
“But replacing one set of rigid rules with another by imposing a quota of ethnic talent on each show might not be the answer.”
By invoking “quotas” when talking about Caucasian job losses (which she has in no way demonstrated to actually be the case beyond the statements of two anonymous figures), Andreeva is employing the sort of language that in ugly political races is referred to as a “dog whistle,” not necessarily perceptible to the average reader, but red meat to those who secretly – or not so secretly – harbor reactionary, questionable racial attitudes and bemoan the loss of absolute Caucasian primacy in America.
Through my role at the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, I can attest to the fact that television networks are absolutely seeking to diversify the stories they tell. In our nearly 30 year history of advocating for diversity in race, culture and ethnicity in film, television and theatre, we’re often consulted on these issues, and have been continuously by the networks and other entertainment sources. They haven’t advised us of any quotas they’re trying to fill, but they’re also not solely focused on race; the number of calls seeking to tap our database of artists with disabilities has also seen a marked increase.
Andreeva treats efforts at diversity as a trend, a response to successful shows with actors of color in lead roles (How To Get Away With Murder), and shows that focus on stories about non-Caucasian principals (Empire, Black-ish, Fresh Off The Boat). To be sure, no one can accuse the entertainment industry of not seeking to recreate success through imitation, but their commitment to diversity seems to go deeper than that. Yet Andreeva doesn’t fully address to economic imperative of doing so: the fact that America is on a rapidly accelerating pace towards seeing Caucasians as only 50% of the population within the next 30 years. The networks are, for once, ahead of the curve, rather than following it.
By noting that only 13% of the American population is black, Andreeva appears to be using statistics to bolster her suggestion that the networks are overcorrecting when it comes to diversity. The fuller demographic data lends credence to producer Shonda Rhimes’s suggestion that even using the term “diversity” is outdated, and that “normalize” more accurately portrays what’s underway. And a recent Associated Press article points out that even with new efforts, diversity progress remains unequal.
Andreeva also fails to note that, with the expansion of scripted series on cable and on streaming services, there are more television series now than ever before, presumably resulting in more acting jobs than we would have seen only 30 years ago when the networks still retained their dominance. So it’s not hard to extrapolate – and I freely admit I’m guessing here – that on a net basis, Caucasian actors aren’t losing work, but that in an expanded marketplace, actors of color are now afforded more opportunities than before because there’s increased “capacity.” Additionally, is she unaware of the ingrained inequality of the entertainment industry, so recently on display through the Academy Award nominations?
Those of us who believe that diversity, that normalization, in the entertainment industry is essential and overdue may hear “dog whistle” language just as loudly as those it’s designed to reach. That’s why Andreeva’s article, with its false balance, can’t be given a pass in the daily avalanche of Internet content. We’re still a long way from seeing the reality of America’s multiculturalism fairly represented on TV, or on film or in theatre. So when we hear a whistle, we have to sound the alarm.
Howard Sherman is Senior Strategy Consultant at the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.