Monday, October 17, 2011

How to Get To Sesame Street

Please welcome backMaxine Naawu, who among many other things, blogs about art, film and photography at Side Hustle Stories and hosts her own artistic work at her website.

Almost every kid the U.S. is familiar with Sesame Street. This children’s show, begun in 1966, is now a cultural staple. Elmo, Big Bird, and friends are instantly known the world over, and the show is still going strong today.

It is also a very diverse show, and not just because Muppets live among the humans on Sesame Street. Latin@, Black, White, and many other races are among both the main cast of adults and the rotating cast of children. In addition to the diversity of the cast, the songs, animation, and other segments draw from a variety of cultural sources. This was not done by mistake.

Actually, Sesame Street was originally created with a focus on educating inner city and low-income families. The creators wanted a show that children could relate to, but also expose them to images they may not experience in the city. Since its creation, Sesame Street has won awards for its conscientious treatment of sensitive subject matter and been lauded for handling topics such as poverty, HIV-AIDS, divorce, etc. in a thoughtful, inclusive and age appropriate way.

After the enormous success of Sesame Street, most pre-school children’s TV shows follow this same model. These shows tend to have truly “neutral” characters (such as animals or fantasy creatures) and often feature diverse casts. There are also more shows with minorities in major roles, or from cultures other than white, upper middle class suburban America. The PBS and Nick Jr. shows demonstrate this point well.

Contrast this with the lineup on network television. Currently, there are zero shows with a cast of all minorities on the major television networks, and a few shows with POCs at all. The few that do, are relegated to minor and/or stereotypical roles. 

Even Glee, which has been celebrated for having a cast that is diverse in gender, race, sexuality and ability, suffers from these problems: frequently,  in its marketing only the white, straight, and traditionally-abled characters are featured.

I don’t understand why POC are continually erased from network television. We can see from children’s programming that it is possible for The Powers That Be to produce diverse television that also makes money – even with shows that *gasp* only feature POCs. 

These kids shows are popular and watched by everyone, not just by POCs. I have seen children of all races wearing Dora The Explorer backpacks. Shows aimed at children (up to ~grade-school ages), come really close to the landscape of television that I would love to see in shows aimed at adults.

Yet for adults, shows with all people of color either don't exist or are dismissed by whites as something they wouldn’t be interested in. All white casts are considered neutral and “normal”, anything else is taking a chance.

Why does this matter? Television influences how we think about people and the world. Television is depicted as a reflection of our society. It is hurtful to me as a person of color to be constantly ignored, or inaccurately portrayed in what is supposed to be “my” culture too. 

Our monochrome media landscape also impacts white people. It is harmful for those in the majority to be presented with a skewed perception of society that shows people of color as all the same, or as irrelevant and invisible. Yes, there are more white people than those of color in the U.S., and television executives are going to cater to that audience. But from looking at children’s television, shows that appeal to the majority do not have to eliminate people of color, or put them in one-dimensional roles.

There are a lot of actors, writers, and directors of color who are not getting work, and whose views are getting silenced due to the absence of these shows on TV. We all lose when only one point of view is shown on TV. I mean, how many shows about a quirky white couple in the suburbs do we need?

Lately, I don’t watch very much television. Thanks to the internet, I’m able to supplement the few network shows I watch with entertainment that makes it a point to include people like me, like Awkward Black Girl and the podcasts at BcCo Studios. I support network television that attempts to be inclusive, and turn off my TV for the rest. Will this help us get to Sesame Street? I don’t know, but it’s worth a try.




ps. This!



9 comments:

  1. The Cosby Show. A Different World. Family Matters. Sister, Sister. Living Single (my personal favorite). Fresh Prince!! Hangin' With Mr. Cooper. The Wayans Bros. Moesha. Heck, Martin and the Steve Harvey Show.

    And that's only the major shows I can think of from the 90s. All on major network TV (I should know, because I didn't have cable). I enjoyed many of them, and so did a lot of my friends (black, white, AND other "colors"). I think I still remember all the words to the Family Matters opening, I will flat kick people off the TV to watch Living Single reruns, and I don't know a single person, of any color, who had a childhood in America and does not know the Fresh Prince opening by heart.

    It really isn't "just children's shows" that can be diverse. (Also, I'd argue that's kind of a facile comparison anyway, but we're not here for that.)

    Now, just because these shows were on major TV networks, featured black casts, and were hugely popular does not mean that there aren't problems.

    First and foremost: What happened? City Athena is right, there isn't that saturation anymore on major networks. Did they go to cable voluntarily? More people who have TVs have cable now than ever before. Sure, there were other considerations involved, but it is something to think about. I would also like to bring up the point that sitcoms aren't as popular now as they were then, but that just brings up more questions when you really dive into it.

    Secondly: Just because they were visible, non-white, and popular, does that mean they presented a positive view of non-white people to whites? Or, more accurately, as is implied through much of this post (aside from the Dora the Explorer example), a positive view of black people to non-blacks? Or even to blacks, for that matter—how harmful has the "well-meaning crazy loud black guy/girl actin' a fool" stereotype been?

    Thirdly: If the answer to the second question is "no": Does that really mean that they were actually "bad"?

    When it comes to Hispanic or Asian (South Asian, East Asian, or
    Near-East Asian) shows, I do agree that there really isn't anything for
    the older-than-kids set on major network TV. However, I feel that:

    1) If you incorporate enough cultural stuff from whichever ethnic background you use, the big shots may actually have a point when it comes to being worried about losing a connection to their major audience.

    2) If you don't—if you write a "white" show and just cast people of these different backgrounds, you will offend people of that specific background BECAUSE you don't have any cultural stuff, AND it'll be obvious that it's, well, gratuitous. Which it would be if this option were taken.

    3) More commonly, we have a mix between the two, with characters ranging from "super Americanized" to what they call "fresh off the boat". As we can see, this doesn't balance issue 1 and issue 2: It compounds them into even bigger problems.

    There are more problems—there will always be more problems—but I think it's important to consider these points if you're going to bring this subject up.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for your comment! Now lets get into it...

    1. Those are all 90s/80s shows. They are not on TV now, which is what I'm focusing on... current TV.  And as you pointed out, people of all "colors" watched them. So
    why aren't there such shows on TV now? That's the whole point of the
    post... I chose to make the argument with current kids shows &
    current network shows, but I could have made the argument with past
    network TV and current network TV. The most common response to "Why
    isn't there more diversity in network TV?" is "It's a money/popularity
    game, and white people won't watch shows with brown people in it". Both
    the kids show point and your 90s TV point counters that -- but yet we
    don't have those shows on TV right now.


    2. Are the non-white shows simply on cable now? I don't think so... I know there
    are two Tyler Perry (*ughhhh*) projects on TBS and two "Black" sitcoms on BET, and
    there's Psych (which I'll count b/c a black guy is one of the main
    characters). I'm unaware of other projects on cable with non-white MAIN characters that are scripted shows. That is kind of moot, as the conversation is about network
    TV, and while there are fewer sitcoms right now (and why can't there be
    a drama with lots of minorities instead of a sitcom) there are still
    plenty of them being produced with all-white casts. And when it comes
    to non-black non-whites, the landscape is pretty bad and has been bad, you're right. I'm
    seeing more Southeast Asians than ever before which is awesome, but
    still needs to be better.... which was what my post is trying to say.

    2.
    Even with cable, and even if the landscape got more colorful, I'm not
    saying we should say "non-whites are on TV, hurray! We're done!" but
    right now there are hardly any. Period. Why? I can't go into poor
    representation of minorities on TV right now if there aren't any
    minorities on TV right now. Those shows from the 90s weren't perfect, but that
    doesn't mean they shouldn't exist. A lot of network TV with all white
    casts are pretty terrible in regards to gender roles, for example, but
    no one is arguing it would be better if they just didn't exist. Seems
    like just like in a lot of areas, shows with non-whites have to be
    better or perfect just to be able to run with the mediocre...


    The last three points you made address why I made the kids show comparison:
    these shows tackle diversity of lots of different types, not just
    black/white and not just race; brought in different cultural elements
    and didn't lose the white folks; handled it well without marginalizing
    or resorting to tokenism. Not every kids show is perfect but they are
    much, much better than prime-time. All I'm trying to say is, IT CAN BE
    DONE! So why isn't it?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for your comment! Now lets get into it...



    1. Those are all 90s/80s shows. They are not on TV now, which is what
    I'm focusing on... current TV.  And as you pointed out, people of all
    "colors" watched them. So
    why aren't there such shows on TV now? That's the whole point of the
    post... I chose to make the argument with current kids shows &
    current network shows, but I could have made the argument with past
    network TV and current network TV. The most common response to "Why
    isn't there more diversity in network TV?" is "It's a money/popularity
    game, and white people won't watch shows with brown people in it". Both
    the kids show point and your 90s TV point counters that -- but yet we
    don't have those shows on TV right now.




    2. Are the non-white shows simply on cable now? I don't think so... I
    know there
    are two Tyler Perry (*ughhhh*) projects on TBS and two "Black" sitcoms
    on BET, and
    there's Psych (which I'll count b/c a black guy is one of the main
    characters). I'm unaware of other projects on cable with non-white MAIN
    characters that are scripted shows. That is kind of moot, as the
    conversation is about network
    TV, and while there are fewer sitcoms right now (and why can't there be
    a drama with lots of minorities instead of a sitcom) there are still
    plenty of them being produced with all-white casts. And when it comes
    to non-black non-whites, the landscape is pretty bad and has been bad,
    you're right. I'm
    seeing more Southeast Asians than ever before which is awesome, but
    still needs to be better.... which was what my post is trying to say.



    2.
    Even with cable, and even if the landscape got more colorful, I'm not
    saying we should say "non-whites are on TV, hurray! We're done!" but
    right now there are hardly any. Period. Why? I can't go into poor
    representation of minorities on TV right now if there aren't any
    minorities on TV right now. Those shows from the 90s weren't perfect, but that
    doesn't mean they shouldn't exist. A lot of network TV with all white
    casts are pretty terrible in regards to gender roles, for example, but
    no one is arguing it would be better if they just didn't exist. Seems
    like just like in a lot of areas, shows with non-whites have to be
    better or perfect just to be able to run with the mediocre...




    The last three points you made address why I made the kids show comparison:
    these shows tackle diversity of lots of different types, not just
    black/white and not just race; brought in different cultural elements
    and didn't lose the white folks; handled it well without marginalizing
    or resorting to tokenism. Not every kids show is perfect but they are
    much, much better than prime-time. All I'm trying to say is, IT CAN BE
    DONE! So why isn't it? 

    ReplyDelete
  4. Edited only to make the whole thing show (no words changed)...silly disqus

    ReplyDelete
  5. Related from NPR today: Latin@ actors and Hollywouldn't: http://www.npr.org/2011/10/24/141594495/moreno-leguizamo-talk-latin-life-in-hollywouldnt

    ReplyDelete
  6. Related, a "Dr. Horrible sing-along blog" commentary via the song "Nobody's Asian in the movies"  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNmzegQUtFA

    ReplyDelete
  7. The pentatonic riff is a nice touch--haha!

    ReplyDelete
  8. From Yrro Simyarin via @socimages    "I think it's because kids shows are more intentionally didactic than adult shows. In adult shows whatever plot and characters were written (or how they think the target market will respond) are more important to the producers than projecting values. Not that they couldn't choose to tell different stories that did involve more minorities, but teaching people that diversity (or anything, really) is good, ends up as a lower priority."

    ReplyDelete
  9. Parks and Recreaction and Brooklyn nine-nine are two shows I've been watching that have rather diverse casts though the top billed characters are still white. I also like that the POC's on these two shows are not written to represent their entire race, so to speak. They're just there to be funny. East Asians, southeast Asians and Asian-americans are still woefully under-represented in network though. I also watch a lot of Sesame Street (I have a 3yo and a 1yo) and I commend them for the diversity they put out there. They even have people with different accents reading the alphabet over animations which I think is a nice touch!

    ReplyDelete

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