Tokenism?

The backlash against Girls definitely made me look at my writing for racial diversity. And, yup, most of my characters are white. Nothing plot-wise makes them white, but looking at characters through the lense of a theoretical Hollywood casting session, they would all end up white. Now, of course, that speaks a lot to the fucked-up nature of Hollywood casting. It says something that people of color (or fat people, trans people, people with disabilities, etc.) are only cast when the plot specifically calls for them. White = default. Boo.

It also speaks to my life. Like Lena Dunham, my imaginary life is pretty racially homogenous because my social life is pretty racially homogenous. That is a fact of my life that I don’t like, but I don’t particularly know how to fix.

I started diddling around with the idea of a new play recently (which, in all liklihood, I will never finish anyway because I am bad at long writing projects, so this may all be moot, but let’s pretend I have an attention span longer than a gnat.) It will focus on a nuclear family and a few of their significant others. And, as I started to play out scenes in my head, I realized that all of my imaginary actors were white. Whoops. There is absolutely no reason they need to be.

How do I fix it? Do I specify that a particular character is black? That’s easy enough. But by doing that, now the rest of the cast is, by extension definitely not black. Leave it up to the casting director? Like, in theory, in my perfect world (where this play is being produced repeatedly! lolz) the racial make up of this cast would change with every show. But that feels lazy, too. Not my problem! I didn’t say they had to be white! The casting director did it! I’m the writer. I am aware that diversity is an issue. It is my problem.

It feels awkward, to insist on a physical trait for a character that has no bearing on the plot. But I guess that is the only way to make diversity happen. Major social change probably doesn’t happen by trying to avoid ever feeling awkward. This character is black. That one is fat. Because life has diversity, and we are failing to document the world artistically if our palette is so bland.

Rather than specify the physical characteristics of any particular character, I’m considering adding this note to the stage directions:

Author’s Note: When casting this show, please take diversity into consideration. Physical attributes are mostly irrelevant to this story, but what is relevant is reflecting a somewhat accurate portrayal of a “modern” social group. Assembling an entire cast of thin, conventionally attractive white people is not the correct tableau.

Thoughts? Do any of my director friends feel like this would impinge on their artistic freedom? It’s certainly bordering a little closer to Beckett-esque direction than I’m usually comfortable with, but I think it’s ok for a good cause. Is it even enough? Is the only way to ensure diversity at this juncture to specify?

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17 thoughts on “Tokenism?

  1. While I agree with most of what you’re saying, I disagree with one point. To say that color has no bearing on the plot is to assume that the the world around us is color-blind. Unfortunately that is not the case, and therefore color will almost always affect plot. If not, the writer is naive or writing about a utopian society. If an author truly wished to document or accurately capture a snapshot of life, there will be cases in which the entire cast IS composed of thin, Barbie types. Diversity is a fabulous aim, but it’s not how society works most of the time.

    So my questions is: Why do you want to ensure diversity? Is diversity more important than realism? (Yes, I know that not all theater is realistic.)

    • Yes, there are snapshots where everyone is a thin, Barbie type, but the ratio of the representation of those people in media is vastly skewed.

      I think in this day and age, diversity is realism. And furthermore, I do think diversity is more important than coincidental realism. I think if purposefully inserting diversity does not counteract the reality of the situation, it should be done. Like, I’m not asking there to be women in Band of Brothers. I’m asking there to be women in a modern office setting.

  2. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is your(/our) problem to solve. Insofar as Girls is something different and good because it is by and about GIRLS, it is limited because it is by and about RICH WHITE GIRLS. But if Lena Dunham had instead written, oh, I don’t know, the one who walks all over her boyfriend, as a latina or something, we’d have another face of color on the tv screen, which is good, but that only goes so far. Girls, as a cultural phenomenon as much as an actual piece of television entertainment, demonstrated that real representation only comes with authorship.

    That’s not a good answer, I know, because you can’t really force [insert marginalized demographic] to write instead of you, and even if you could, it probably wouldn’t satisfy your creative itch.

    Meanwhile, I hope it is obvious that I’m not saying white writers should only write white characters. It’s clearly possible for white writers to write great characters of color (and male writers to write women, cis to write trans, straight to write gay, etc) without falling into tokenism or stereotype. It’s also clear to me, based on the low success rate, that it is quite difficult. And I realize I’m punting the main question of your post by not offering suggestions on how to succeed, mostly because I have no idea (for one thing, unless you count Frankly Scarlett sketches, I really never write fiction).

    But I do think that accepting that even if you DO write great [insert marginalized demographic] characters, you’re still (and always) going to be another privileged white writer is well, an unavoidable truth that you have to accept to be able to really deal with these issues in your creative product.

    • Oh, believe me, I don’t think anything I write, even if it were to magically become famous is going to *solve racism* (I mean, I’m not writing “The Help” afterall…)

      But I think getting another latina face on screen or on stage is something, and I think do sort of think it’s important, as a white privileged writer, to do what I can.

      Also, if you need to recast me as a woman of color in your memoir, I support that.

    • This is more or less what I left my google reader feed to say.

      I am *more* mortified by a privileged white person trying to write outside her own experience out of a sense of social obligation. I don’t see how that can be conceived as anything but condescending, I really don’t. It’s why I don’t have this problem with Lena Dunham. She’s like 24 years old. She’s someone who clearly writes from her own experience, as many great writers, especially young ones, do. The show is written from the very honest perspective of a 24-year-old privileged white girl, and the honesty is why it works. NOTHING IN ME wants to see what Lena Dunham has to say about the black experience, or the Latina one, or the Aboriginal one. Nothing. I would hate it.

      If there is a social obligation to be had here, it’s to make sure that writers of all races, genders, and societal experience have the chance to write and be published and produced. Maybe this means including such writers on the staff of, e.g., girls, though for now I think the show is successful in the “it is what it is” sense. Maybe it means you look to collaborate in your writing, or you look for diverse feedback on your writing. But as someone who evaluates scripts and considers herself an educator perhaps above all else, I do feel strongly that my obligation is to get a wider variety of voices heard, not to tell voices what they should do to be heard.

      And I’m not, for the record, in favor of specifying the race of any given character in a play unless it is vital to the plot. This is mostly because I’m highly in favor or color-blind casting, and I also believe that the circumstances of a play’s production should be taken into account by the director. If I’m being brutally honest (you asked!), I’m not even in favor of your Author’s note. Theater on the page has universal potential; theater in production is only as relevant as its audience. Your play could end up in the hands of a director of a middle school with a student population that is, say, mostly black. Beyond the obvious casting difficulties if the director were to adhere to your note, a diverse group may not in fact be reflective of their social group. Do I think we should strive for an ideal in that sense, expose them to more diversity? Perhaps, but I also think it’s worth considering what they will get out of theater at an age that is particularly sensitive to differences and fitting in. If you feel that a diverse social group is important to the theme of your play, that’s one thing. If diversity is that important to you, get it in the play itself somehow. It doesn’t need to be direct — good writing can convey that a character is different physically, even in the way she reacts to something. If you feel that’s tokenism, then the call for diversity probably is too.

      As far as legality is concerned, just FYI, such a note would not be enforceable. Theatrical language is protected by law; casting is not (ironically (?) in part in the interest of diversity).

      • Yes, writers write what they know, but I think it is part of growing as a writer to try and be less narcissistic. You know what a lot of people *know*? Racism. And sexism. And once the writer is aware of that prejudice, I think it is that writer’s responsibility to be socially conscious.

        I also believe in racially blind casting. In a perfect world. But in this world? Those people would end up being cast as white. Yes, I think it is somewhat condescending to indicate race when it is not relevant to the story. I also find Affirmative Action kind of intellectually insulting. But I’m a pragmatist, and without it, I am 100% sure that white dudes would have continued to hire white dudes.

        I also think it is problematic to assert that including an African American in a story demands that it speak to the African American experience. That is deeply othering. It reinforces the “default” setting of white to any story that is not specifically not-white. Same with male and female characters. I think it is problematic that most stories that center around women are *about* their woman-ness. (for example, think of sports movies. There are a gagillion popular, financially successful movies about dudes playing sports. But 40 years after Title IX, the only movie about women in sports to gain any traction in the popular consciousness, with critical and financial success, is a story about women playing baseball when there are *literally no able bodied men to play*)

        I think casually including more faces of color normalizes the idea of diversity. Yes, the ultimate goal is to have more diverse writers. But again, I think it is SO othering to believe that the only time white writers can include characters of color is when race is itself an issue. It allows the privileged writers to be lazy, and acknowledges and reinforces the otherness of people of different backgrounds. Why do we accept that white dudes can effectively write the experience of elves, medival princes, and talking animals, but give them free pass not to write women or black people because that is *too hard*. Sure.I think men have more trouble writing female characters than women do. But I don’t think that means that male writers shouldn’t try to include more female characters in their stories.

      • I would like to miss the point entirely and say there are plenty of great girl sports movies: Whip It, Bring It On, EM EFFING BLUE CRUSH? These might not be quite as highly regarded and famous as A League of Their Own, but I think you’re being too harsh on the genre.

  3. As you say Liz, there’s no way you’re going to solve racism with one play. Fight a battle, not the war. I think your author’s note is an excellent solution to the problem as it states a clear intention of the narrative and a pothole you wish the interpreters to avoid. It is true that any future readers of your work may avoid the issue and white wash the cast anyway, but your note will make sure they can’t say it wasn’t brought up. It will now become a clear choice. I think by making your note in the first place (and writing with a diverse cast in mind), you will attract directors and producers who will make the effort.

    If you decide to make race or body type explicit, I can think of a few traps you’ll run into if you wish for these things to have no bearing on the overall plot. A)Directors will LOOK for reasons to have character’s race or body type have bearing on the plot because they will assume your did it for a “reason,” thus reinforcing stereotypes to make it more pronounced. B)You will be cementing only a singular palate of diversity. From what your saying, you see potential for certain characters to be from any walk of life, allowing directors to make different choices (perhaps some you haven’t even considered). Choosing for them means it will probably be unchanging and you will not reflect any potential or future interpretations of the piece (if that’s what you want in your perfect world).

  4. This post is incredibly timely for me and I’m glad you wrote it, because it articulates some of my discomfort as a writer with writing characters who have different backgrounds than I do. I think writing about an elf or a talking animal is actually a hell of a lot easier than writing a person of a different race, gender, etc., because there aren’t elves or talking animals who will be hurt or offended by a portrayal that doesn’t ring true to their experience.

    I do wonder if it’s possible for a white person to write a character of indeterminate race without them ending up as white by default, even on the page. To frame it differently: say you have a play that’s about four women who work together in an office. You haven’t specified any of their sexual preferences, but let’s assume that one of these women is queer. From my perspective as a queer woman, that character is automatically going to have a different view of the action of the play. This may never affect the dialogue or the course of the plot, but it’s there and would need to be considered.

    The project I’m working on now is more often than not outside my personal experience, but there are real people out there who do the things I’m writing about, so I’m walking a fine line. I’ve sort of gotten around that by writing from the perspective of a character who is a lot like me, and so the reader sees everything through her lens, which is that of an educated white woman who has internalized a variety of prejudices, even if she thinks she hasn’t.

    I just made the decision today to make the protagonist’s best friend black, partly because diversity is important to me but also because I wanted to see if it would change parts of the story or the way the two characters interact. I was surprised to find that it has.

    I reevaluated a conversation early on in which the best friend and the protagonist talk about sex. Originally I’d assumed that the two came from similar backgrounds, but even if they grew up in the same place at the same time, the black woman would have encountered issues the white woman didn’t. They probably both experienced slut-shaming, but the black woman also has to deal with being stereotyped as promiscuous, or being pursued by white men because they find her “exotic.” Even if those specific things never come up, they’re going to be part of her perspective.

    I guess what I’m saying is that if race/gender/sexuality/size/etc doesn’t appear to affect character development or plot, I’d look at it another time to make sure.

    That said, I understand exactly what you’re trying to do. Diversity in casting is incredibly important to me, perhaps even to the extent that I fuck with the author’s original intentions. (The detective in Stop Kiss cast as a woman really changed the meaning of the interrogation scene, possibly to the detriment of the message.)

    If I encountered that author’s note as a director, I’d do my best to have a diverse cast. Partly because that’s what I’d do anyway, and partly because I’d assume that the author has created characters who will interact differently if they’re not a homogenous group. IE, a simple question like, “So, you grew up in the city?” has different implications depending on the background of the character who is asking it and the one who’s being asked, creating the opportunity for delicious subtext.

    Wow, I’m a wordy girl today. Hope at least some of this is useful to you!

  5. I can’t seem to reply to your comment, Liz, so I’m starting anew!

    I did not mean that having a character of any particular race had to encapsulate that race’s “experience” in any way, though reading through that comment I can see how it was perceived as such. I only meant that specifically re: Dunham, because the show has been so hammered, in my perception, not only for a lack of a racially diverse cast but specifically for such a narrow social experience represented on the show, i.e., one that happens to be unduly skewed toward privileged white girls. I may be mistaken — I haven’t read an enormous amount about the show. I also think it’s possible that people inadvertently conflate the two things (diverse demographic representation and diverse social/experience representation). How linked are they, or more specifically, how linked do they need to be in a story? My instinct is that maybe they don’t, and I think that’s what you’re saying too, though Beth raises some good points above that make me think it over. I don’t have an answer to that.

    I think in theory, a character can be of a specific race with it having no bearing on the plot or the character arc. I mean, I read that sentence and I’m like, duh. The reality, though, is that listing a character’s race comes across as a playwright’s conscious choice (it is), and if a character is specifically listed as, say, Asian, a director or casting agent is going to automatically look for reasons (plot- or character-related) why that’s the case, just as s/he would do if a character is specifically listed as white. If I’m understanding you correctly, this is antithetical to your intent — you *don’t* want a character’s race and experience to be inherently linked. But this is a reality of storytelling and casting. I’m thinking of a script that came through our literary office a few months ago which involved a family’s experience in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The characters’ races were specified — if memory serves, four black people and one white. The play couldn’t have been cast otherwise, at least not unless a director was deliberately trying to make a statement that would have buried the playwright’s clear intent. The racial makeup of the actors cast was integral to the story itself, and that is the understanding of playwrights’ character listings: that the racial makeup of the cast is left to the director’s discretion unless it needs to be cast a specific way to serve the story.

    One thing I disagree with you on is that characters that aren’t clearly labeled as any specific race will automatically be cast as white. This is probably true in Hollywood. I don’t think it’s true in theater. I think theater, on any given day and depending on my mood, does anywhere from 60-90% of things entirely wrong. I think casting is one thing it usually does well, or at least it makes an effort to do so. I’ve never worked at a professional theater that didn’t take consistent, active steps toward ensuring diversity in casting. It tends to be deeply, personally important to people who work in theater, and I can cite numerous examples of consciously diverse casting from every theater I’ve been involved with, and just about every show. Actors Equity has a long and impressive history in this area; it was way ahead of most other organizations on this. It instituted non-traditional casting policies which are still in place, and also made rules ensuring that roles that *are* plot-bearingly racially specific are cast that way. (I think this happened in the wake of a white woman being cast as the lead in Miss Saigon.) Now, you’re probably not going to see a whole lot of racial diversity at the Players Playhouse in Des Moines, Iowa, but at most medium- to high-level professional theaters, white is not necessarily the default casting for non-racially-specified roles.

    Beyond all of that, I think I may just differ from you on what we feel a writer’s responsibilities are. I agree with you that part of “growing” as a writer is learning to write outside your own experience, but frankly, a lot of great writers don’t do that well. I don’t think that means they’re not growing, but they may be using their skills in a narrower way, albeit while perfecting that set of skills. Beyond that, some writers do a 180 from this and consciously choose not to convey their experience directly in their writing. Ok, so many people have experienced racism. If the victims of that happen to be writers, is it their social responsibility to convey that in their writing? I don’t think that’s true unless *they* perceive it that way. A lot of people who have experienced rape want to talk about it, to share their experience with others. A lot of people also vehemently don’t. Both racism and rape can be very traumatizing experiences. Is it up to anyone but the victim to determine how/why/when/in what manner/to what degree these experiences are conveyed in their writing if they are writers? I don’t think so; I don’t think I can impose that social responsibility upon them. I loooooove it when people get this in their writing and even when their writing is driven by it. Part of me can’t think of a stronger impetus to write, frankly. My favorite writer is Dickens, and I’m a huge Arthur Miller fan, precisely because they so unabashedly and consciously attack moral and societal ills in their work. But I feel strongly that that is the writer’s choice. Writing to me is a deeply personal thing, and what a writer chooses *not* to include is as personal as what s/he chooses to include. Now, clearly you feel certain responsibilities as a writer, so of course I think you should honor them however you see fit.

    • You may be right that I am unfairly conflating Hollywood casting practices with theater casting practices. Fair point.

      I agree that listing the race will cause directors to imbue meaning to the race when there should be none. As stated, my ideal scenario is to leave race entirely out of it and have the racial diversity of the cast change with each theoretical production (I am a very successful playwright in this scenario, har har.) And perhaps I am wrong to think that theatrical casting director will skew unfairly toward all-white casts. I am definitely influenced by tv and movies, where that is most certainly true. I think I lean toward including the author’s note because I think often, otherwise socially conscious privileged people benefit from a little nudge in the direction of mindfulness. I don’t expect it to have any legal ramifications (and agree that it shouldn’t) but simply hope that it might make a decision maker think before defaulting to white. Which may be moot, as you say. I hope that is true.

      I don’t think writers are so indebted to the public good that they should have to write about things that hurt them, but I do think writers should be actively aware of not *hurting* the public good. For instance, I don’t hate on Lena Dunham for writing an all-white cast. I agree that she wrote what she knew without thinking. But a lot of women of color responded and said “it hurt us to be ignored in your ‘voice of a generation’ opus.” I think Dunham’s next work will be more racially conscious, and if it isn’t, I think she is making an active choice to be racially homogenous. Now, you can make an argument for the “truth” of her life, but there is coincidental truth and there is necessary truth. Now, maybe she will make a case that having an all-white cast is *necessary* to her truth. It gets hard to make that argument without getting racist.

      Now, sure, I guess a writer can choose not to care. But then I get to think their work is racist. Or sexist. Hemmingway certainly was being honest in his portrayal of his perception of women. His misogyny is pretty central to his writing. And I think he is an artist worth studying. I also think he’s sexist as fuck. Yes, your truth can override social good. Yay art! But then people might call your work racist. Actions have consequences. Producing art invites people to judge it.

  6. I have to admit that I only read parts of the comments that preceded mine. That being said, I agree with Annie D. in that Lena Dunham cannot be blamed for a lack of diversity on her show. She wrote what she knows. On the contrary, I’d say HBO can be blamed for greenlighting shows about rich white girls instead of more diverse programming, except wait — THEY HAVE A WHOLE LATINO CHANNEL. So if it’s not the writer we can blame, and it’s not the network, then it must be the consumers, right? Think about who is more likely to have HBO. Rich white folks, that’s who. And, well, we all like to see characters who are like us on the tele. So even if writers are providing a bunch of good shit that happens to be diverse, too, and even if the networks are greenlighting it, it all comes down to the consumers. I’m not gonna be watching the Latino channel anytime soon, but I watched the SHIT out of Girls.

    I know I am VASTLY oversimplifying (or getting it totally wrong, depending on your opinion), but this is how it works in my head.

    Kbye!

      • Snark aside, I understand *why* there are mostly white people on television. I just think it’s wrong, and sometimes it’s right to go outside of our comfort zone to do the right thing.

        Having a black hipster as part of the crew on Girls probably wouldn’t have affected your enjoyment or the integrity of the show. But it might have meant a great deal to the black teenagers watching the show. And like, it’s not disengenuous to the vision. Brooklyn is pretty diverse. To have a show full of white people in the biggest melting pot in the country is actually *more* disengenuous.

        Let me be clear, I fucking love Girls. I think it’s great. I think Lena Dunham is great. I love that she responded to the criticism thoughtfully, and admitted that she had a blind spot. I bet she’ll try harder next time. And that’s all I’m asking for. To try harder next time.

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