How TV colors people

As part of the Provost’s Lecture Series, Larry Gross, Sol Worth Professor of Communications in the Annenberg School, delivered a lecture Dec. 5 adapted from his essay, “Visibility and its Discontents,” which appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of Images, published by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. The essay is excerpted here:

If invisibility was the defining attribute of gay people in the past, we have moved in the past 50 years to a position of relative visibility for a group that encompasses fewer than 10 percent of society. But, as we’re learning, visibility, like truth, is rarely pure and never simple.

“What replaces invisibility is a kind of carefully regulated, segregated visibility,” Stuart Hall writes in his discussion of black popular culture.

Stereotyping is progress

Progress in media representations is riddled with complexities and ambiguities. Stereotyping is one step beyond the initial stage of sheer invisibility that minorities have to move through on their way to even token representation. In the 1960s, for example, comedian Carl Reiner offered scripts for a television series in which he hoped to star; but, as one network executive later put it, “the scripts were ‘de-Jewishized’ and ‘Midwesternized,’ and the final result was The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Today, Jewish characters “rarely get beyond the bounds of familiar and generally comforting stereotypes.”

For African-Americans, who entered the media stage as either villain and victim (of violence and/or ridicule), relative success means playing what K. Anthony Appiah has called “Saints”:

“Saint” Sidney Poitier in the movies of the 1960s and “Saint” Bill Cosby on television in the 1980s represent an extreme example of minority images produced in a way that majorities can enjoy and minorities can’t (shouldn’t?) complain about. As sociologist Herman Gray notes, the positive images of blacks on TV’s sitcoms “deflect attention from the persistence of racism, inequality, and differential power.”

Other groups still find themselves more frequently relegated to the victim and villain roles blacks may have partially abandoned. Media executives, now cautious in casting bad guys, find it easier to write the roles as Arab terrorists or Hispanic drug dealers.

Lesbians and gay men, however, are still up for grabs as victims and villains.

Fighting the “virtual whitewash”

At the end of the century, American television networks found themselves mired in a struggle over the representation of minorities on their flagship prime time programs. The latest round of this struggle began when NAACP President Kweisi Mfume denounced the line-up of new network programs slated for the 1999 fall season as a “virtual whitewash.”

The NAACP protest, soon joined by Latino and Asian-American groups, struck a sore public relations note. By September the New York Times reported that “TV Networks Rush[ed] to Add Minority Roles” to many of these shows.

NBC agreed to hire at least one new minority writer for each of its returning shows, and all the networks pledged to bring on minority interns and engage in diversity training.

In the end, however, once the PR smoke clears and the press conference mirrors have been put away, the realities of network TV will remain as they were. As always, it comes down to the bottom line. Advertisers believe that the audience wants to see its own face reflected on the screen; the audience that matters most is overwhelmingly white, middle-class and heterosexual.

In the end, all the fuss over minority representation reflects the bind that catches everyone: Ours is a media-dominated society; being left off of the media’s center stage is a form of symbolic annihilation. The networks could tell the protestors that fighting over the shrinking pie of network prime-time programming is silly, but they’re caught in their own trap; they too want to maintain the fiction that they occupy America’s cultural center.

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Originally published on January 18, 2001