We Should Be Realistic About Racial Representation in Television

elwoodwatson by Elwood Watson

Over the next few weeks, the American public will be introduced to many new comedies, dramas, “reality” programs and other forms of media. And of course, viewers will witness the return of many of their favorite programs. To be blunt, I do not watch an abundance of television. One reason for doing so is that I do not have much time to be an indulgent couch potato. To be honest, I do not find that much on mainstream television to be all that appealing.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of television programs I watch are on cable. During my boob tube viewing history, I have had a few programs that I had religiously tuned into on a weekly basis – “The Cosby Show,” “Ally McBeal,” “Swingtown,” “True Blood,” “Mad Men” “Six Feet Under,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Frank’s Place.” Of all the current cable programs, the one that I have been most deeply engaged in is the AMC drama “Mad Men.”

The show, produced by Matthew Weiner, creator of the HBO mega hit “The Sopranos” explores the inner workings and complexities of several men and women who work at an advertising firm in New York City in the 1960s. Now, in its third season, the show has addressed a number of social norms that were relevant to the era. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homosexuality, abortion, infidelity, alcoholism, depression and other topics are discussed at various degrees. The main character of the show is a conflicted, tormented upper middle-class WASP advertising executive named Don Draper.

“Mad Men” has been a consistent favorite of television critics. The show has spawned a number of columns, commentary and debates by journalists, psychologists, academics, Internet chat rooms, blogs and other media. Even the fashion industry has begun to take notice as the mod look of the 1960s has suddenly become vogue in some Madison Avenue circles. The show has definitely struck a nerve among many people from varied walks of life.

What is notable is that a number of African-Americans have weighed in on the “Mad Men” phenomenon. Earlier this summer, there was a piece of the popular website “Double X” entitled “Why Mad Men Is Afraid of Race?” written by cultural critic Latoya Peterson that took the 60s styled drama to task for being hesitant to address the history of American racial conflict. Several days later, another journalist, David Swerdlick, a frequent contributor to The Root web site responded to Peterson’s column arguing that the show was very realistic in how it addresses the marginalization of people of color.

As a historian, I have my take on both perspectives. The fact is that non-Whites were largely obscured in the professional WASP world of the 1960s. It is probably safe to say that the few Black characters that are showcased — Paul’s ex-girlfriend Sheila, the Draper’s maid Carla and the Black elevator operator Hollis — are accurately seen as individuals who are occasional yet brief interlopers in the lives of upscale Whites. They were there to serve at the pleasure and discretion of the White families and businesses that employed them and they are expected to listen, answer when spoken to, do their jobs and stay out of the way. While such a situation was certainly unflattering and even annoying on a number of levels, the fact was that this was reality for more than a few Black people in America during the days of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

While it would be interesting to see Carla, Hollis and Sheila deeply engaged in the most intimate workings of the lives of the main characters, the fact is that such a depiction would largely ring untrue. The same holds true for the advertising agency. No Black person, including secretaries, outside of the janitorial staff, would have been working at Sterling Cooper. Racist clientele, stockholders, the status quo and the conservative climate of the environment would have prohibited such a thing. The fact is that race has an ugly history in our nation.

What is even more important (at least to me) is that while it is commendable for television writers and producers to be racially, religiously and gender inclusive in their shows, the fact is that sometimes this may not always be the most accurate approach. Let me make it clear that I have no problem with television shows experimenting with new ideas or even thinking “outside the box” for that matter. Much of television is imaginative in its nature. Moreover, more diversity on the networks of any type is a good thing. The NAACP’s 1998 report criticizing the three major broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, for their deplorable lack of diversity was justified.

What becomes problematic (at least to me) is when shows, for whatever reason, in an effort to make their shows more diverse, engage in plots and develop situations that seemed contrived or forced. Would it have made sense for a Black family to be the major focus of “The Soprano’s” when that show focused on Italian Americans who lived in northern New Jersey? Would it have been logical for Blacks to be 50 percent of the characters on “Newhart”, the CBS program in the mid-1990s about White middle-aged people and some senior citizens that took place in central Vermont?  Should senior citizens have been the major characters on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a program where teenagers slayed all sorts of evil beings? Should Whites have been prominently showcased in every single episode of “The Cosby Show? or “Soul Food? ” Get my point? It probably would have smacked of patronizing tokenism at best.

To be honest, I watch “Mad Men” and most television shows strictly for the entertainment value. If I wanted accuracy and precision I will read a history book or interview someone who has lived such an experience. Such a person could provide you with more accuracy than any situation comedy, drama or “reality program” can ever do. This is simply a fact.

There is nothing wrong viewing television with a critical eye. However, sometimes, we need to be realistic about the fact that oftentimes writers, producers, and directors are often attempting to deliver entertainment value to their audience — nothing more and nothing less. Fiction, by its nature, has no responsibility to be accurate. Sometimes it is best to remind ourselves of the saying “it’s just a television show.” All of us should keep this thought in mind as we tune in to watch the new fall season.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board  (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008.

10 responses to “We Should Be Realistic About Racial Representation in Television

  1. I actually read Ms. Pearson’s piece that you discuss in your article. While she made a few good points, I agree with you that we should not expect every television program to address the social issues of our day.

  2. While I agree that every television program does not have to have minority character on it, I will admit that I do feel more welcomed on TV shows where I see someone who looks like me.

  3. Your make a persuasive argument.

  4. You make a good point.. However, the sad fact is that there is very little on television today that is worthwhile watching.

  5. Nice write up. The fact is that most television is brain dead and that includes shows that are geared toward Black audiences.

  6. The fact of the matter is that we have to hold these writers, producers and directors responsible because too many people and particularly young people get their world view from entertainment venues.

  7. I am a 31 year old Latino attorney. Although there are no Latino characters on the show, I still love “Mad Men.” The show rocks!

  8. A very thoughtful piece Professor Watson.

    Stephen. I agree with you.

  9. This is an interesting analysis on racial representations in current television shows like “Mad Men.” I thought your point that there is a problem with the media’s representations of people of color on television was highly persuasive. I appreciate how you included both Latoya Peterson as well as David Swerdlick’s discussion on whether the television show, “Mad Men,” accurately addressed the conflicts with racism. As you have clearly articulated, although one can acknowledge writers and producers for their attempt to creatively include issues like racism and gender inequalities on mainstream television, I agree with your statement that sometimes these plots seem forced, or unnatural. However, why do we, as consumers of the media, feel that it is unconventional to have “a Black family [as] the major focus of ‘The Soprano’s’ when the show is focused on Italian Americans who lived in northern New Jersey?” Is it a problem that viewers find it uncomfortable, and in some cases, annoying, if “whites have been prominently showcased in every single episode of ‘The Cosby Show?’” If so, what can the creators and producers of television shows do to more accurately incorporate issues of racism without perpetuating dominant ideologies and stereotypes? Although I see your point that this plot might seem forced – and even disagreeable to some viewers – I question how the media shapes the ways in which we are programmed to view television shows.

    I agree with your argument that it is acceptable for writers and producers to experiment with their shows and create plots that convey more diversity, but “the fact is that sometimes this may not always be the most accurate approach.” While some aspects of the media might sustain credibility – interviews or biographies – I agree with your point that history books and documentaries provide more “accuracy and precision…than any situation comedy, drama, or ‘reality program’ can ever do.” With that said, I take a different stance on your argument that “sometimes it is best to remind ourselves of the saying ‘it’s just a television show.’” Although it is important to view television as an entertainment value, my concern is that many people [mis]interpret the media as a credible source for information. While television shows, like “Mad Men,” satisfy viewers’ demand for entertainment, it is important for the audience to be critical analysts, rather than passive listeners, and challenge the stereotypes that the media perpetuates so that we, as consumers of mass media, can participate in discourses on issues – like racism, sexuality, and gender inequalities – that are so easily overlooked.

  10. This is an interesting analysis on racial representations in current television shows like “Mad Men.” I thought your point that there is a problem with the media’s representations of people of color – as well as other issues like sexism and homosexuality – on television was highly persuasive. I appreciate how you included both Latoya Peterson as well as David Swerdlick’s discussion on whether the television show, “Mad Men,” accurately addressed racial conflicts. As you have clearly articulated, although one might acknowledge writers and producers for their attempt to creatively include issues like racism and gender inequalities on mainstream television, I agree with your statement that sometimes these plots seem forced, or unnatural. However, why do we, as consumers of the media, feel that it is unconventional to have “a Black family [as] the major focus of ‘The Soprano’s’ when the show is focused on Italian Americans who lived in northern New Jersey?” Is it a problem that viewers find it uncomfortable, and in some cases, annoying, if “whites have been prominently showcased in every single episode of ‘The Cosby Show?’” If so, what can the creators and producers of television shows do to more accurately incorporate issues like racism without perpetuating dominant ideologies and stereotypes? Although I see your point that these plots might seem forced – and even disagreeable to some viewers – I question how the media shapes the ways in which we are programmed to view television shows.

    I agree with your argument that it is commendable for writers and producers to experiment with their shows and create plots that convey more diversity, but “the fact is that sometimes this may not always be the most accurate approach.” While some aspects of the media might sustain credibility – interviews or biographies – I also believe that history books and documentaries provide more “accuracy and precision…than any situation comedy, drama, or ‘reality program’ can ever do.” With that said, I take a different stance on your argument that “sometimes it is best to remind ourselves of the saying ‘it’s just a television show.’” Although it is important to view television as a source for entertainment, my concern is that many people [mis]interpret the media as a credible source for information. While television shows, like “Mad Men,” satisfy viewers’ demand for entertainment, it is important for the audience to be critical analysts, rather than passive listeners, and challenge the stereotypes that the media perpetuates so that we, as consumers of mass media, can participate in discourses on issues – like racism, sexuality, and gender inequalities – that are so easily overlooked.

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