The whitewashing of reality TV

Feb 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

For the past year it’s been widely reported that broadcast television networks have come under attack for failing to reflect cultural diversity in their programming-and that encompasses casting, writing, directing and producing.
The networks reacted to this barrage of negative exposure by hemming and hawing and denying the allegations and then eventually
appointing diversity czars, noticeably people of color in most cases, whom they charged with the task of hemming and hawing and holding out a faint hope that things would change.
It’s a year later and what has happened? Well, we’ve got the denizens of “Friends” still living in a Wonder Bread whitewashed New York City that didn’t exist even in Edith Wharton’s time, and we have Elizabeth Berkley, a white actor, portraying a black woman passing as a white woman on “NYPD Blue”-an especially convoluted expression of the American neurosis. But wait! There was more, and it arrived in the form of reality TV.
For weeks I have watched episodes of such shows as “Survivor I” and “Survivor II,” “Big Brother,” “The Mole” and “Temptation Island,” in which minority members are voted off, given the heave-ho and otherwise vanquished with such alarming rapidity their only chance of staying on a bit longer is a cast mate over the age of 55 who stumbles during a challenge.
In certain communities there has long been a humorous but nonetheless widespread belief that in movies-the horror, sci-fi and slasher genres in particular-minority characters are killed off early and without compunction. This perception was validated in “Scream II” when both Jada Pinkett and Duane Martin were gorily dispatched by the masked fisherman in the first few minutes of the film. This cinematic device has reached the small screen. While other reality TV viewers were checking out this castaway’s six-pack or imitating that temptee’s daily appropriation of yet another Afrocentric hairstyle-or trying to plumb the complete and utter idiocy of Dr. Sean-I was counting heads, and so far the numbers don’t look good.
First there was Will “Mega” and then Ramona and, lately, Kel. And there was poor Manuel on “The Mole,” who was summarily bounced from the show in Episode 1 for reasons as murky and Byzantine as the motivation behind putting this dismal excuse for entertainment on television in the first place. In the debut episode of “Temptation Island,” two minority participants, who shall remain nameless-because we never learned their names-were sent packing and not even given a chance to tempt anyone, much less get down to the real business of seducing and betraying someone else’s lover.
The mushrooming of reality programming does provide food for thought about the movement to increase the participation of minorities in all aspects of television programming.
If a person of color doesn’t have a chance of making it in an arena where all anyone must do is wear skimpy swimsuits, make tortillas without frying grease and rifle through a fellow contestant’s belongings in a mad search for contraband beef jerky, then what expectation can he or she have of achieving gainful employment as a writer, director or show runner?
This is just one reason there is such a need for a multicultural mix in the entertainment industry.
A few years ago I read about a study that concluded a racial majority group is only comfortable in an environment where minorities comprise no more than 40 percent of the population. Any percentage higher than that and “white flight” or more nefarious activities may occur.
Certainly it is safe to assume that if more representatives of minority groups were producing and casting these programs, the minority-to-majority ratio would change and perhaps even creep into the danger zone of 40-plus percent. I’d like to see Richard Hatch and his ilk outplay that kind of alliance.
And if the allegations posed by former “Survivor I” castaway Stacey Stillman in her recently filed suit against the show’s producers and network are to be believed, then minority producers might well skew the voting to favor minority contestants, thereby prolonging their participation.
After all, shouldn’t the manipulation and defrauding of the American public be an equal opportunity too?