Everybody knows about issues of representation in traditional scripted television. These are the major media topics that get coverage in national news outlets from NPR to CNN. Shows like Modern Family, Scandal, and Glee get discussed by both popular culture critics and academics alike in terms of the way they present and represent all sorts of different people. However, when it comes to unscripted or variety television, from reality to sketch comedy, the issues are surprisingly less publicized. From the recent Saturday Night Live discussion of racial representation in sketch comedy to the racial discrimination lawsuit brought against The Bachelor, the problem of accurately representing people on television extends into the realm of programming that doesn’t fit into a traditional character-story arc model.
In just the last week, perennial NBC comedy standby Saturday Night Live has come under fire again for its lack of an African-American woman in the show’s regular cast. Since the show’s inception in 1975, the cast has only ever contained three African-American women on a consistent basis (four, if you count the season Yvonne Hudson was a featured player in the early 1980s). Similarly, the program has no current Latin@ voice, either – when Horatio Sanz left the main cast in 2006, no cast member replaced him as a Latin@ representative on the show. This season, SNL hired six new cast members – five men (all white) and one woman (described as “½ Tunisian and ¼ Hispanic”). Perhaps unsurprisingly, in last week’s show, hosted by the versatile Scandal actress Kerry Washington, SNL took every single opportunity it could to mock its own lack of diversity in casting, commenting upon the fact in virtually every single skit (meaning Washington changed costumes several times in a single scene to play any number of African-American women the skit required).
SNL’s new cast members, Season 39 (2013-2014)
While this lack of diversity isn’t just an issue in and of itself, the problem here is also in what SNL attempts to do. The show’s mission in 39 seasons has been to not only provide comedic relief and a few musical performances, but also to make solid political commentary that could become water cooler talk come Monday morning. Herein lies the biggest problem in lacking that diversity. How can the program accurately represent the varied political problems and interests of American society, if every single action is parody one step removed – for example, if an African-American man is constantly dressing up as an African-American woman to play a role such as Michelle Obama, the comment received by viewers is not just a joke on whatever current events topic is at hand, but also a secondary remark about a man dressing as a woman. The original point has not been fulfilled – it can never be entirely about whatever the political point is, because that would require direct parody instead of an indirect parody that may make incorrect remarks about gender.
That being said, one more issue can be had with SNL’s lack of diversity – if, as past history has shown us, SNL is one of the major arbiters of “good” (e.g. highly commercial) comedy in the U.S., what does it mean that few African-American and Latin@ comics (whether male or female) are being presented on the program? What it does not mean is that America is somehow less interested in seeing the work of comedians of color or that there aren’t any people of color “funny enough” to do the job; rather, it again presents a case where gatekeeping prevents full representation on late night television.
Unfortunately, the same issues can be seen right in prime-time, on reality shows such as ABC’s The Bachelor. In late 2012, two African-American men who had unsuccessfully auditioned for the show sued the program’s producers over discrimination, arguing that while the content of the program may be held under First Amendment protections, the casting of the show should not. The argument was that race was not part of the creative realm of the show, so the discrimination should not be protected as “freedom of speech.” The judge found that casting is ultimately protected under the First Amendment, considered to be a part of the creative process. While the case was dismissed, the issue remains – why have there been no African-American men or women chosen for the title role in either The Bachelor or The Bachelorette? And perhaps most importantly – why did it take a lawsuit for this subject to be broached, when if this were a scripted comedy or drama, it would have been brought up almost immediately by one of the many media monitoring organizations whose work it is to look into these sorts of topics?
In August of 2013, ABC was proud to announce that it had cast its very first “non-Caucasian Bachelor or Bachelorette in franchise history” – the Venezuelan-born former pro-soccer player Juan Pablo Galavis. There it is – ABC thinks it has solved its diversity “problem.” As it turns out, Juan Pablo, whose name may indicate some ethnic diversity, instead looks very much like any of the other bachelors in the show’s history – phenotypically white (see comparison below). It seems that the broadcast networks have a long way to go in recognizing and representing diversity as part of their “creative processes.”
Brad Womack, Season 11
Juan Pablo Galavis, Season 18
In the end, the issue of media representation doesn’t end with scripted programming, and the limited work of media monitoring organizations is only the beginning. One major issue has to do with the popular misconception that the genre of “reality” (officially known as “unscripted”) reflects real life rather than a constructed story. It is important to recognize that, just because reality TV writers are not always represented by the Writers Guild of America (and not always given the title of “writer”), it does not mean they do not exist, working to build a storyline based on the “reality” shown to them. Subsequently, there are gatekeepers present in reality television in the same way there are in scripted programming. Whether they be at the show level, with individual writers and producers physically building to construct the program, or at the network level, with executives and strategists planning out a program’s next marketing move, the gatekeeping mechanism is definitely at work in unscripted media. This is perhaps even more of an issue in unscripted television, because audiences may watch under the misapprehension that “unscripted” is synonymous with “reality.” As a result, presenting diversity in a medium marketed as “real” then takes on even more symbolic value. While the economic structures at work that create cheaper unscripted programming most likely won’t change anytime soon, what we can do is become more wary consumers and advocate for greater media literacy for our youth. By understanding that “unscripted” is not the same as any form of “reality” seen in the non-mediated world, viewers can be taught to question their media before deeming any program as reflective of “reality.”