Acting the Part Part 2: Sticking to the Formula

At some point in the mid-20th century, it came to the attention of demographers that the average American family had something like 2.something children. Now, most people understand that people don’t have fractions of a child. Most people get that this meant that some families had fewer than two children, and some had more. And yet. And yet, the statistics said this was the average American family, so as builders raced to build houses in suburbs following the example of Levittown, they built all these three- and four-bedroom houses. To accommodate all of those 2.something children families.  Which was great, if you had a family with two or three children.  But not really so much if you had seven children. Or five, even. Which wasn’t all that unusual in the neighborhood that I lived in as a kid.

But hey, it’s a formula. There are other things that we’ve learned from demographic statistics.  Demographics have told us for a long time (although this is changing rapidly), that about 12% of the U.S. population was black. And it would seem that people in Hollywood must have gotten hold of this. That is the most charitable assumption I can make for how Hollywood has represented minorities on screen (I can think of nothing nice to say about how women have been represented).

Once upon a time, everyone on screen was white, unless there was a specific reason for someone to be a person of color (black slave, evil Indian, stereotyped Chinese guy with buck teeth who was probably played by a white guy anyway (see Part 1)). But eventually, more enlightened producers and directors caught on, and started including people of color. For example, in “The Mod Squad” – one default guy (you know, the “regular” white guy), one woman (i.e. a white woman, because we can only handle one variable at a time), and one black guy. So, boxes ticked.  And there was “Star Trek”, which really was ahead of its time. But again, “Star Trek” had a predominantly white cast. The captain, of course, was a white human man. There was a black woman in a prominent role, which was truly fantastic. And there was a Japanese-American guy, and a Russian character (also a white man, but it was the 1960’s, so this was big – the two communist nations sitting there together). And there was a Scottish white guy, and an alien white guy. Boxes ticked.

But in the late 1980’s, when “Star Trek Next Generation” came around, things hadn’t changed all that much in terms of total diversity. This is supposed to be taking place centuries in the future. The captain is still a white guy. Of all the main characters on the series, two were black: LeVar Burton, who played a human, and Michael Dorn, who played a Klingon in heavy prosthetic make-up.  Centuries in the future, and we were still envisioning people of color in token representation.

It’s no wonder that last week Tim Burton shoved both his feet down his throat when he allowed as how he’s bought into the whole idea that white people are the default for movies unless a character is specifically called to be a person of color (read more here). His exact words were, “things either call for things or they don’t.”  Ew.

Here’s the thing — regardless of what the statistics say about the current population of the United States, we know from our lives that families don’t have 2.3 children, and we know that each school doesn’t have one black student, each office doesn’t have a single black employee, each neighborhood doesn’t have one black family.  So why do we still represent the world this way on screen?

We can imagine better. When “Doctor Who” chose to represent the British Monarch in the 29th century, they gave us Liz X, a black woman.  That’s a good start. I think we need to keep it going. And maybe Tim Burton ought to sit down and watch a few episodes.

That’s my mite. It’s all I’ve got.


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