The Importance of Diversity on Television

Something I wrote in my mini-blog, the Broken Ankle Log there on the side, got me to thinking.  I think it deserves its own post. Here’s what I wrote over there:

Two days ago I met an older gentleman student who lost his foot in the service some 30 years ago.  When he saw me approaching on my crutches he smiled kindly and asked what had happened.  My fellow students have generally been nice and offered to help me if I need something, but it was a bit more ‘comforting’ to talk to someone who’d also experienced being unable to walk (he now walks with a prosthetic).  It made me think that there need to be more characters with disabilities on TV shows.  It seems like we mostly see disabled people on TV as “inspiration” stories, stuff that kinda says “this teenager who lost his legs is out there surfing, so what excuse to you ‘able-bodied’ people have for sitting around on your asses?!”

So I was trying to think of characters and TV personalities with physical disabilities, or other things that put them outside the mainstream.  I thought of the kid from Malcolm in the Middle who was in a wheelchair, Joe Swanson on Family Guy, Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist, and of course, Dr. Gregory House.  There was the show Blind Justice on ABC, but that got canceled pretty quickly. I also thought of Josh Blue, who won the fourth season of Last Comic Standing.  On Detroit’s local Fox 2 news, there’s Lee Thomas, who did a report where he took off the makeup that hides his vitiligo.  But are there enough people with disabilities or who are otherwise outside the mainstream on television?  I don’t think so.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Disability, “the prevalence of disability in the U.S. population has been measured fairly consistently at 18-19 percent.”  [Source] Granted, they’re talking about all forms of disability combined, but either way, I think it’s a fair amount of the population that deserves to be represented regularly in pop culture, especially television shows and movies.

Why is this important?  For the same reason that it was important to rewrite school textbooks so that they reflect the fact that girls and women also exist, instead of always writing math story problems and examples with “he” as the only pronoun, or referring to all humans as “mankind.”  For the same reason that it’s important to have racial diversity on television, and body size diversity.  Pop culture is such a huge part of our lives in this country.  We spend so much time immersed in it, that we need to see ourselves reflected in that world.  Otherwise, we might ask ourselves, “why do I not see people like me out there?  Do I not exist elsewhere?  Is there something I don’t know?”  Here in the US we say we value individuality, but in truth, for any human being, complete, true uniqueness is frightening.  It’s why all of our fictional heroes with superpowers yearn to be “normal.”

I recall an interview with Whoopi Goldberg where she said that it had been so amazing for her to see Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, how it was wonderful to see a black woman on TV that wasn’t a maid.  (I think this interview was on the extra features of one of the DVDs for Star Trek: The Next Generation.)  Interestingly, a friend of mine dismissed Lt. Uhura, saying she was nothing but an intergalactic secretary.  Perhaps it’s hard for people my age to understand the impact Nichols had all the way back in 1966, but I’m sure many young black girls back then were happy to see a black woman on TV who, as Goldberg said, wasn’t a maid, or in a disparaging role.  The main reason I started watching the now-gone soap opera Passions was because I was flipping channels, saw a white woman making an effort to say the name “Luis” correctly, and thought, “what the hell?! Hispanic people on daytime American television?  I’ve got to see what this is about!”

Even now, TV shows are much more diverse racially than they used to be, but it’s generally a segregated diversity; that is, there are shows for whites, blacks, to a lesser extent, Latinos, and I can’t think of a single show with a Native American, Asian, or mid-eastern cast (at least not in the US.  There is Little Mosque on the Prairie on the CBC, but in the US, unless you live close to Canada you probably haven’t seen it).  On many shows, the person who is of a race different from that of the main cast is usually the lovable idiot character, such as the white firefighter on Tyler Perry’s House of Payne or the Asian girl on Hannah Montana.  These characters are so unimportant I can’t even remember their names (though I haven’t seen too much of Hannah Montana).  Though I most definitely think that these small acknowledgements that not all people are white are better than nothing.

I’m not advocating that all shows become “melting pots.”  A while ago Larry Gabriel wrote a column in the Metro Times about how sometimes he just doesn’t want to be the black guy that’s “integrating” a joint.  I personally feel better in Mexicantown, where I live, than I do in Detroit’s suburbs, and it’s not because I’m afraid of running into a white supremacist who’ll beat me up.  It’s because I know that in Mexicantown, if I want something specific to Hispanic culture, I can probably get it.  It’s nice to know that I’m surrounded by people who know what semitas and platano frito are.  It’s silly, but a wee part of me is disappointed when a good friend says they don’t like Mexican food.  (I’m not Mexican, but with one exception it’s the closest thing around here.)  I want them to enjoy what I enjoy.  That’s generally why people become friends.  Symbolically though, sharing food is on another level.  Likewise, I understand the positive impact it has on people to see that a show’s main cast reflects them, and thus can reflect their life experiences.  I just think it would be better to work diversity in, in a way that feels natural like on Scrubs, rather than having token diversity.  There, I said it.

So, we see that racial diversity on TV is important.  So is diversity of ability.  (Which reminds me, in Detroit there’s a group called Diverse Ability.)  As it’s natural to seek comfort when going through any hardship by finding others who are suffering the same, it was comforting to make the joke that I am now like Dr. House: with a bum leg and hopped up on vicodin, to have that cultural reference.  Or to call myself Fullmetal Ankle.  Or meeting that gentleman who smiled kindly, with understanding.  For me, the disability is temporary, but for many others, it is not, making it even more important to have reflections of real life’s people with disabilities on television.  Plus, it would also help people without disabilities to stop the reaction we sometimes have upon seeing someone in a wheelchair or using a white cane: pity.  For the most part, people don’t enjoy being considered pitiable.

I’m writing this mostly to offer some food for thought, as I think it unlikely that a television exec with the power to make changes or a screenwriter is gonna land on this blog.  But you never know.  Gotta put positive stuff out there to the Universe. ^_^

Ack! Update: After I published this post, I noticed something: all of the TV characters and personalities I thought of who have disabilities are men!  I can’t think of any female characters with disabilities.  Yuffie from Final Fantasy VII wore what looked like a leg brace, but there’s no evidence in the game that it was anything other than a costume design choice.  I can only think of movies about real-life women who had disabilities, such as Helen Keller or Frida Kahlo. What’s up with this?

Really?! Update: So the first comment I got for this was spam from an adult video company saying that their mission is to represent diverse people to serve all clients’ needs.  And the thing is…I think porn probably is more diverse than TV shows.  @_@;;  Whatever your fetish is, they have a video for you!  Of course, this one good thing does not compensate for an industry that includes images of women being brutalized in its repertoire.  It’s just kind of ironic to me.

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6 thoughts on “The Importance of Diversity on Television

  1. I think it’s really cool you wrote this sol! I’ve never thought too much about what it’s like to be disabled; I think I kind of take my ability to walk and move and all that for granted. I did have surgery once where I couldn’t walk for about a week, and I remember then (after a day or two) trying to get up and move around, despite the pain. But I quickly forget… 🙂

    My sister is autistic too so she is socially and developmentally challenged, and it really irritates me when I hear words like “retarded” and “lame.” She is actually an amateur playwright, and sometimes she writes plays about autistic characters–not surprising. I can’t think of any in the mainstream media.

    The only other TV show I can think that has a disabled character is South Park… um, Timmy and Jimmy. And, uh, obviously, that’s not homage to the handicapped if it’s South Park.

    There was actually a recent stir over a television show featuring a woman missing her arm: http://kateharding.net/2009/02/24/whats-up-my-ass-today/

    I have to say, I agree with you. Even if we find a cultural comfort in being with people of our own ethnicity (I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all), representing all kinds of people fairly and kindly on television is what makes encounters with them IRL (especially for children) so much more natural.

    And, now, my rambly disorganizedness ends! lol >.<

  2. That post on Shapely Prose was spot on! Kids are afraid of all sorts of random things, and yet when it comes to the issue of showing people with disabilities or differences everyone yells “we gotta protect the children!” Pshaw!

    Reading that reminded me of one woman on TV with a disability: Heather Mills. But otherwise it really does seem like women with disabilities are particularly cut from the scene.

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  4. It’s unbearable lately (esp since Obama election 2008) the over-diversity on TV shows, movies, commercials, the minority and diversity percentage seen is much higher than what it should be, as America is mostly White, makes me think i’m no longer in America.

    • I’m currently living in Japan, so I don’t know whether or not it’s the case that American TV has become more diverse than reality. However, I highly doubt that. Unless you’ve sat down to watch a great deal of TV and carefully recorded how many people of each race appear and how much screen time they each get, well, it probably just seems to you like there’s an overwhelmingly greater amount of diversity now. Now, given that you mention race, I’d like to point out that this post was not only about diversity racially speaking, but also, about showing people with disabilities on TV (and such was the impetus for the post).

      This statement was particularly interesting to me: “I feel like I’m no longer in America.” If you look at history, it was racist, greedy Europeans and their descendants that made the U.S. so diverse in the first place. Who was here first? The Native Americans. Then came some Brits. Later, the European invaders decided they were too good to do hard labor, so they kidnapped Africans and added them to the budding nation. Then, the aforementioned Europeans didn’t want to lay down the tracks for their railways, so they loosened immigration regulations to let in a great deal of Chinese immigrants to do the work. Oh, and lot’s not forgot when they let in the Irish, since the Irish weren’t considered good enough to be “white” by their British counterparts early on in the nation’s history. In more modern times, the wealthy, predominantly white (though not by much) nation considers itself to be too good for unskilled labor such as picking strawberries and tomatoes, so mostly Hispanic immigrants to the work. Ironic, isn’t it?

      At the end of the day, you have to choose which ideology is more important: a false notion of “race,” or capitalism. The simple fact is, the U.S. is predominantly white, but not by much. If TV (a.k.a. the Ad King) wasn’t diverse, it wouldn’t appeal to half the nation’s population, and the companies who advertise through TV would lose market share.

      Of course, I’m being level headed about it. There might be some basket cases out there, like those nuts that advocate extermination of non-whites and thus nullify the need to think about protecting capitalism. But I’m hoping, “ReduceDiversity,” that you are not among the deeply ignorant.

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