One of my favorite TV shows growing up was Ghostwriter. No, I didn’t misspell that. I’m not referring to the flaming skeleton-head Marvel comic book character. I’m talking about this PBS Children’s Workshop series that ran in the early 90s, featuring a group of teen detectives and a ghost who helped them solve mysteries using letters. Trust me – it was the best show! It was a show that supported the importance of words and writing, introduced me to the Internet and modems and that girls could be good at computers. It was also a show that taught me that a group of kids of all different backgrounds (Caucasian, Black, Latino, and Asian) could be friends with real relationships – not just arbitrarily lumped together because they had different backgrounds.
Of course, there were the stereotypical episodes where we learned about their cultural backgrounds – it was a good show to present those lessons too – but those things were always secondary to the ongoing stories of these characters and their relationships. It also wasn’t a big deal that Alex Fernandez (David Lopez) liked Tina Nguyen (Tram-Anh Tran) or that Lenni Frazier (Blaze Berdahl) liked Tina’s brother. As you can probably tell, I look back on this show very fondly. If it was airing today and I was a teen on tumblr, I’d probably be fangirling with a dedicated blog – probably still shipping Alex and Tina even though I think they broke up.
When I look back at this show, one of the things that resonates with me is how important it was to see Tram-Anh Tran on TV. Growing up as a Vietnamese-American, I was often presented with kids asking me “What are you? Chinese? Japanese?” – as if those are the only two countries in Asia and as if America didn’t have some kind of global conflict overseas. I loved the show overall, so I’m not sure how conscious I was of this at the time, but I do recall a sense of appreciation and – almost relief – that there was this person who had the same background as I did on TV. Not only was she Vietnamese, but she encountered the conflicts of being a first-generation American and was portrayed – like all the other characters – as being very thoroughly American.
I was reminded of the importance of this many years later when I read a quote from Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek’s original Uhura). Nichols tells the story of how Whoppi Goldberg wanted to be on Star Trek: The Next Generation, telling creator Gene Rodenberry:
“Well, when I was nine-years-old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.” (paraphrased – Makers.com)
Despite this, for a long time, I didn’t quite understand the importance of “normal” diversity in media – television, film, books, etc. How vital it was to look at something and read something perfectly normal and see yourself in it. As a writer, I thought the solution was that if I didn’t write racial and ethnic details for my characters, they can be just anyone. To a degree, I still believe this is true at its heart, but lately I’ve been questioning the consequences of not consciously thinking about it and what it means for diversity on television in particular.
Television provides us with a sense of everyday that we don’t get from a number of other mediums. We see these characters across multiple episodes, potentially across multiple years. We grow with them and, depending on when we meet them, they have varying degrees of influence on who we become. That’s why I believe a sense of diversity among main cast characters are so important. I emphasize this because the alternative is that diversity on TV comes in the form of characters who exist for sake of singular story lines and exit after 20-40 minutes never to be seen again. This kind of writing and casting only establishes episodes where actors of other races are needed to fulfill stories centered in Chinatown and Koreatown or about terrorism threats and murderous thugs. By proxy, it makes other races and ethnic backgrounds foreign and “othered” even when the story is set in America. In fact, it would be pretty great if we had characters portrayed by diverse actors that didn’t touch on any of these subjects.
If the internet and social media conversations have provided any indication of anything, it’s that audience members are attached to television shows and as fans we can’t help but identify with characters. Maybe if we had more diverse examples of everyday characters, those story lines won’t feel so forced and lacking. I’m not advocating that shows try to check-box everything so that it’s like a United Colors of Benetton ad because that can just appear arbitrary. It shouldn’t be arbitrary, but casting should be diversity-conscious. A good television show has depth, great characters, and intricate relationships that we want to return to week after week. I don’t see why these “great characters” can’t reflect its diverse audience.
One of the best shows to do this recently is Sleepy Hollow. The characters are just who they are and it’s actually Ichabod Crane, for obvious reasons, that is probably the character that sticks out as being different from everyone else. Even John Cho’s character is named Andy Brooks. It’s not a big deal on the show – it just is. But it’s pretty big deal in real life that a show like this – with a cast like this – exists.
As much as I applaud this, I wish it wasn’t something I had to applaud or that this filter didn’t make me question certain decisions I see on TV shows. I wonder what casting choices NCIS had with Cote de Pablo’s exit – were they aware that by selecting a white female agent that there would only be Rocky Carroll at the main cast diversity helm? Or were they aware that the last Asian-American character of significance was Liza Lapira as Michelle Lee in Season 4-6 (they’re now in Season 11)? I think about Castle‘s tongue-in-cheek approach to their recent ninja episode (Season 6 – The Way of the Ninja) which called out the stereotypes, but also enforced some of them at the same time. Meanwhile, we have the Kung Fu episode mishap of How I Met Your Mother and how Girls launched without anyone noticing there weren’t different kinds of girls.
Because I can’t un-see any of this now in TV casting, I have actually developed this theory that non-main characters that Asian actors portray on television are likely to be dead within five minutes or – if they’re lucky – the end of the episode. Hey (Sleepy Hollow spoilers!) even John Cho’s character was dead for a little while. I don’t like to be wrong, but I wouldn’t mind this theory being wiped off the map.
Don’t get me wrong – I think all the shows I mentioned in this post are great and I honestly don’t think they mean anything negative by these decisions. I think much of these things are done subconsciously or the show has been on a certain trajectory where the inclusion of other characters is limited to the “story of the week” type of inclusion. I just think it’s gone on long enough by now and it’s never too late to change to accommodate for any of these things.