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Bunheads and “Message” Stories

Giveaway Note: I’ll be picking two winners in the Libriomancer Giveaway tonight, so if you haven’t entered yet, this is your last chance.


Blame Charlie Finlay and his friend Jessie for this rant. They’re the ones who brought this interview with Bunheads and Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino to my attention.

Context: Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy, posted on Twitter, “Hey… Bunheads: really? You couldn’t cast even ONE young dancer of color so I could feel good about my kid watching this show? NOT ONE?”

Unfortunately, the interviewer seems more interested in talking about what a shame it is women can’t support each other, and how Rhimes was oh so wrong to criticize a fellow woman. Sherman-Palladino indirectly addresses Rhimes’ question around the 3:05 mark, when she starts talking about all of the pressures of making a pilot episode, how she had to find dancers who could also act, and she didn’t have a lot of time, and “I don’t do message shows. I don’t give a shit who you learn your life from.”

Wait, what? The original question is why nonwhite characters aren’t represented, and you’re talking about “message shows”?

Every story has a message. Some stories are blatant and clumsy about it, but as the author of some rather silly stuff, I can tell you that even the the fluffiest, lighthearted tale has meaning. When someone like Sherman-Palladino chooses to limit diversity in her stories and justifies it with this kind of rationale, she’s damn well sending messages. Messages like:

  • White people are normal. Nonwhite people require justification to exist.
  • My target audience does not include people different from myself.
  • My world is small and narrow.

Amy Sherman-Palladino has the right to create whatever kind of story she wants, and I don’t believe for a moment she intended to send those messages. Having watched a number of Gilmore Girls episodes, I think Sherman-Palladino has done some very praiseworthy things. I loved her characters, the dynamics and banter and conflict and love between them all.

None of which makes Rhimes’ question any less valid, or Sherman-Palladino’s answer any less weak.

I’m singling her out because the attitude and response here are so common. How many times have we seen authors and editors challenged for their lack of diversity, only to have them reply, “I refuse to bow to the bullies of the PC movement” or “I don’t believe every story has to be a Lesson about diversity” or “I have too much integrity to change my story just to meet your arbitrary quotas.”

I don’t care about quotas. I object to whitewashed stories because they’re dishonest. Because they perpetuate a long pattern of sidelining or erasing those who aren’t like me. Because our world is bigger than that.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 101 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jun. 20th, 2012 01:40 pm (UTC)
Yup. I also am a bit taken aback by her implication that it was impossible to find non-white girls who could both dance and act (at short notice!). I saw the first episode and liked it, but this makes me sigh.
Jun. 20th, 2012 01:54 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that is almost funny.
Jun. 20th, 2012 01:48 pm (UTC)
And one of the things that just drives me bazoo about this is that if you have a show about a ballet academy set in 1885, they will tell you they can't have any, for example, Chinese-American actresses in it because of Historical Accuracy. But if you look at a ballet academy now, it has Chinese-American dancers. So the Historical Accuracy argument goes completely out the window when we are talking about...now.

This drove me particularly bazoo when I was watching the first few seasons of Numb3rs, and every time Charlie was consulting with other math professors (math professors, for the love of Pete!), they would either be white guys and get speaking parts, or very occasionally you would get an Asian guy who would nod thoughtfully and not get a line. (And consequently, the actor would not get paid as much, would not get as much credit...sigh.) That show improved somewhat in that regard over the course of its run. Let's hope Bunheads can too.
Jun. 20th, 2012 01:53 pm (UTC)
On the one hand, it does seem silly that a town in California wouldn't have a more diverse population. (The exception to this is maybe closer to Oregon.)

My impression of what she was saying was that she had 1.5 weeks to cast and so she picked the best that she found right off the bat. That does seem to be a rushed timetable. Is that accurate? I don't know.

Sherman-Palladino has a decent track record with Gilmore Girls of diversity.
(no subject) - the_jackalope - Jun. 20th, 2012 02:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jun. 20th, 2012 03:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - highway_west - Jun. 20th, 2012 03:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - feanna - Jun. 20th, 2012 10:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 21st, 2012 12:13 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thedragonweaver - Jun. 23rd, 2012 05:38 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2012 01:48 pm (UTC)
Did I watch a different show? Isn't the main character's best friend dancer an ethnic character? Or was she just super tanned and I'm just forgetting as it has been a week since then.
Jun. 20th, 2012 01:51 pm (UTC)
I've not seen the show, but Rhimes was talking specifically about the dancers, who I assume are the main characters, as opposed to secondary and background characters.
(no subject) - highway_west - Jun. 20th, 2012 03:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lurkerwithout - Jun. 20th, 2012 02:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - yendi - Jun. 20th, 2012 02:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2012 02:08 pm (UTC)
Everything you've said is correct. And it disturbs me that people think having characters of color equals a political statement.

What's ironic to me about this is that from the ads for this show, it very much came across as a "message show" in the sense that it seemed to be touting a specific set of values directed at young girls.
Jun. 20th, 2012 02:18 pm (UTC)
I also love how one of her "defense" was she's writing from her own experience, so she doesn't feel like she can write a story from the point of view of a POC character. Um, so hire POC writers? Not that it's not expected, but it's revealing how white people dominate the storyteller role in show business, and how not only do they NOT hire more POC writers, they think their story is not worth telling unless it's for a "message".
Jun. 20th, 2012 02:21 pm (UTC)
The "I can only write my own experience" defense fails on so many levels. Does that mean you can't include men in your show? You can't write about anyone older than you? Nobody who didn't grow up in the same kind of family? With the same political and religious beliefs?
Not a justification, just an observation - 3rdragon - Jun. 20th, 2012 02:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Not a justification, just an observation - jimhines - Jun. 20th, 2012 03:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - neadods - Jun. 20th, 2012 08:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - serialbabbler - Jun. 21st, 2012 03:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - saya22 - Jun. 21st, 2012 03:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - serialbabbler - Jun. 21st, 2012 03:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 21st, 2012 03:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2012 02:26 pm (UTC)
I think my favorite part was the instance where she blamed internalized mysogyny for the tweet. Because she's always had her biggest support from men, you know? Except didn't she get her start on Roseanne?
Jun. 20th, 2012 03:08 pm (UTC)
It really exemplified for me what people mean when they talk about intersectionality and certain kinds of "exclusive" feminism. I give her props for writing a variety of female characters and giving them their own strengths and stories and such. But that doesn't mean she should be sheltered from criticism if she comes up short in other areas, or that criticism of her choice to cast all white dancers is an attack on her as a woman or feminist.
(no subject) - highway_west - Jun. 20th, 2012 03:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - serialbabbler - Jun. 20th, 2012 11:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2012 02:31 pm (UTC)
You really nailed a lot of what turned me off of TV a while ago. I'm tired of no PoC in good nonsupporting roles (Yes, I know there are some, but they are the exception, rather than the rule), I'm tired of seeing "reality" shows like Dog the Bounty Hunter where the majority of those they go after are of a minority (not always the case in their Colorado cases, but enough that it bothers me). I'm tired of there not being diverse casts, and by diverse, I mean actually diverse: let's get the GLBTQ in there, let's show people that there are all types of families, and all types of different background that don't make someone better or worse, they just are. Let's show the people who live in government housing who aren't drug dealers, thugs, prostitutes, drug addicts, but are just hard working people who cannot afford regular housing for whatever reason it is. Let's show the single Dad who works full time, yet finds time to take his little boy to ballet class and then to soccer. Let's talk about the two Moms who work five jobs between them so that their children can go to the specialized education class that only one school in the district has, so they have to pay for transportation. Lets talk about the happily married couple who doesn't have children, by choice, aren't particularly active in their community and their idea of a peaceful Saturday morning is weeding the garden.

I want diversity.

... I might have rambled a bit, sorry.
Jun. 20th, 2012 03:57 pm (UTC)
And there's nothing wrong with demanding that!
(no subject) - cat_mcdougall - Jun. 20th, 2012 04:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pantryslut - Jun. 20th, 2012 05:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cat_mcdougall - Jun. 20th, 2012 07:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pantryslut - Jun. 20th, 2012 07:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tsubaki_ny - Jun. 21st, 2012 03:09 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - coaldustcanary - Jun. 20th, 2012 05:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 20th, 2012 06:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2012 02:42 pm (UTC)
I love you.
Think I may have said that before, but still.
You have this ability to articulate things that my gut knows, and has known, to be true, but that I can't put into words and defend half so well.
Jun. 20th, 2012 03:05 pm (UTC)
It's lazy casting. If they'd spread their recruitment a bit further than LA, they'd have found more young dancers of color who could also act. In my limited experience, it's more the regional companies that have wider diversity, except in some places.

(Then again, I probably can go with the smug because my local ballet company has been aggressively bringing in Asian and African-American dancers. The younger dancers in the company represent a wider diversity than the older dancers and...they are DAMN GOOD DANCERS.)
Jun. 20th, 2012 06:42 pm (UTC)
I'm fairly certain LA does not lack for dancer/actors of color. LA doesn't lack for dancer/actors of any kind whatsoever. Because if you are an aspiring performer in the USA, there are two places you want to go, right? LA or NY.

If they were casting this show in flyover territory, that might be different. But if they can't find diversity in LA, they are the stupidest people on earth.
(no subject) - jeliza - Jun. 20th, 2012 07:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2012 03:10 pm (UTC)
Sarcasm alert!
Nonwhite people require justification to exist.

This is the key belief that makes mainstream media what it is. It also applies to LGBTQ people and, in many contexts, to women.

A police procedural about a straight white cop is just a cop show. A police procedural about a lesbian Latina cop is a message show.

Casting only white actors for a TV show about ballet is normal. But cast one black dancer, and it can only be because you are a foaming activist intent on brainwashing America's children with your obnoxious, preachy messages.

A movie about a team of superheroes with five male superheroes and one female superhero is normal. A movie with the genders reversed is a feminist message movie sure to fail. Who wants to watch a preachy message movie in which no one even mentions how shocking and bizarre it is for women to be heroic, and for that to be the rule rather than the exception?
Jun. 20th, 2012 03:17 pm (UTC)
Re: Sarcasm alert!
I need a ::Like:: button for your sarcasm.
Jun. 20th, 2012 03:18 pm (UTC)
Waitaminnit... having PoC in your cast is "sending a message", but having an all-white cast ISN'T?

That's one of the loudest "unmarked state" arguments I've ever encountered. What she's saying here is that white people are the default case, and you have to have a reason to change that. Has she called the people who are calling her on this "racists" yet? That's generally the next step in this particular progression.
Jun. 20th, 2012 03:46 pm (UTC)
It's super ridc to claim you can't find PoC dancers who can act in LA! Of the hundreds of extras in every dance themed music vid, or stage show, or acting schools (or agents) there are undoubtedly some hundreds of young PoC women who are aspiring actors who are also dancers. Or dancers who are aspiring actors. LA is hugely diverse, despite what TV land and people like Palladino seem to think.

Unfortunately, diversity (in media) seems to be dropping as the US gets more culturally reactionary and regressive - personally, I think it's a result of the huge cultural gap between generations. The generation that is still controlling a lot of decisions about shows/media/news is quite different from the much more diverse and somewhat more culturally flexible generation and I think that divide is becoming visible and it is also really distressing the older generation who are responding by becoming less willing to be flexible or take risks. Example: the terror of the medical term 'vagina' that far too many folks who run our country seem to feel.

Edited at 2012-06-20 03:46 pm (UTC)
Jun. 20th, 2012 06:17 pm (UTC)
It's super ridc to claim you can't find PoC dancers who can act in LA! Of the hundreds of extras in every dance themed music vid, or stage show, or acting schools (or agents) there are undoubtedly some hundreds of young PoC women who are aspiring actors who are also dancers. Or dancers who are aspiring actors. LA is hugely diverse, despite what TV land and people like Palladino seem to think.

God this!
Jun. 20th, 2012 03:48 pm (UTC)
Wow, that's just disappointing.
Jun. 20th, 2012 03:58 pm (UTC)
Makes me glad I don't have TV
Jun. 20th, 2012 04:10 pm (UTC)
“I refuse to bow to the bullies of the PC movement”

Whenever I see someone respond that way I automatically write off their argument. If they had an actual point they'd use it instead of whining that you're just being MEEEN.
Jun. 20th, 2012 06:26 pm (UTC)
It should be an official corollary to Godwin's Law.
(no subject) - northernwalker - Jun. 21st, 2012 12:23 am (UTC) - Expand
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Jim C. Hines

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