Monday, April 26, 2010

Being Young, Black, Talented and in a TV show (Wait! You're Not!)

It's all about being correct.
Not politically correct but just being right.
I was watching an old episode of Bones the other day and was struck by a familiar pattern of TV characterization:
The uppity Black character that is supposedly brilliant needs to be corrected by e-v-e-r-y other characters about e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g in e-v-e-r-y single scene she's in.

Think Camille in Bones, Omar Epps in House, or any show with a Black BFF that is just there to sassily say anything too outrageous for the good white girl's lips(Yes, Sookie, I do mean you!).

Those corrections are almost systematic and they serve to prove that the other characters' loyalty is with the real boss of the show and that the Black character is isolated in her thinking. And wrong. Very, very wrong. Most of the time.

Of course, those Black characters are not an integral part of the group, they serve as foil. The group get coherence and unity by , not hating per say, of course, let's stay hypocritical, but by being deeply annoyed by this Black presence.

The authority they have is either short lived ( as they never belonged there anyway) or illusionary (as all the other characters will try their damndest to do the complete opposite of what have been ask of them by their Black boss). They're monomaniacal to the point of being ridiculous ('I want my son!' have been uttered one too many times by Michael in Lost to be taken seriously… Usually excellent Harold Perrineau was strained to the point of idiocy since he had to be the traitor/murderer/suicidal loser for all.), they are also confused and overly racist- when race as to be mentioned for a reason or another.

If they are respected and have any weight or agency, then they are uncompetitive in other ways (overweight, unattractive, stupid, dull, all of the above). If they fall in love, it is with 'one of their own'- another Black character as ineffective and dull as them- or with a psychopath/loser/incompetent hybrid of some other race or the love is a lost cause. Rose and Bernard from Lost are an exception, I think. Nikki and D.L., Nikki and her son Miccah or Simone and Isaac, all of Heroes, are more the norm.

A research demonstrated that that antagonism I perceived in TV shows is not all in my head, as the proponent of the 'No, no, racism is dead and you're only suffering from massive collective delusions because Black people are crazy that way but I'm not racist' theory would like us to believe.

TV CLIPS Reveal Racist Body Language
A new study reveals white characters display far more negative body language toward their black peers

Joseph Hall , Health Reporter

'Racist body language comes through loud and clear on television, even when the sound is off, a new study shows.
Through a set of ingeniously concocted experiments, reported Friday in the journal Science, researchers show that white characters in television series display far more negative body language toward their black peers than to members of their own race.
The bias conveyed by these body clues is not only recognized subconsciously by people who watch the shows, but significantly influences their feelings about the black characters.
"Sadly, we observed that non-verbal race bias is a typical pattern on scripted television shows," lead study author Max Weisbuch said in a release on the paper.
"White characters are treated better across the board and this has an impact on viewers," said Weisbuch, a post-doctoral psychologist at Massachusetts's Tufts University...'

That exactly what I mean: there's no friendliness or real acceptance of the Black characters. Their background history (they often have none-no visible, active friends, family or loved one, no complexeties), their quirks, their contribution (if the writers can think of any) are all superfluous and the writers don't even try to hide it anymore. Think Smallville.

And funnily enough, when they are cordial and well-rounded, they are often swiftly replace with a less 'agreeable' character or they are pushed into doing seemingly irremediable stupid errors to the point of losing all credibility and respectability. 'We don't want to seem to friendly', seems to be the word around TV studios.

I don't owned a TV anymore, I gave my last away 5 or 6 years ago. The lack of diversity in plot, characterization and casting made me sick one day and that was that. Maybe I'm not alone. Surely, I'm not alone. I don't think I am the only one thinking 'Oh! Look! Another Hispanic gang member!' (And usually, it's always the same actors doing the same roles too…), 'Well look at that! Another Asian computer nerd!' 'Aaaaanh shuck! A Native American in total symbiosis with nature and drinking peyote.' 'Well, well, well… If it's not the crazy, angry, crackhead Black women with one too many kids…' and feeling sick to my stomach with this absurdity…

It is not only a question of Black and White but one of life versus bad script. Stringing along a long list of idiotic cliché does not make good writing of any kind. Sometimes, I rather they do not try at all rather than ruin a show with good intentions and crass ignorance. Some of these writers have never seen a Black, Asian or Hispanic person in the flesh except on aTV screens and it shows.

So I watch Supernatural and cringe when they brought in 2 completely closed-off Black British actors once. But I applaud them with the intervention of Kali - beautifully made, guys. I'll miss Gabriel. Bad Luci!
I have to remember that Bones is on FOX network and Fox always had their issues (In 2001, they were the one with the least Black actors on their shows among all the networks according to a SAG study.)
I watch Law & Order - the original- because the real McCoy is there but also that precious, fantastic underused actress S. Epatha Merkerson as Detective Van Buren and she is leaving the show next year. Also, Alana de la Garza is playing gracefully and smartly against type.
And I sigh to think that the original Mr. X was a Black man in the X-Files but Mulder and Scully were the best. Ever.
Forget I'll Fly Away, Any Day Now, Star Trek Voyager or DS9 or even Mannix, for Pete's sake. They're gone and forgotten with nothing of value to replace them.

I watch shows that don't think I'm an idiot.

And there's not too many of those right now. So, I'll stick to movies, books and the news.
Oh, wait, the News writers definitively think we're all idiots...

For the rest of the article on the study on body language, read here:

In the first experiment, researchers used clips from 11 television programs – including Bones, Grey's Anatomy, CSI and Scrubs – and digitally removed one of the characters participating in the scenes.
They then muted any onscreen conversations and recruited college students who had never seen the episodes to watch.
"We took out the target character, who was either black or white, and the (remaining) character was always white," senior study author Nalini Ambady said in an interview with the Star.
"Then we just showed people and said `how much does this person like the person they're interacting with?'" said Ambady, a Tufts social psychologist.
The viewers, it was found, consistently judged the body language expressed by the visible white characters as more negative whenever the unseen character in the scene was black.
Ambady stresses that the black characters in the scenes selected were not criminals or impoverished, as often seen on television.
Instead, the scenes came from enlightened series that portray blacks as social and intellectual peers.
"Take a medical drama for example, both the black and the white characters were doctors," Ambady said. Yet while the negative body language is certainly not scripted, she was not sure if it reflects innate reactions by the white actors, is directorial in origin, or a combination of both.
"There's no bias in what they're saying, the bias seems to be in the way they are conveying, and we have no idea where that's coming from," she says.
Ambady says positive body language like smiling, nodding and leaning forward while talking is far less common when white characters engage with black co-stars.
"The black characters receive significantly less positive non-verbal behaviour. They're liked less non-verbally than white characters."
In a separate test, Ambady's team looked at how the onscreen biases might affect regular viewers.
This involved a new group of students chosen for being frequent watchers of the programs in question.
These students were given a set of standard psychological tests that measure subconscious biases.
Researchers found that this subconscious bias grew in direct proportion to the number of episodes each student had seen.
Thus, Ambady says, the subtle body-language bias displayed on television can create "insidious" repercussions in subconscious racial feelings among millions of viewers.
"Of course, when someone says something to you that's biased, you can correct for it, you can say `that guy's a jerk,'" she says.
"But when something is conveyed indirectly, where you're not conscious of it, then it's more difficult for you to control it."
In a journal commentary on the study, Yale University psychologist John Dovidio said the paper's use of white college students as viewers showed just how potent the non-verbal cues were in creating bias.
"Thus, non-verbal messages influence relatively sophisticated participants who are especially motivated to appear unbiased," he says.

Also, read this article from Entertainment Weekly magazine website.

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