Back in the day, diversity on television was mostly achieved (in the barest sense of the term) through tokenism. A black female judge here, a black female judge there… Hey, is that an Asian doctor? Although I recently complained that only Shonda Rhimes’s shows feature minority characters whose race is incidental to the story lines, the reality is that tokenism has in fact abated a bit throughout mainstream TV, though nowhere quite as thoroughly as in Rhimes’s shows (those have other problems, though, such as nearly every character becoming an alcoholic and those that stay sober having their babies stolen from them, and half the doctors from that one floor are now working on that other floor below so as not to see their exes but dangit if they don’t all keep meeting in the elevators).
Back in that same day, shows like Friends and Seinfeld came under fire for being pretty much exclusively about a bunch of white people. I was never bothered by Friends’ portrayal of six white friends living in the most artificial version of Manhattan ever depicted on screen. And I certainly wasn’t bothered by Seinfeld‘s portrayal of four white friends living in the most awesome version of Manhattan ever depicted on screen. Fact is, lots of white people have lots of white friends… not that there’s anything wrong with that. ’Course it’s a problem when all shows are like Friends (you’ll never get me to say a bad word about Seinfeld), which is where tokenism comes in as a shoddy way station on the way to something better.
Well, someone needs to tell Ryan Murphy, creator of everybody’s favorite new show, Glee, that the rest of us have left that shoddy way station behind and would very much like to get to the next station because some of us really need to pee. Up until last week, I’d ignored the regressive tokenism on Glee because every single character—black, white, gay, straight, paralyzed, and walking-enabled—on that show is a complete stereotype with no depth whatsoever. But this week, the tokenism could no longer be ignored. The show’s about a glee club composed of 12 members and the cast of characters is listed below in order of screen time from most to least (totally unscientific, just based on my impressions from having watched the show since it premiered, and I’ve left out the other leads—all of whom are white and accordingly get screen time in line with numbers 1 through 6 on this list—who play the teachers):
- White football stud
- White blonde cheerleader
- White Jewish neurotic unpopular girl who wears really short skirts
- White gay kid who wears corsets to school but didn’t know he was gay until a couple of episodes ago
- White Jewish football stud (I admit they threw a curveball with this one: first-ever televisual Jewish stud? Unless you count Paul Rudd…)
- White nerd boy with glasses who’s also paralyzed and in a wheelchair (glasses and a wheelchair? Could the fates be any crueler? asks Chandler Bing)
- Sassy overweight black girl who is constantly given lines such as “What this song needs is my chocolate thunder” and “My weave!”
- Punky Asian girl who stutters (except she doesn’t really, but no matter)
- White blonde cheerleader who’s dumb and not as pretty as the other white blonde cheerleader, which is why she doesn’t get as much screen time, but still gets more than…
- Asian guy
- Latina cheerleader
- I had to do a whole mess of googling to figure out who the 12th member of glee club was even though I’ve watched every episode. Guess what? He’s black! I guess he sits in the back?*
In last week’s episode of Glee, “Ballad,” the kids had to draw names from a hat to find out who they’d partner with to sing a ballad. Jewish football stud got sassy black girl. Paralyzed nerd got blonde cheerleader numero uno. Non-Jewish football stud got gay guy. Asian girl got… “other Asian.” Seriously, that’s what she said, with a grimace. Now I love edgy racial humor as much as the next gal (lie! I love it way more than the next gal, and way more than the next guy too), but when you as the writer/creator of a TV show are putting lines in your actors’ mouths that poke fun at just how much you as the writer/creator of a TV show have marginalized them… well, I’ve got a problem with that.
Glee, you’re on notice. But I’ll keep watching because I like it when people—especially white people—break into song.
Happy Thanksgiving and Eid Mubarak, y’all!
*I rewatched some of the episodes while writing this post and he and Asian Guy both do sit in the back. They also get to dance sometimes. I stand uncorrected.