Writers Strike, But Hollywood Holds on to Shopworn Stereotypes

By Guest Columnist Nov 08, 2007

by Brian Palmer I empathize with people trying to pay the rent, put food on the table, and make car payments. I’m also a stalwart defender of the intellectual property rights of the artists, actors, and writers who entertain us – and sometimes feed our souls – because I’m a creative type, too. But I just can’t get too worked up about this Writers’ Guild strike. tnewspaper and web photos of Tina Fey, Jay Leno, Julia-Louis Dreyfus http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21644146/ , and other entertainment luminaries humping picket lines don’t move me an inch. I’m not playing class war or just celebrity hating – that’s too easy, like shooting fish at Whole Foods. It’s the little guys and gals who’ll suffer during this strike, not the stars and head writers. I know that. People and principle are important, but I see this strike as an opportunity to examine the mass-entertainment engine at the center of our culture and the mediocre and often shoddy merchandise it spits out, particularly as far as people of color are concerned. From where I sit, people of color are still marginal or marginalized in both the TV and motion picture mainstream. I’m not talking only about numbers of colored faces on the screen – a Shrekicized America Ferrera or a Vanessa Williams on Ugly Betty, a Blair Underwood on Dirty Sexy Money. I’m talking substance. For us to get represented as complex characters – not merely as buddies or shopworn stereotypes, but as individuals – we usually have to do the representing ourselves. So for every Grey’s Anatomy or sundry urban cop drama, we get a dozen 30 Rocks and Rush Hours, concoctions that feature self-debasers like Tracy Morgan and Chris Tucker, and which exploit the “exotic” appeal (read: Asian identity) of a Jackie Chan. “If you desecrate something, is that bad?” Tracy Morgan’s buffoonish character asks Alec Baldwin in a recent episode of 30 Rock. Later in the show, Baldwin adopts various down-home “black” voices. Think: Al Jolson without the face paint. One would think that in the post-civil rights era, amidst the browning of America, we’d see more progress; more genuine diversity on our big and small screens not tokenism and stereotyping. But power concedes nothing, and the power to entertain is the power to manufacture meaning and beauty and so many other wonderful things for an entire culture – and the world. The dominant culture in this country wields the bulk of that power; therefore the images it creates reinforce their centrality, their universality. These images, refashioned over the years, from Bogey and Bacall to Brangelina, have become – and continue to become – global culture. That’s just the way of the world, and that’s the banality of racism today. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can all write outside the Hollywood box. Or just ignore it.