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The “Other Ethnic”: Minorities in Glee.




It occurred to me recently that, despite being a member of the original cast, Jenna Ushkowitz, who plays Tina Cohen-Chang on Glee, has only had one solo where the narrative has allowed her to finish. Tonight’, ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘I Follow Rivers’… The first two songs called for Ushkowitz to deliberately sing them badly, and ‘I Follow Rivers’ was interrupted by hecklers.

Let’s look at the maths of that for a minute:

There have been 46 episodes of Glee so far, with an average of about 8 songs per episode, which equals about 370 songs overall, and out of all of those songs, Jenna Ushkowitz has only been allowed to finish singing one, True Colours’.

That was all the way back in Season One, so I went and watched it again to refresh my memory, and do you know what I noticed?

More maths:

The ‘True Colours’ performance is a little under 2 minutes long, and of those two minutes, the focus is on Tina for less than 20 seconds. That means that during her one and only solo, Ushkowitz got less than 1/6 of the screen time.

During the most recent episode,” I Am Unicorn”, Kurt, a white, openly gay character on the show, voiced his frustration that he will never be able to play the leading roles he desires because he is unable to ‘pass’ as straight. This struck me as an interesting thing for Kurt to say, and for the writers to prioritise, as it’s a problem that most ethnic minority actors and performers face constantly. I’m pretty sure the emphasis put on a potentially ‘ethnic’ Maria as the lead in the school musical, West Side Story, exists mainly to place Mercedes in a position where she can legitimately rival Rachel for a role, thereby creating drama for the following episode, but even though I know this, I still find the willingness of the audition panel to consider a non-white Maria unbelievably refreshing.

The sad fact of the matter is that in the real world it’s doubtful that Santana, Tina or Mercedes would get the same consideration as Rachel. Not because they aren’t as talented, but because of ethnicity. I have heard the arguments for this treatment countless times, both in regards to the fashion and beauty industries, and the entertainment industry. I’ve heard many, many excuses, but I still find that whilst people are happy for a minority to take the supportive roles: the best friend, the sidekick, the wisecracking partner etc. people often refuse to consider a minority lead. From what I can understand some of the fandom have had a similar response to the idea of Mercedes as the lead in West Side Story, people seem quite happy for her to play Anita, but not Maria. In the film version a Puerto Rican actress, Rita Moreno, was able to play the supporting role of Anita (for which she won an Oscar), but when it came to the role of Maria the studio went with a White European actress (Natalie Wood).

The problem is that Glee constantly frustrates by bringing these issues to the foreground and then doing nothing about them, or worse, uses them to vilify, stereotype or make fun of its minority characters. Mercedes is often painted as irrational or a diva when she challenges the assumptions that Rachel will/should get all lead parts (although she is also not the only character to do this, I can recall Santana doing the same thing on occasion) and yet whenever she does so her behaviour is cause for people to dismiss her actions, and by the same token, the viewpoints that led her to those actions in the first place. This is similarly the case with Santana, although Santana occupies a slightly different space because of her homo/bisexuality.

Glee seems to treat homosexuality as a serious subject, but race as a cause for comedy. Let’s go back to Kurt’s comment about not getting lead roles, despite the obvious parallels between Kurt’s situation and that of the minority characters, the closest we get to seeing these parallels on screen is Artie’s throwaway line about wanting to play Porgy someday. The unlikeliness of which is so evident that it’s clear the audience is being invited to laugh at it. I could write a whole other post on that line alone so I’m going to stop before I get too carried away, but the implication is clear - race is funny, sexuality is not.It remains to be seen if the writers choose to address these issues with next week’s episode.

But Glee does not have the greatest track record with handling race. I take issue with the writers’ desire to prefix everything Tina and Mike do with the word “Asian”, although they did the same thing with Puck and Rachel (“Jew”/”Jewish”) and it looks as though they’re planning to do the same thing with Mercedes new relationship (“cocoa babies”) - the thought of which fills me with dread.

Aside from not understanding the need to distill characters that people have grown to love and relate to into caricatures and stereotypes, I also don’t really understand how it’s funny. What if it wasn’t a minority character saying it? What if Finn or Quinn went around prefixing everything they did with the word “White”? Would it be considered comedic then? Probably not. But you know what, that would never happen, because Finn and Quinn have both been written as multi-dimensional characters without requiring their ethnicity as a crutch. Many of the other characters have not been afforded that privilege.

I have difficulty with the idea that Glee purports to be a show about an ensemble cast where everyone is different but valued for who they are, while it continually prioritises the same few characters over everyone else. Which characters do we know the most about? Which characters have a family/home life that we’ve seen? Rachel, Finn, Quinn, Kurt and, while he was still part of the show, Sam.

The only minority character whose background has been explored in any meaningful way is Santana, and even then it has only been explored in relation to her sexuality.

There are notoriously few roles for minority actors in television, film and theatre, even fewer lead roles, and of that already diminished pool of opportunities there are even fewer for women. So, to viewers of Glee, these characters are not just characters, they have been transformed by their rarity into representatives of hordes of people who have not had the chance to see themselves reflected on screen before. It means something to a black woman who sees Mercedes, an Asian girl who sees Tina, or a Latina who sees Santana, because finally theirstories can be heard. Not only that, but these characters also serve as a barometer that shows how the rest of society views a particular minority, and therefore how society will view them. So when Glee pushes these characters to the background, stereotypes them and makes them ‘comedically ethnic’, the message is that these characters don’t deserve the spotlight, attention, love, respect, meaningful friendships or to be looked at as anything beyond their race. In fact, the message being sent out is that these characters do not even deserve characterisation. Can you imagine, never seeing anyone like you on the screen, and then when you do that is what you’re being told? That is what’s held up as an acceptable way to treat someone like you?

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy Glee, but I find it troubling that the show, however implicitly, claims to represent and celebrate diversity but then marginalises and stereotypes the majority of the characters it claims to be supporting. It’s come a long way from the show it was in Season One, and while it appears to be getting back on track I fear that the ideas of inclusion and diversity that were so prevalent in Season One have fallen by the wayside. I’ll keep watching, but I’m also hoping that the show will learn to treat its minority characters with more sensitivity than it has done thus far.

And, please, let poor Tina finish a solo!

(via the-original-dtwps)
Second, when we do have discussions on the Jim Crow Era, we have to centralize white people who want to be on what most now see as the “right” side of history. They weren’t just allies, they did stuff and saved us! And so, you get stories like “The Help” premised on the notion that “the black maids would trust Skeeter with their stories, and that she would have the ability, despite her privileged upbringing, to give them voice.” Or like “The Long Walk Home,” (another film about relationships between black and white women during the Civil Rights Era that centers… well, you get it) in which you walk away with the feeling that, yeah black people took risks during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but the person who had the most to lose, who was bravest, was the white woman employer who initially intervened only because she wanted to keep her “help.” These stories perpetuate racism because they imply that is right and rightful that white people take the lead and speak for us.

Shakesville: Same Script, Different Cast (via robot-heart-politics)

(via bana05)


Why Hollywood keeps whitewashing the past


This isn’t the story of beleaguered domestics standing up for themselves during a time of American apartheid. It’s the story of a perky proto-feminist writer (Emma Stone’s “Skeeter” Phelan) cajoling black women into standing up for themselves by telling her their stories and letting her publish them in book form. It’s about what a good-hearted and tenacious person Skeeter is, and how lucky the maids are to have met her. When Skeeter’s insufferable childhood friend, a heartless, racist social climber, pushes her to publish an article in their Junior League group’s newsletter urging whites to build separate restrooms in their homes for black domestics, she resists for several weeks, then engineers a spectacular, lowbrow prank as a protest. When her book is finally published, we see a clerk displaying it prominently in a downtown bookstore window and old white ladies openly reading it in public, as if it were “Profiles in Courage” or “Calories Count.”

There was no real-life book similar to Skeeter’s magnum opus; it’s a fictional flourish that feels like a college-educated white liberal’s wish-fulfillment fantasy of how she would have conducted herself had she been time-warped back to the civil rights era. I wouldn’t have just stood by and let it happen. I would have done something! Something brave! This silliness reminded me, perversely enough, of an old Eddie Murphy routine tweaking macho black males’ fantasies of how they would have behaved if they’d lived in the pre-Civil War South: “Brothers act like they couldn’t have been slaves back 200 years ago … ‘I wish I was a slave! I would f—- somebody up!’”“

(via bana05)


Cartoon by Stuart Carlsson 


Cartoon by Stuart Carlsson 

(via bana05)


If we—the audiences who want to see black actresses on screen but are troubled by the premise of The Help and the politics of Hollywood Blockbuster films and Mainstream Bestselling novels which still, in 2011 not 1963 or some other painful past, exclude black screenwriters, directors, actresses, and novelists from the kind of support and marketing that made The Help a juggernaut—if we don’t go to The Help—why the Hollywood machine won’t risk featuring black ladies again, probably for a long time. The systemic repercussions will be our fault, not the writer’s fault. I keep hearing this. If the film fails, if execs don’t greenlight films featuring black ladies after a disappointing showing for The Help, it’ll be because we—the skeptics—didn’t give this movie a chance.

The logic of this is brutal. We are blamed for systemic problems, but those capitalizing on them are just doing…well, good art. Who can blame them for that?

Andrea Hairston snarks all over ‘The Help’ (because I didn’t already love her, her work and her ginormous brain)…. (via theycallmezorawalker)

It’s a never-ending cycle of excuses: “We gave you crap. now…why won’t you eat it?” 

(via squeetothegee)

If someone says some assbackwards shit like this in my face, it’s on. Really?

(via strugglingtobeheard)

I’ve heard this about everything from martin Lawrence’s fat suit movies to whatever awful thing Tyler Perry has put out in his violent grandma drag. If the only thing Hollywood is willing to greenlight is demeaning or negative portrayals of black women, what does that tell you about the message Hollywood is committed to sending to viewers including black women? They’re going to sell racist stereotypes whether we go or not.

(via bana05)
The issues that face African-American women were not kind of Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi, Mean Girls behavior. That’s not what it was. It was rape. It was lynching. It was the burning of communities. What this movie does, in 2011, is it completes the work that happened and started in 1923 when the Daughters of the American Confederacy, along with Sen John Williams from Mississippi, found money in the federal budget to erect a granite statue of Mammy in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, which had just been dedicated in 1922. This is the same Senate that refused to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. In other words, a Senate that allowed black men to be lynched without federal oversight, but had the time to pass a bill that said we could erect a statue to Mammy. Now this is not granite and it’s not on federal land, but it is the same notion that the fidelity of black women domestics is more important than the realities of the lives and the pain, the anguish, the rape, the lynching that they experienced. And for that reason, it’s not artistic, it’s ahistorical. And it’s deeply troubling.

Melissa Harris-Perry, talking about the messages in the new movie The Help on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show last night. Watch the full clip here. (via thepoliticalnotebook)

Da-Yum. And this moment right here is why sometimes, sometimes, I really love history. Because I had never heard of the statue of Mammy (gtfoh), but it puts in relief the imaginary feats, being incorrectly understood and portrayed as truth, being promulgated in this novel and other places as people attempt to whitewash the holy hell out of the racial terror faced by African Americans in the South and elsewhere.

(via femmenoire)

(via bana05)