When it comes to television, do we expect more of producers from minorities?

Yes, we do, and no, it isn't fair.

Love him or hate him – and there are serious reasons for both sides of the argument – Aaron Sorkin is an industry. If we ignore his cinema work and focus on the small screen, we get the under-appreciated Sports Night to the liberal porn of The West Wing to the much-maligned Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (which I consumed in great greedy gulps) to his latest, The Newsroom, a series I am reluctant to visit due to the reviews from trusted sources (“turgid and terrible”).

Regardless of setting, you know what you’re getting with Sorkin: fast, zippy dialogue, memorable lines (“You can’t handle the truth!” was his work), thundering but heartfelt speeches and the “walk and talk”, which he helped send up in his cameo on the now defunct comedy 30 Rock. (“Do I know you?” asks Liz Lemon. “You know my work,” Sorkin replies. “Walk with me.”) Sorkin is a brand and a trusted one at that. So we expect of him what we look for in brands – dependable output in a familiar package.

In May, a headline in the New York Times Magazine made a statement on the state of television and asked a simple question: “Network TV is broken. So how does Shonda Rhimes keep making hits?” However you slice it, Rhimes is a bit of a unicorn in television right now: stripped of the extra labels (African American, female), she is plain impressive. Since 2005, she has created and executive-produced the telly juggernauts Grey’s Anatomy, its spin-off Private Practice and, in 2012, Scandal, starring Kerry Washington as the Washington, DC fixer Olivia Pope. Each of these series has been wildly successful at the very least and culturally significant at the very most. Remember the mid-2000s “Mc-Dreamy” phase of our ever-evolving language? That came from Rhimes’s writers’ room. Like Sorkin, Rhimes is a brand (her production company is called Shondaland). We look to her productions for multicultural casts (she does the same for her behind-thescenes staff: 67 per cent female or minority directors on Scandal alone), diverse representations of sexuality and religion. However fluffy the package (a well-off doctors’ practice, for example), she weaves in societal issues with a light touch – adoption, abortion, racism, sexism, money and privilege, female friendships – and in so doing, ignites discourse that goes wider than her already impressive viewing population.

Now let’s bring back those labels discarded earlier. That Rhimes is an African American woman doing what she does is exciting. It means we can seriously begin to ask what it is that we expect of our popular culture. And we can also tell show-runners and networks what we expect from their programming. Rhimes has met with queries on her depictions, for example, of people of colour, particularly black women. Do we see enough of the interior of Olivia Pope’s life? Where’s her family? How come she rarely talks about her blackness explicitly? I think Rhimes is tackling the character fairly well; Pope is flawed, sure, but in the circumstances (she’s the first protagonist of colour on prime-time television in the US for almost 40 years) and with a third season en route, they can be tackled.

The kernel of expectations in popular culture comes down to who is producing it. In the case of Grey’s Anatomy and The Newsroom, we look to the creator-writers, Rhimes and Sorkin, not the network, and not society at large, the soup we all swim in. In E4’s The Mindy Project, the protagonist Dr Lahiri is a chubby, Indian-American woman and she makes reference to this repeatedly. She’s played by the show’s creator and co-writer Mindy Kaling – a chubby, Indian-American woman. The show is not perfect and in my view makes several missteps in its depictions of people of colour (a cringeworthy example is the black nurse who dances and sings at every opportunity). But it raises the question of what we expect from people who run shows when they are female, or black, or Asian, or whatever.

I put my hand up and admit I do expect more from minority producers. Is it fair? No, not really. Yet it is a symptom of a bigger problem: in an industry as difficult to get into as television, there is still a huge dearth of the minorities required to keep things honest. In the meantime, we watch, enjoy and complain – and continue to hope for better.

Shonda Rhimes. Photograph: Getty Images

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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