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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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear