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

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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