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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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