Tokenism, Racial Stereotypes & Why We Need More Directors Of Color

October 4, 2012  |

Last week, the Director Guild of America (DGA) released a report detailing the state of women and minority directors behind the camera of some of the more popular television productions. The conclusions of this report offer little surprises.

According to the DGA, which analyzed more than 3,100 episodes produced in the 2011-2012 network television calendar year, white males directed 73% of all episodes and white females directed 11% of all episodes. Minority males were behind the camera of 13% of all episodes while minority females only directed a measly 4% of all episodes. Some of the worst offenders belonged to cable television networks including such shows as Comedy Central’s “Workaholics,” MTV’s “The Inbetweeners” and HBO’s “Veep,” which all had a zero percentage of minority directed episodes.  However many of the network shows didn’t fare any better in their minority hiring practices including popular series like CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” NBC’s “The Office” and ABC’s “Modern Family,” which all clocked in with under 10 percent women and minority directorial representation.

Coincidentally, the shows that hired the most women or minority directors are BET’s “The Game,” “Reed Between the Lines” and “Let’s Stay Together” as well as VH1’s “Single Ladies,” which all had a 100 percent rating.  I guess BET and VH1 aren’t so bad after all. Oh, you still think they are garbage. Okay well at least I tried to throw them a bone.

So back to the director situation, why does this matter?

Well besides the obvious concern about the lack of black centered television shows and black characters within mixed cast shows still being an issue, there is also a much more pronounced problem with the way black women and other races and ethnicities are portrayed when we are present on a television series.  While television has slowly been inching its way to more inclusive programming featuring more people of color, the characters on these shows tend not to be as diverse as they seem.

Take for instance the show, “2 Broke Girls,” which premiered September of last year. The show, which was nominated for several Emmys, follows the friendship and adventures of two white waitresses named Max and Caroline, who are on the verge of starting a cupcake business in their Williamsburg Brooklyn neighborhood. The show, which has also been touted as edgy, also features a racially mixed cast of characters include Asian diner owner, a black cashier and a Ukrainian dishwasher. Despite its apparent diversity, the show is chocked full of one-note jokes usually at the expense of ethnic characters, who more often than not are caricatures of their respective minority groups. The most prominent and egregious of these caricatures is Han Lee, played by Mathew Moy, who is the Korean owner of the diner where the 2 broke girls are employed.  The Lee character is best described as fairly regressive, embodying all the stereotypical Asian characteristics including the broken accent and tongue and cheek jokes about how his size doesn’t matter.

When the director of the show, a white man named Michael Patrick King, was asked about the offensives characters including Hans Lee, King responded, “I’m gay! I’m putting in gay stereotypes every week! I don’t find it offensive, any of this. I find it comic to take everybody down, which is what we are doing.” The ole’ I’m-a-oppressed-minority-too- so-I-can’t-be-bigoted defense. Okay that’s not fair. King could be an equal opportunity offender and it is possible that his overall character development could be based solely through the lens in which he views the world and its multi-colored inhabitants. But why is it that the only worldview we are allowed to see on television can only come from the mind of people with King’s hue and gender?

Even when shows are supposed to be groundbreaking, edgy and reflective of the new America, the same tired troupes of minorities still exist. As with the case of with “The New Normal,” a show about two white gay men who decide to raise a baby together. There’s still the loud mouth, sassy black assistant played by Nene Leakes. Besides the obvious inference of the “Sapphire” troupe, there are also questions about how this show, among others, which are supposed to be reflective of current social trends, exclude people of a darker hue.  As explained by Lori Tharpe, an author and writer friend of mind who penned a piece for The Grio, writes, “I hate to rain on any parade of diversity in media, but this isn’t just a matter of believing black actors should have a shot at making it big in Hollywood by having our modern families equally portrayed. I’m talking about historical accuracy here. On the one hand, it is absolutely wonderful that sitcoms like Modern Family and The New Normal and dramas like Brothers and Sisters and Parenthood are expanding the definition of the nuclear family on the small screen. Yet, by only featuring white families taking part in this redefining family movement, they are completely ignoring the fact that black people are leading the way in this revolution.”

There’s an argument to be made that a network or studio producing a show where half the cast are belonging to minority groups is a step in the right direction. However, there is an even bigger argument here, that when people of color do find their way onto these shows, their characters should be as substantive, conscious and truly diverse in character development as their white counterparts. One show that gets it right is Disney’s “Lab Rats,” a show about a black kid, whose mom marries a filthy rich and smart scientist, who has three
cloned kids living in the basement. That show, which has had women and/or minorities directing the show for at least 80 percent of its episodes, has been lauded by Angela Hunt of Jezebel, for not stereotyping its black characters. The only way that we can have more nuance shows like “Lab Rats” is for networks and studios to really embrace the concept of diversity (not just tokenism) and ensure that we have just as many minority faces behind the camera as we do in front of them

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  • I’m glad you pointed out the diversity in Lab Rats I know i’m too old to be watching Disney, lol but they really have good shows and I like to laugh so hey! But it’s sad that the only successful diverse shows are coming from Disney because it’s not just Lab Rats, there’s Pair of Kings, Good Luck Charlie, A.N.T.S. etc all of these networks need to take notes from Disney, just sayin…


    Everybody plays a part. When black actors stop accepting these “token” roles, writers will eventually stop portraying them that way. I watched the show Guys w/ Kids and I HATE the fact that Anthony’s kids are portrayed as Bebe’s. In episode 1, his kids broke the TV. Now, they didn’t show how they broke it, but you can assume by the way the kids bounce off the walls and play in boxes. At the end of the day, people only do what you allow them to do.

  • great article…..I am tired of nene blowing this show up tho…like you’re a token character calm down

  • call me a token or whatever, i will take the money they are making any day of the week. thing is, i don’t need anyone to like me, or “accept me”, just don’t interfere with my job, my God, or my family. everything else…whatever i’m not losing any sleep.

    • And what does that have to do with the articles point? We already know there are plenty of black actors willing to tap dance for a dollar. The point is is that there would be more realistic black actor roles if there were more black directors.

  • Chassie

    I’d like to agree with you, but the last time i put my faith into a black director/producer to do some uplifting, he embraced the stereotypes and is currently sitting on a fat billion dollar check to prove it. Also, like it or not, I know tons of african american people of color who get a kick out of stereotypes about themselves, shoot, sometimes my friends and i find ourselves being loud and enthusiastic, etc. Yes, tv should show a more diverse side of everyone, but the portrayal out now is not necessarily inaccurate. The reason, imo, reality shows like basketball wives, etc. get so much viewership is that there are TONS of women of color just like them, acting a fool just like them, and relating to them.

  • There are many shows I enjoy that have all or a mostly white cast. Doesn’t really bother me. In all honesty I’d rather have that then stick a black person in there. It’s uncomfortable and awkward. It’s obvious when there is a token black character,. I just don’t personally see how a black actor can take these roles knowing full well they will be the token. I would love to see more “black” shows,sadly there aren’t any good ones, the ones I watch are re-runs. I always feels slightly guilty when I enjoy watching the white shows then the black ones. But they honestly need to step their game up.

  • IllyPhilly

    TV is just overall horrible nowadays, but all of those shows you named that were directed by minority women, take the whole cake, steak, and the plate for terrible. Boo if you want, but c’mon and be real. I’m not saying it’s because Black women directed them, It’s just the bar seems to really low when it comes to ethnic sitcoms.

  • It’s interesting; they won’t hire more producers/directors/writers of color, but still want Black viewership, and don’t understand why we don’t watch certain shows or movies. They want our support, but won’t hire people to show more balanced portrayals of Black life. I’m getting tired of the defense that the “2 Broke Girls” director used, which is becoming very popular lately. The show is still problematic. Just because he’s gay doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have prejudicial attitudes, or that he understands life through the lens of ethnic minorities; he’s still a white man. Also, just because there is a person of color on television does not mean that the role they are playing is a positive one.

  • Faith

    They do need to hire more black directors and black writes for mainstream television.