Thursday, June 19, 2014

America's Superiority Complex in the Media

Now that I've written such a stinging title I feel extra pressure to offer forth a well-thought-out and well-written argument. The difference between a sensational title and a thought-provoking one is often the quality of the material which follows.

Today, as I was skimming the commercials during my favorite competition show, So You Think You Can Dance, I fell across a commercial that made me hit play just to watch it.

I was pumped. It was a commercial for one of my all-time favorite crime dramas ((and I haven't even finished watching the season!)) At least, that's what I thought it was.

It's called Broadchurch and it's a BBC crime drama which aims to move past the superficiality that has defined the crime drama genre-- as if all issues could be solved, packaged up, and played back in a 50 minute time span. As if all murders could be solved in a quick manner by witty protagonists. As if, at the end of the day, justice always prevails over evil and evil wonders why it even tried. From Scooby-Doo to Bones it's a rare day when, after 50 exciting minutes, the guilty criminal hasn't succumbed to the pull of a sudden moral compass and confessed or been overwhelmed by the expansive amount of evidence (and law breaking by the upholders of the law) and admitted his wrongdoings.

I watched the first episode Broadchurch primarily because it had one of my all-time favorite British actors in-- David Tennant. I continued watching because it was so good.The show crafted an amazing connection between the audience and the characters. You see the aftermath of a murder-- a 'behind-the-scenes' look at what happens when a little boy is killed. The entire season is devoted to solving the crime, watching as everyone's back-story, everyone's skeleton is pushed out of the closet.

What does this have to do with the American superiority complex?

Well, you see, the commercial I had stopped to watch wasn't Broadchurch. Sure, it had David Tennant's lovely face, the small coastal setting, and the same plot.

But, you see, this new show was called Gracepoint. It looked as though it had been filmed at the same location of Broadchurch-- all the names of the characters remained the same. The actors looked simliar-- we had the pretty brunette young, devastated mother, the sullen, loner elderly gentlemen-- and of course, Tennet.

But this show was American. Tennet ditched his lovely Scottish accent in favor of an American accent. The great British actors had been replaced by nearly identical actors-- the only difference being, these were American actors. The deceased boy had been American. It was filmed in America.

Entire scenes-- and lines-- are kept the same. I watched the commercial twice and even checked Wikipedia because I simply could not believe that they would re-make an entire, already wonderful British series, just to put it on the American market.

And that got me thinking. Why? Why not simply show Broadchurch? It is obvious a captivating, new crime drama and those things have been selling like hotcakes, to use a technical term.

Why take the same show and uselessly 'Americanize' it, to make it fit for an American audience? They are perhaps assuming that the only way Americans could ever emphasize-- and therefore keep tuning in to the show-- was if they were watching Americans solve an American crime. That we, as Americans, lack the ability to stay interested in affairs that are not explicitly our own. That the little things-- accents, license plate shapes, affinity for tea-- would prevent us from fully enjoying a British crime drama. Obviously we aren't able to hold any interest in stories where the characters might look or act differently.

And that got me thinking. How does this theory hold up compared to the hit shows on TV in America?

American shows are woefully under-diversified. I've complained about this before with a racial tint but the same position can be held with a nationalist tint. Characters on our hit shows talk, act, and look like us. That, of course, is to be expected; shows are crafted so that we connect, and therefore watch them. But for this to be the case for every single character?

I love old movies (as in 1930s old) and there has been a massive improvement in the way that different sexes and races are portrayed in the media. However, I don't want us to think that we're done; that we've reached the asymptotic goal of well-representation of everyone in the media.

Josh Whedon (an amazing show writer) was once asked why he created such strong female roles in his show. The fact that they existed was so remarkable that the reporter felt the need to point it out-- but no one would ever ask a writer why they wrote strong male roles.

The same is true for the representation of race in the media. It stands out to me whenever I see an ethnically diverse cast-- it's the exception, rather than the norm.

Of course I haven't seen every TV show there is. However, I do know the ethnic makeup of the United States and that its diversity is not represented in the media. 

How are we supposed to embrace our diversity if our television shows focus on pretty, white Americans?

How are we supposed to appreciate different cultures if even the remarkably similar British culture must undergo an American makeover for it to be suitable for American audiences?

The United States is quite diverse-- for that matter the WORLD is diverse! We can't hide away in our corner of the globe and pretend like we are the only ones that matter, like our stories are the only ones we should talk about. We should celebrate the fact that there are other nationalities a) living in our very own country and b) living in the WORLD. There are so many stories to be told and why not use the wonderful media of television?

I'd like to think that Americans can empathize, can enjoy, stories about people who might look/act different than ourselves. I'm not proposing anything radical, just that increasing the diversity in our media would benefit everyone. ((Now there's a radical statement for you. Diversity is good.))

For those of you who like hard numbers ((or opinions that are not my own)) there is a really cool paper written about the diversity in the media.

If you disagree with my arguments and if you're anything like me, that means as you have been reading my post you have been silently disagreeing, creating rebuttals and all-around strengthening your argument. And that was why I wrote this post in the first place-- I wanted to make you think. I wanted to hear your opinions.

Next time you tune into your favorite show, I wanted you to examine what type of characters were being given the limelight and what type of characters (African American, immigrant, Mexican) were absent.