Sisterhood Blog

Toward a More Perfect Primetime

By Gabrielle Birkner

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Sarah Seltzer has written extensively on The Sisterhood about television’s resistance to developing characters of color.

She has wondered why all of the titular girls of HBO’s “Girls,” are white girls, and has challenged the idea that a more diverse cast would make the show any less “real.” “We live in an era in which homogeneity isn’t mandatory for authenticity,” she wrote last week.

And as “Mad Men” returned to the air last month after a 17-month hiatus, Sarah made the case for the hit AMC series to take its portrayals of black characters beyond the symbolic:

While I acknowledge that [“Mad Men” creator] Weiner’s past omission of significant black characters is a direct (and accurate) commentary on the segregated, isolated world his show depicts, after several seasons I grew frustrated with a lack of interiority when he did introduce the rare character of color. This wouldn’t have been impossible to do right. His Jewish characters who came in and out of the picture, for instance, such as Season One fan favorite Rachel Menken, were peripheral to the Sterling Cooper world. But they were crucially allowed to have their own scenes — witness Rachel talking on the phone with her sister, who (rightly) declares that Don is a no-goodnik.

Why not allow the Drapers’ former nanny and housekeeper, Carla, a phone call with her sister? Why not allow one of the few black love interests — Paul Kinsey’s girlfriend, Sheila, and Lane Pryce’s “chocolate bunny,” Toni — their own asides with colleagues or friends, their own chances to reflect on the action?

So it’s not surprising that when The New York Times was looking to host on its website a lively debate about race in primetime, they’d ask Sarah to participate.

In her Times piece, she challenges the “lazy assumption” that white characters will appeal to everyone, but that black characters will appeal only to black audiences. She gives viewers more credit that that —  producing evidence, in the success of “The Good Wife” and “The Office,” that they care more about compelling stories than if the onscreen protagonist wears their precise shade of foundation.


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