Friday, July 13, 2012

People of Colour as Extras do not Equal Inclusion

Here’s an interesting phenomenon, I think there’s a population of POC mole people in the world, or at least on TV.

For example, on the Secret Circle there were only 3 POC (including 2 people who managed to make a brief appearance for 2 episodes), who actually spoke. But when they’re at school, when there are crowds of people in the corridors - suddenly there are several POC! Yes, the POC mole people came out from the corners and the shadows to show their face for Essential Inclusivity Crowd Scene and then, when there’s actually speaking lines going around, they fade back into their secret lairs. I actually expect the white cast to look around in shock “where did these guys come from?!”  

One of the most obvious examples was the season three premiere, “Happy Birthday Elena.”  This episode stood out not because something spectacular happened in the plot, but because they managed to scare up so many people of colour for Elena’s birthday party. Where did they come from? I thought Black people were only for the purposes of snacking or to do magic when Elena needs a favour.  

On Falling Skies, the representation of people of colour is well below population demographics, which would lead one to believe that for some reason, the aliens find us to be extra tasty; that is until it’s time to show a crowd scene and all of the people of colour come out of hiding to wave at the camera, before being saved by the ever-so-heroic white knight Tom.

Crowd scenes are a major time for the POC mole-people to show up to hit those essential inclusion moments - and how many times do we see this? An all white cast, but the minute we’ve got a crowd of people going in front of the cameras, the POC mole people emerge! And yea the casting director pats himself on the back, because a face in the crowd with a bit more melanin and lo, inclusion is achieved!

Who do they think is actually falling for that? If the best you can do for inclusion appears in the credits as “man crossing road #3” then you do not have inclusion.

Then you have what we like to call recurring tokens. Members of the protagonist team who are POC, but extremely tertiary (they’re not even side-kicks) to the other cast members. The absolute best example of that is of course T-Dog from The Walking Dead.  First, we have to deal with the fact that though we have been promised Tyrese would make an appearance, the ineffectual T-Dog (could they have chosen a more uncool 90’s name?)  is the only representation of Black masculinity.  We have been given a reason to invest in every other character whereas for T-Dog, we have learned that he is handy to have around as a driver if you are running from zombies, or if you need a big heavy box moved.  More often than not an entire episode can go by without seeing him and when he does appear, chances are he does not have a single line of dialogue.

But he’s hardly the only one. Melissa on The Secret Circle, is virtually an afterthought. On Bedlam season 1 we had Molly floating around everyone else’s life. In Falling Skies, despite being part of the team since the very beginning and one of their most skilled and experienced scouts, Dai still takes a secondary role to the teenaged Hal and the new recruit Maggie. He’s always around in the background, especially on any dangerous scouting missions, but most episodes he doesn’t even have a speaking role. These characters aspire to become side-kicks, they’re hangers on who are occasionally useful, but their main role is to show a face that isn’t white to the cameras.

Another useful POC token to throw in is the external support staff. They probably won’t show up every episode and when they do, it’s only briefly for their expertise - they’re not involved in the main storylines, they won’t have any storylines of their own, they usually won’t have any real character development - but they’re there to assist the main (white) protagonist’s story.

This is often the pathologist, an expert or a near-silent partner - in Blood Ties we have most excellent pathologist, Dr. Mohadevan and Dave, Celluci’s Black partner in season 1. In Continuum, we have Betty, the Asian police officer who is an expert on computers - except Alec is better of course. In Alcatraz we had Nikki - another pathologist. In Hex we had the awesome headmaster, David Tyrell. All of them provide POC inclusion, but they’re external to the plot lines.

This is similar to a tactic that is often seen, especially in books, which we call promotion to obscurity. What’s a good way to show a POC who is not subservient to the white characters and not in a service role? Make them the boss! Surely that’s the ultimate empowered inclusion, right?

Except the boss doesn’t do anything. The boss sits in their office and gives orders. The boss isn’t directly involved in the plot lines, he’s not directly part of the character’s lives; like the experts, he’s periphery to the main plot, sometimes he’s even something the protagonists have to work round. And, ultimately, he has limited screen time - after all, the boss doesn’t need to make a constant appearance right?

The most blatant example has to be the Ash in season 1 of Lost Girl (especially since he contrasts so severely with Lochlann), but there’s no shortage. In the Dresden Files books, a substantial portion of the High Council are POC (contrasting sharply with a very very white Chicago). In Warehouse 13, we have Mrs. Frederick - in all cases these authority figures are in charge, they are respected, powerful people. They are rarely seen, are never developed, and very rarely have any direct influence over the plot or the characterisations. They’re in positions of authority but they’re still tertiary roles.

There has been and continues to be a lot of complaints about erasure and rightly so. We’ve done so ourselves on several occasions. But this is not the answer. You can’t solve erasure by ticking a box because you managed to get a POC face on camera. You can’t solve erasure by having some POC hanging around in the background, lurking in the crowd scenes and making guest appearances once every 3 episodes.