Tuesday, January 25, 2011

By Nicole Walker

Part #5

Part #4

Part #3

Part #2

Part #1

Even though I’m a 30something proud Black Female American, to be frank, I’ve never been all that consumed with the issue of race in my movies or television. I’m a sucker for good story and dynamic characters. If the characters happen to be hot, cute, and sexy, as well, that’s just dandy too.

So while growing up on my mother’s regular soaps in the 80s - All My Children and the late, great As The World Turns - I wasn’t merely all about the people of color. Sure Jesse and Angie’s love story was sweet and they had their share of angst, but my viewership didn’t just hinge on them - or later the adventures of siblings Derek and Livia Frye -being onscreen. Not when AMC had scheming Adam juggling naive Dixie and his true love, Brooke. Or Natalie stuck in a well. Or Cliff and Nina in their sordid romance. Or Erica with Natalie and Jeremy. Then Travis and Barbara and Jackson.

I was an equal opportunity watcher as long as you gave me good story and good character.

But as I expanded my regular soap watching from just the core two (and got a little older), I began to notice something about a large number of the minority characters on soaps.

They were, well... boring.

Rather than being as flawed and crazy and desperate and scheming and sneaky and sexy as their non-minority counterparts, there seemed to be a definite shift towards more ‘careful’ writing of minority characters in an effort not to offend anyone. Sure they were smart, educated, gainfully employed, married, had kids, and were great BFFs to their hot mess of a front-burning non-minority buddies.

But they had no spark.

No drive.

They never lusted, cheated, coveted, schemed, swapped babies or got into cat fights and brawls like everybody else. They became the de facto good people who stood around watching everyone else have the fun. And when these minority characters did get their own storyline, it was usually ‘A very special look at Black/African-Americans’ that amounted to about 3 to 6 months of front-burner story for the contract minority actors to educate the masses before going back to the de facto good guy role they'd inhabited before.

And that, to me, is not good story. It’s not good soap story. Soap characters are flawed. Even the ‘White Hat’ hero and ‘Perils of Pauline’ heroine have failings that make them more endearing and/or exasperating even while you root for them.

Stripping down a character of their real meat because they’re a minority or because they’re portrayed by a minority is the kind of overreaching PC that annoys me. Minorities do crazy stuff, too!

We’re a smorgasbord of personalities and psychologies and pathologies and classes. We want to see minorities as villains and vixens as well as heroes and heroines ,and not just paragons of Black/Latino/ Fill-in-your ethnicity rights. How about The Heroine - not The Black Heroine - gets her man and sends the skank packing? The Hero wins out over the villain? The Prodigal Son throw off the shackles of his controlling tyrannical father.

Which is why, for me, the soap opera that did minorities right was NBC’s Passions.

Yep. I said it. Passions.

I know, I know. It had a witch on it. And a talking doll. And that incestuous hermaphrodite storyline in the last two years was one of the most baffling things I’ve ever witnessed on a soap opera, but dang it, when it came to minorities on soaps, I really admired and respected the fluidity with which couples were mixed and matched.

The writing was less about the Russell clan living the ‘Black’ storyline or the Lopez-Fitzgerald’s living the ‘Latino/Irish’ plot, but rather the people of all classes in the ironically named town of Harmony scheming, blackmailing, terrorizing, living, dying and loving equally.

Perhaps because of the show’s soooooo out there storylines, the writers and producers just really couldn’t be bothered to be afraid of being viewed as writing their minority characters in an unflattering light.

Seriously, now, which would you have a bigger problem with? Whitney, the black ingénue, being torn between two men, having sex (gasp!) with both of them - one of whom was white - or the fact that her other lover and father of her baby was her (later disproved) bi-racial half-brother? (At least I think that’s how it stood in the end, because that show gave you whiplash with the twists and turns!)

Or maybe it was because TPTB at Passions were brave enough to move beyond the standard soap conventions, twisting the tropes for a fresher, bolder take overall, that their bravery extended to not handling their minority characters (and actors) with kid gloves. They let them sink or swim on their own, along with their equally messed-up non-minority counterparts.

Or maybe TPTB at Passions were just throwing darts at a board of names and plot points and whichever they hit, that’s the way the story went. Honestly, I really don’t know.

What I do know was that, in the end, I found an enjoyable soap that included an admirable mix of ethnicity and classes.

I wasn’t preached to, I was entertained.

The few times race was mentioned and dealt with on the show (the love story of Julian Crane and Eve Russell being the main one) it was organic to who the characters were, their backgrounds, and the times they grew up in. It didn’t have the whiff of TPTB scrambling to do a minority story to appease anybody.

Passions had its remote control flinging flaws like any other soap, but where it stood out above all the others, IMO, was its embracing all colors of the rainbow. Anyone and everyone could be either a sinner or a saints. And that, as well as giving us the glorious Tabitha and Timmy, is a legacy that all involved - especially the writers and actors - should be proud of.


Nicole Walker is the Associate Producer for Another World Today. She holds an MFA in Screenwriting from Columbia University.

1 comment:

C. said...

I agree with this.

Just as you were tired of seeing African-Americans portrayed as boring, upstanding, etc people, I'm so tired of East Asians (and Asian-Americans as a whole) being portrayed as "mysterious and exotic".

Umm... hate to break it to everyone who isn't... but we're not that much different than the rest of you. Sure, we may react differently, but that goes with just about any ethnic group, or even if you are a different family.

Yup, I'm admitting my ethnicity.

Asians are portrayed as "insular"... but we're not. There is as much drama going on in our lives as there is in anyone else's. The custom, though, is not to let outsiders know about it. Then again, how many white families have the rule of "don't air your dirty laundry in public"?

But that doesn't stop myself or anyone else in my ethnic group from drooling after good-looking individuals from any other ethnic group or anything like that. I have done that more often than I think I want to admit to. ;)