‘Shondaland’ Event Discusses Racial Representation in Television and Film

Grey’s Anatomy fans at the 5Cs were in for a treat this past Monday, Apr. 11, at the “Shondaland” panel discussion hosted by the Pomona College Student Union. The event centered on the representation of racial and ethnic diversity in the television programs produced and scripted by Shonda Rhimes which, in addition to Grey’s Anatomy, include How to Get Away with Murder and Scandal.

The panelists were Dr. Kristen Warner, assistant professor of telecommunications and film at University of Alabama; Dr. Monica White Ndounou, associate professor of drama and dance Tufts University; and Dr. Bambi Higgins, associate professor of film and media studies Arizona State University.

Warner, Ndounou, and Higgins, discussed the implications and undertones of the so-called 'colorblind casting' implemented by Rhimes, before expanding the discussion to address concerns and trends in the television and film industries more broadly. In the context of casting, being colorblind was defined as the act by casting teams of refraining from pre-selecting the races and ethnicities of characters in a given television program or film, such that actors and actresses of any race or ethnicity may audition for or play any role.

“I was aware that Rhimes uses colorblind practices when casting shows,” Illora Naik PO ’19, a student who attended the event, wrote in an email to TSL. Naik expressed her appreciation of Rhimes’ racial inclusion. “I’ve always loved seeing so many different races represented on the screen. I always get that brown pride whenever I see actors of color on TV or in movies, which is not that often.”

Lusajo Lusekelo Mwakibete PO ’19, another student attendee, wrote in an email, “I think many individuals are influenced by the media. Rhimes could possibly use this to her advantage to get the voices and opinions of minorities heard and recognized.”

One of key points of discussion was whether colorblind casting had positive or negative effects. Warner highlighted how, despite racially diverse castings in shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, a disparity was often visible between colorblind castings and the minimal extent to which racial contexts that would hence be attached to specific characters were actuality addressed in scripts. Higgins described the lack of recognition or presentation of racial contexts in Rhimes’ program as a “dance around race,” and indicated that this evasion of addressing racial issues might, as Higgins later said, cause “accidental backing into tropes when [writing and production teams] are not putting them into a broader cultural context.”

The panelists noted the way situations presented on television or in film might be imbued with a racially-significant context or undertone that may be unrecognized by many production teams. Higgins stated how common it is in television and film for the process of “being affirmed by a white character” to be a determinant of “black characters’ agency.”

Furthermore, the panelists discussed the influence of production and script-writing teams in the way race is depicted on-screen. Ndounou discussed, for instance, how mainstream production and scripting teams frequently center plotlines around what Ndounou called a “white point of intrigue.” This practice, which entails the inclusion of white characters in television and film scripts, was described as being influenced by perceptions of what the white viewership of programs might resonant with; Ndounou cites the character of Meredith Grey from Grey’s Anatomy as an example of a “white point of intrigue” in Rhimes’ programs.

“I still love her shows, but I think from now on I’ll be more aware of how her characters are written,” Naik said. “I appreciate that Rhimes is getting some more color on the TV screen, but to claim ‘colorblindness’ is to potentially erase someone’s heritage, background, and a lot of important aspects of identity.”

Similarly, Mwakibete said, “I will always keep enjoying her shows. However, from now onwards I will be aware of the various character and how [Rhimes] tries to send her political views and messages through them.” 

How might the issues sparked by colorblind casting be combatted? Ndounou said that “the diversity discussion is less productive than the inclusion discussion,” and encouraged attendees to “support work by and about people of color.” Warner highlighted the need for representation of people of color on production teams, following up on the idea that diversity is not “purely visual.” Higgins also highlighted the value of diverse production teams and the need to address racial issues in television programs and films. 

“It takes a sensitivity to what story you’re trying to tell, or more accurately what stories,” she said.

During the Q&A portion of the event, the discussion was broadened to the context of racial diversity at the 5Cs. The panelists encouraged students seeking greater recognition of cultural and racial contexts to push for their educational experiences to be cognizant of these.

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