Writers' Strike Opens Door for Non-Whites on TV

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Dec 18, 2007

Editor's Note: While the writer's strike goes into its second month, reality television is taking over even more of prime-time real estate -- and this gives people of color a real chance to finally be seen on the little screen, says New America Media editor Andrew Lam. Lam is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections of the Vietnamese Diaspora.

William Hung, that toothy and hapless but chronically sincere student from UC Berkeley, found unexpected fame on American Idol. Having sung “She Bangs” out of tune in front of cringing and giggling judges who unanimously gave him thumbs down, Hung nevertheless carved out a niche for himself. He was given a role in a Hong Kong movie, became the subject for a documentary, joined a band, enjoyed global cult following, released three CDs, one of them named aptly for this season, Hung For the Holidays.

Hung even managed to appear on MTV show Celebrity Deathmatch where he fought against Ricky Martin, the original singer of “She Bangs.”

As we go into second month of writers strike, think of William. After all, none of the scriveners picketing now at Hollywood studios’ gates demanding revenues due to them in the “New Media” – internet downloads, cable access, downloads to mobiles, etc – thought of him, nor could they have imagined his astonishing if serendipitous trajectory. Hence the irony: the New Media in which “reality” seems to play such a key role is gaining more money, and eyeballs, because of protesting writers and, therefore, TV reruns – and thanks in large part to real rawness and surprising resilience of the likes of William Hung.

With no writers, an onslaught of reality shows are being scheduled for January. Fox will offer The Moment of Truth, something that mirrors Guantanamo. In it contestants are strapped to a lie detector and asked about their most intimate secrets, without, mercifully, waterboarding. American Gladiators are also back and that show is self explanatory, (though I might add, very a propos to America’s late roman period). Then there’s Oprah’s Big Five, an ABC show sponsored by Oprah Winfrey in which contestants are to give away a lot of money for the greatest benefit of society. Next season, it seems now certain, will be the beginning of the non-fiction era of Hollywood, where documentary and “real” personalities, rule the airwaves.

Thus minorities, in many ways, should rejoice. People of color gain strong foothold in term of representation in the New Media. Reality TV - American Idol and Survivor top among them – is the programming genre in which real demographic is more fairly integrated.

Consider too: Characters of colors don’t just get on reality TV shows, many actually win them. Jun Song won Big Brother, Vecepita Towery and Yul Kwon won Survivor, Harlemm Lee won Fame, Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino won American Idol. Asians, traditionally excluded in Hollywood, in fact, are winning quite a bit considering being a small population in the US. Vietnamese alone counted for four. Chloe Dao sewed her way to the top in Project Runway, there’s also Hung Huynh, who won on Top Chef, using fishsauce as the base ingredient. Last Comic Standing got Dat Phan, a Vietnamese American who made fun of, what else, his mother’s accent.

TilaLast but not least, there’s also A shot of Love with Tila Tequila – originally Tila Nguyen, born in Singapore to refugee parents from Vietnam. Tila didn’t exactly win but being the queen of MySpace who purportedly got million friends and a bisexual to boot, Tila got notice. And on MTV she wants love. Writers can’t come up with a line like this: "I was really confused then, 'cause at first I thought I was black, then I thought I was Hispanic and joined a cholo gang.” About the MTV gig, she said: “This show's the perfect experience because it's really going to help me figure out -- do I really like a guy or do I really like a girl.”

What to make of a bisexual, Vietnamese, ex-gang banger, immigrant looking for love as the main character on TV? Reality is indeed far stranger than tired sitcoms, and it says the future, at least where the writers of Hollywood are concerned, is not bright. Because for so long, TV writers failed to conceive the likes of William Hung and Tila Tequila that these reality’s children invented themselves instead. Their rawness, their openness, sans superficiality, their complexity are beyond anything imagined. And these New Media personalities are giving old Hollywood a run for its money. They are creating a kind of post-modern horizontal conversation that can often be messy and raunchy, but always full of surprises and fascinating.

As the writers strike goes on (and barely makes a difference in anyone’s life outside Hollywood), it strikes this writer at least that, though it may not be the end of imagination, it’s the end of something, and it might very well be that of the traditional entertainment business as we know it.

Related Articles:

Do You Feel Bad for the Pop Princess?

When Hollywood Meets Bollywood, Warning Bells Should Ring

Why There Are No Asians On TV

Articles by Andrew Lam

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User Comments

Janeen Derrick on Dec 25, 2007 at 23:54:16 said:

I think reality tv sucks. The writers need to get back to writing and quit whining. Everyone in Hollywood makes to damn much money anyway.

c.n.Le on Dec 21, 2007 at 20:29:35 said:

I think Andrew has a point and his listing of the successes of contestants of color on various reality TV shows certainly is undeniable. So on the one hand, I think it’s a very positive development that people of color are apparently becoming more popular and successful on reality TV shows.

On the other hand, I think we as a society still need to address the fundamental problem -- that “mainstream” TV dramas and sitcoms still systematically exclude or marginalize people of color, particularly Asian Americans. The writers’ strike will not last forever, and once it’s resolved, is it just going to be business as usual in terms of writing virtually all-White plots?

I applaud the success of contestants of color on reality TV shows, but I urge our communities not to lose sight of the real battle -- more substantive writing and acting roles for people of color on mainstream TV shows.

Strange O. on Dec 18, 2007 at 10:46:36 said:

Reality television isn't the attention that ethnic groups want. Most of the time they (the ethnic reality stars) are being exploited. Alcohol, sex, ignorance, and advertising consume the screen for an hour block of time that our children should be reading of the great advances their people have made instead of the exploits of some 20-something girl who has sold her soul and the image of her people to be some American geisha. I am not drawing the line at Tila or Rueben or New York. We need contemporary ethnic role models on television, not people who are willing to give into blatant stereotypes for the buck.

kevin M. on Dec 18, 2007 at 10:20:06 said:

I briefly tried watching 'Clash of the Choirs' 'cause I read an article
about it and Patty Labelle. That lasted about 5 seconds, then tried
something else forgettable. I gave up, went to bed and read my book. For
me, the effect is that I'm reading more than watching TV. I guess in the
end lazy, predictable formulaic hollywood writing deserves what it gets.
Maybe something better will result, though I doubt it. Meanwhile, bring on
the sexy, minority survivors! White man's burden, no more.

J Cir on Dec 18, 2007 at 09:55:13 said:

Great. Lets exalt the further debasing of American culture by celebrating the popularity of the "raw and messy and raunchy" among America's youth. If Mr. Lam believes its to the benefit of non-whites that contemporary media are offering up ethnically confused, bisexual, gang-bangers as role models, God help us. Civility? Modesty? Humbleness? F&*k that! If teenagers (of all colors) want to see casual sex and thuggish behavior in their media hero's, well then by gosh lets give it to them and screw parents and Bill Cosby! And who better to deliver these foul and demeaning messages then "characters of color". (As if white isn't a color.)




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