Rescue Me's Diane Farr on the way TV often portrays interracial couples: "I think it's insulting."
Months ago, when I was looking over some of the TV comedies planned for the early half of 2011, an interesting trend emerged.
Interracial couples were often in the core cast, as best friends, secondary characters or parts of a sprawling ensemble.
And they hardly ever talked about race.
Which was interesting to me, as a black man who has been married to a white woman for nearly 20 years. For us, race issues often popped up in odd ways. My wife's hometown was a notoriously racist area; when we first started dating, I was afraid to leave her house sometimes. (Now it's seen an influx of migrant workers and attitudes seem more relaxed). When we first moved here, a older woman saw my wife with our son and refused to believe she could be his mother.
I'd like to think attitudes are different now; that people are more progressive. But I suspect these interracial couples are just another version of a character type the Los Angeles Times once called the Black Best Friend -- characters cast as people of color mostly to make the show look diverse without actually featuring the uniqueness of their lives.
The shows featuring interracial couples include ABC's Mr. Sunshine, Modern Family and an upcoming show called Happy Endings, Fox's Traffic Light, NBC's Parenthood, Showtime's Shameless and The Big C, Fox's Glee, and more.
And while Modern Family does a great job mining the cultural differences between Sofia Vergara and her anglo husband, many other shows are not so interested in the subject.
I ran this idea by Diane Farr, the actress who starred on FX's Rescue Me and CBS' Numb3rs, now cast in the Fox comedy pilot, Council of Dads. (check out her online home, GetDianeFarr.com, here for her syndicated newspaper column and other news.)
Farr spent much of last year writing her own pilot about interracial couples that Fox decided not to film. She based much of the material on her own marriage to a Korean man and a book she spent three years researching, following the relationships of 20 interracial couples.
In a story for Sunday's newspaper, Farr stressed that she didn't think problems with discussing race necessarily kept her show from moving forward. But regarding the overall trend, she noted :"I think everybody's glossing over the 'how-did-you-get-here?' part, because it feels like it's racist to ask," she said.
She was so interesting, I decided to provide some more of her perspective here, in a Q&A format:
Farr: Did anybody tell you about the meeting that (Fox entertainment head ) Kevin Reilly held?
D: No, not at all.
F: In about November, I wanna say, maybe October, Kevin Reilly invited, I assume, every writer who had a deal with Fox for the season, every writer who has a show on air and every development executive from every studio in town – every one of them (laughs). It was an enormous gathering of people. I couldn’t tell you the numbers. Someone at Fox probably could have … it had to be about 500 people. And the invitation said, it’s an invitation but Kevin will be taking attendance (laughter).
He put together a tremendous hour of information about who is watching television and how unrealistic it is to write show after show about white people, and they gave these really stunning stats on who’s actually watching TV at any given moment. And the plea was that every show does not have to be about a minority, but all races should be included in all vistas. And there was someone two seats over from me who kept leaning over saying, 'hey, this is your show. You just hit lotto. You wrote this before he told us to write this."
"The thing that is frightening in the aftermath of that is how many scripts I have read that were clearly written about white people and white families, where afterwards the divorced husband, the food server at their local coffee shop, or the child who was clearly white before who is now half-white is just dubbed in. It’s really, really jarring because rarely in American society do you see a mixed-race couple where there’s never a comment about it. So as welcoming as perhaps it seems to put a black and white couple or a Mexican and Asian couple or an Asian and black couple on TV, if everybody else in the series is white, it kinda begs for comment. And without the comment, it feels gratuitous so far, to me.
Tell me about the book you're working on.
F: I spent three-and-a-half years on it, starting during the writers’ strike in L.A. I was pregnant at the time with twins. I was very worried that I was gonna be stuck in my house for the rest of my life. So I interviewed 20 couples around the country who are mixed-race, who already had children, and they sort of chronicled from the time they started dating to what they faced when they got married to what they’re doing now, raising bi-racial kids – every mix imaginable, from every part of the country.
"The thing that I got out of it is that it really seemed that love was the last prejudice that Americans can openly teach in their home, that everyone really does believe everyone deserves an equal education and that everyone really does deserve the right to vote, and we can all share our toys in the sandbox. But once the adolescent age enters in and puberty begins, many parents in America, in private, will tell their kids, yes, all people are created equal but you can’t love a black person – or you have to marry a Jewish person – or you have to marry an Asian person."
Did you face this, too?
I made a joke one day, “Are you gonna leave me for an Asian girl?” And it was like I hit the $64,000 question when he started explaining, “I’m actually not allowed to marry you, and this is gonna be a very big problem for my family.” So, the book also chronicles my experience from dating him up into us having kids, and sort of what we had to overcome. And everything we had to overcome was only said amongst family. No one in his family or mine or any of the other families I ever talked with openly would sit down at a dinner table and say, like, oh, yes, my business partner is a Mexican person but I’d die if my daughter slept with one. It’s sort of an in-your-living-room, very private conversation.
So the TV show I went out and pitched was about that, about the last prejudice that exists between one generation and the next when it comes to race. And at first everybody was excited. Nobody edited it. I have a relationship between a black and a white person in Texas, in a strip mall, and both parents are right on top of them, trying to stop it, and a relationship between a Jewish guy and an Asian girl, and two Indian guys who are just trying to sleep with white people. Like everybody has their own thing. In hopes of where the network seemed to be going, they invited it. They were very excited to hear it and see it and see how it would play out, and when I finished it, you can never take out the idea that they just thought the writing wasn’t up to par. But it didn’t go this year.
To me, when you’re making the ex-husband a different race, or the friend of the family a different race, and not addressing it, it’s like we’re hinting at the fact that we live in a post-racial America but clearly it’s not that post-racial.
Is it that they are afraid they don’t know how to write that? Is it that they’re afraid that bringing up the subject creates this whole rabbit hole that they’ll never get out of?
F: Honestly, I think the word “racist” is overused. I think we throw that out easily at people that may just be making a comment, that may just be making an opinion, ‘cause we really aren’t that post-racial. There’s more discussion but we’re not all the way there, and I think it’s a big, big hot-button issue that people are afraid to touch. We’re closer. I think there’s an acknowledgment that there’s been a problem previous to this, which has all been ushered in since 2008 when Obama was running for the Democratic nomination, so the dialog is coming. But to have any actual meaningful dialog about it or to make photographs, to make images, to make ideas of what an American family looks like that’s a little bit further than perhaps where we actually are as a society in private, does not seem where the network is willing to go yet. And if there’s a way to address the fact that I don’t think that’s because my show didn’t live; I think that from what the shows that I’m seeing that have lived, you know. Everybody is… I think we’re close. I think we’re getting there, but what we’re gonna see on TV in the next year is not it yet.
Well, I’ve always had this theory that TV kinda moves behind what society can accept, and movies move ahead.
F: I agree. My actual quote on it would be: TV follows a trend just before the lights are shut off on it. (laughter) It has to be so main … It’s so funny. It’s how I explained People magazine to a foreigner once. They’re like, look, these are the cool, hip actors in America. I’m like, these are the cool, hip actors in America just before their career is over. So TV follows a trend right when it’s about to be passé, so it’s just not there yet. Like, it’s certainly not passé, like the dialog between particularly black and white relationships in America isn’t quite done because what our parents taught us in the privacy of their homes are not necessarily what this generation will teach their kids. So, TV hasn’t caught up, but anyone trying to say that it has still feels a little insulting. I don’t think it feels racist. I think it’s insulting. That’s my vibe with the “racist” word where we overuse it.
I think part of it is that because we don’t talk about this a lot, we don’t have a vocabulary for it. One of the things I say is, just because you may do something that is prejudiced, it does not make you a racist.
F: I love that!
So, what’s the name of your book?
F: My book is called Kissing Outside the Lines. And the subtitle is A True Story of Love and Race and Happily Ever After in America. I think everybody’s glossing over about the how-did-you-get-here part because it feels like it’s racist to ask, which is what brings me back to that overuse of the “racist” term.