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View: Racial vs. gay diversity in daytime TV
2009-05-01

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by Herndon L. Davis

In 2009 daytime television staunchly remains the least racially diverse form of American entertainment. But despite the shocking scarcity of people-of-color there has been an infusion of gay and lesbian characters popping all across the sudsy landscape creating a pink-triangle emblazoned gay renaissance filled with social statements and PSAs.

In fact what was once considered to be historic, bold and taboo is now becoming commonplace; the visible and integrated presence of gay and lesbian characters on daytime dramas. Meanwhile people-of-color characters continue to be occasional dots on the canvas of turmoil with restricted storylines and long periods of non-representation.

But gays and lesbians are now receiving longer storylines as their characters come out the closet and even marry on daytime television. Even though only a handful of daytime dramas have actually created gay/lesbian characters, their storylines have gained significant attention in recent years. In fact the current onscreen gay/lesbian super-couples have an intense online following where fans chat endlessly about character portrayals and the direction of their storylines.

But for Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans, rarely do they ever see themselves portrayed during the daytime hours of drama and betrayal. And for African Americans you can literally count on one hand the number of Black characters that populate each idyllic town in daytime. So why is this??? And what is being done to more racially integrate these cast of characters while continuing to forge gay inclusion within daytime?

Daytime's bitter issue with race

Nearly one-third of the American population is non-white. Latinos followed by Asians are the fastest growing segments of the country. By 2050, there will not be a majority race according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And by the way, America's president happens to be a Black man. But you really wouldn't know this by flipping channels across CBS, ABC and NBC during the day.

Apparently none of these facts and statistics seems to sway writers and producers of waning daytime dramas that not only is diversity good but that it is the fabric and the narrative of America. Meanwhile compare daytime serials to their primetime counterparts such as Grey's Anatomy and it quickly becomes apparent that daytime has a very long way to achieve any type of ethnic or gay reality.

Unlike other racial/ethnic groups, African Americans have actually been portrayed semi-prominently on certain daytime dramas about once per decade. Who could forget Angie and Jesse of the 1980's and Drucilla and Neil of the 1990s. Historically, Black characters were presented as early as the 1950s and '60s on soaps Guiding Light and One Life to Live respectively.

And it would be much later in 1982 when daytime would see its first gay character on All My Children as actress Donna Pescow portrayed daytime's first lesbian as "Dr. Lynn Carson." Further, it would take an additional 23 years before daytime would introduce a Black gay character in daytime while white gay/lesbian characters were being introduced all across daytime during the same period.

In 2005, NBC's Passions introduced Simone Russell as daytime's first African-American lesbian. But unfortunately the same soap recklessly wrote a down-low storyline which involved an African-American man but eventually turned it into an outrageous intersex serial killer storyline.

But to date no long-term investment has been made on any daytime drama to create prominent Black or any family of color as anchors versus supporting cast. Typically ,when one or two Black families are created they were disassembled much like the 1990s Grant and Speakes families of Guiding Light and the decimated Barber and Winters families of The Young and Restless.

Seemingly there is no staying power for Black families in daytime. Black characters are far more survivable as stand-alone or add-on characters with no roots in the very same community that their character spends years working and residing in. A slight exception can be made for actor, James Reynolds of Days of Our Lives who has portrayed the longest running African-American character in daytime for 26 years as "Abe Carver." But his character and onscreen family has increased and decreased over the years.

But don't give up, there's still hope for racially diversifying daytime according to Jamey Giddens, editorial director for Daytime Confidential.com and co-host of the site's companion iTunes:

"I think that Barack Obama being in the White House could have a similar effect to what we saw in primetime following the success of The Cosby Show. People will jump on the bandwagon and start diversity initiatives or what not, but until there is more diversity behind the scenes there will never be long-term change."

And thankfully that is already beginning to happen. The Bold and Beautiful, a CBS soap opera focused on the fashion industry and based in the real life city of Los Angeles has for most of its 22 year existence been nearly void of any people-of-color and has had no openly gay/lesbian characters and storylines.

This fact is intriguingly odd given the fact that Los Angeles County is 50.7 percent people of color with Hispanics ( of any race ) consisting of 47.1 percent of the total population according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey ( 2005-2007 ) . In addition it is also widely known that the fashion industry is gay dominated, so the absence of either group for so long on the show is a bit startling.

An intern must have brought this gross and inexcusable oversight to the attention of show producers as they launched a diversity initiative just last November. Today the show is home to an occasionally seen three Black characters.

But despite the lack of racial diversity in daytime, two cancelled NBC soaps, Generations and Passions featured prominent Black and Latino families.The absence of these shows forces viewers-of-color to find images of themselves and their lives through white actors.

So what do the producers and writers of daytime dramas have to say in their defense???

Well two separate requests were sent out to The Bold and Beautiful, All My Children, As the World Turns, Guiding Light and Days of Our Lives asking them to respond to specific questions concerning the overall racial and gay diversity of daytime television. But no producer or writer from either soap opera responded with answers.

Instead this writer was provided with an official statement from Josie Thomas, senior vice president of diversity, who stated the following:

"Daytime looks differently than primetime, as the casts are larger, there are more episodes per year and the casts change frequently offering more opportunities for all actors. CBS takes diversity and inclusiveness seriously in all programming including the daytime lineup, not only when it comes to actors of color but also LGBT and the disabled.

We are proud of our progress and we look forward to even more tangible results from our diversity initiatives. Our unprecedented Daytime Casting Initiative serves as a pathway for actors of color to land roles in our Daytime Dramas."

Ultimately, viewers of color, LGBT and the disabled will determine for themselves whether "tangible results" have indeed occurred within daytime on the Tiffany network.

Gay diversity: The newest obsession in daytime?

Fans of As the World Turns, General Hospital, and All My Children have for years been treated to glimpses of gay life tucked away in All-American towns amidst diabolical plots, deception and greed. Initially used in supporting roles, gay characters have now emerged into fully integrated middle-burning storylines with even brief stints on the front burner.

So has the gay community finally arrived in daytime?

"I think it's very telling about America's thirst for more diverse storytelling that same-sex sagas are really the only big soap opera event that attracts mainstream media attention nowadays. The only other times the media seems to pay attention to the genre is to make fun of it, or revel in its much-forecasted demise" explained Giddens.

But Damon Romine, the director of entertainment media at GLAAD ( Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation ) has a special perspective. Romine worked for 10 years as an editor of a soap-opera magazine:

"Ultimately, while tremendous strides have been made on soaps, it's clear that we're not at a place where LGBT people are treated the same on daytime as they are on primetime or cable. These are stories that have pushed the daytime genre and created a glimpse of what can happen when soaps are inclusive of LGBT storylines."

And both Giddens and Romine agree that a strong narrative force would be the key to fully presenting the lives of gay men and women. As the case with storylines involving people-of-color, it often takes a sincere commitment, research, and a diversifying the writing staffs on daytime soaps operas in order for this to happen.

Giddens said, "Unfortunately, daytime has yet to give a gay or lesbian character or couple the kind of support in terms of promotion and good old-fashioned, character-driven storytelling that the likes of Luke and Laura received on General Hospital or Victor Newman gets on The Young and the Restless, so daytime still has a long ways to go, in my opinion"

Romine added, "Increased storytelling potential and increased viewers. It's a win-win and I look forward to the day when LGBT stories are even more fully integrated on all daytime dramas."

Are gays populating yet another daytime soap???

For months the longest-running soap in production and longest running drama in television/radio history has been rumored to be making a move towards gay inclusion. The venerable CBS soap Guiding Light may make history soon with its Olivia and Natalia lesbian/bisexual love story.

And there are plenty of reasons why this particular storyline merits even greater attention than the At the World Turns/Luke and Noah and All My Children/Bianca and Reese storylines.

—Shhhh ... don't call them lesbians: For starters, neither character has previously expressed any lesbian/bisexual inner or outward desires or feelings. In fact the character Olivia, portrayed by Crystal Chappell has been married to or sexually connected with most of the male characters on the show and even has two children.

Her on-screen housemate, Natalia, is a deeply religious widow with a son in prison. Her character although not as promiscuous has been romantically linked or has been pursued by male characters.

Although there is some medical research to support that women may be more genuinely bisexual than men and tend to come out later in life even after marriage and family, Guiding Light writers have so far failed to explain this to a curious viewing audience.

There has to be a more plausible connection between these two ladies besides that they grew closer to each other over time as platonic roommates. So did lesbianism some how sneak up on these two characters when they weren't looking???

And if these women really aren't lesbians is this really a "non-lesbian, same-sex attracted" relationship instead? Or will viewers suddenly be treated to previously unknown lesbian inner thoughts of these two perceived straight women?

So how exactly are Guiding Light writers going to explain the sudden change in sexual orientation that seemingly has occurred over the course of six months or so?

—An older and wiser love: Both actresses are quickly reaching forty if they haven't already shot passed it many years ago. Hence this becomes a refreshing look at gay love later in life without the peer pressures of youth surrounding them. Both onscreen characters already know the ropes of life. In other daytime dramas, gay/lesbian love has been portrayed as a questioning teen to frolicking twenty-something.

For middle American audiences to see lesbian relationships past the age of 30 will be in an intriguing journey especially for this traditionally conservative soap that focuses on the lives of extremely ordinary people who live unusually complicated lives.

In fact, the award-winning drama has a long history of strong writing that is absent of wacky and unbelievable storylines with only a few years in the wilderness with its cloning and time travel madness several years back. So writers must do their homework before attempting to deal with issues of sexual orientation and identity.

—It's a woman love: There have been more gay male than lesbian characters on daytime dramas. However, the love story of Bianca and Reese on All My Children was a major portal into the sisterhood of love. But it's been the torrid romance of Luke and Noah on As the World Turns that has sent the Internet into a frenzy.

YouTube clips of their gay male kiss have raked up nearly two million plays and counting. There seems to be an online "Nuke" obsession with the thought of two young, good looking men getting it on in daytime.

But for the characters of Olivia and Natalia, viewers will see two very adult women with children, past husbands and boyfriends all interacting with their own potential love story. But if history is any indication of how far writers will go there with the sensuality as well as their love we may already know the ending.

Romine commented, "The nature of a soap romance is that the couple can't stay happy; all couples have to have roadblocks otherwise their story comes to a dead end. So what has been encouraging about recent stories, but sometimes frustrating for fans, is that obstacles are put in the way of LGBT couples.

But if the chemistry and story are working for that couple, then the audience is rooting for them to find their way back together, which makes for a dramatic, yet fulfilling story. Creating obstacles for an LGBT soap couple ultimately puts them on a level playing field with the other couples on that show and invests the audience in their story."

Giddens said, "Guiding Light's Olivia and Natalia are off to a good start, as two women who once battled over the same man have managed to find common ground in their love for Olivia's daughter and their joint attempts to rebuild their lives. If the storyline isn't derailed, it could prove to be one of the most fascinating explorations of love, friendship and sexuality, not just in daytime, but in television as a whole."

Now that love in the afternoon is making attempts of diversifying its storytelling with people-of-color and gay characters they're still being told from a white writing and producing perspective.

Until the behind-the-camera force of daytime genuinely and fully embraces human diversity in all of its forms, the viewing audience of people-of-color and gay/lesbians will continue to be left to watch resemblances of their owns lives muddied by a lack of understanding and an inescapable cultural insensitivity.

Story note: All My Children and As the World Turns are nominated for Outstanding Daily Drama at the 20th Annual GLAAD Media Awards. Please visit www.glaad.org/mediaawards for a full list of nominees and information on the San Francisco ( May 9 ) event.

Herndon Davis is a consultant, author, lecturer and TV/Radio Host who focuses on media analysis and interpretation of issues pertaining to people-of-color, women, and gays/lesbians. He can be reached at www.herndondavis.com and www.diversityTV.tv .


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