Out of invisibility: How TV brought minorities into prime time

By David H. Kirkwood

Editor’s Note:  This post, first published June 8, 2011, retains its relevance today with little in the way of updating.”Switched at Birth”remains on the air for another season, too.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, there were a lot of invisible Americans. They weren’t literally invisible like the title character in the H.G. Wells science fiction novel, The Invisible Man. They were more like the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s similarly titled classic Invisible Man. They could be seen, but they rarely were, at least not in the mass communications medium that told us–and still does to a degree—what life in America is like. That medium is television, specifically the prime-time programming that regularly outdraws every other type of popular entertainment.

More than fifty years ago, when NBC, CBS, and ABC ruled the air waves, viewers all chose from the same very limited selection of shows. There were various popular genres: westerns; police, lawyer, and doctor shows; and, until they were exposed as being fixed, quiz shows.  While differing in many ways, these programs had one thing in common: virtually everyone who appeared on them was white. Also, almost no one was poor, What’s more, all the people in the ads interspersed among the programs were also white and seemed well able to afford the cars and cigarettes and drug store items they were being told to buy.

For the early baby boomers, it was the family shows of the 1950s, like Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Ozzie and Harriet, that did the most to shape our picture of how life was lived in our own country. While none of our lives were exactly like those of the Cleavers, Andersons, or Nelsons, a lot of us did grow up in very homogeneous, middle-class neighborhoods where Dad worked, Mom stayed home, and everyone went to church on Sunday. Back then, a lot of things weren’t talked about much, so it was easy for many kids to be unaware of poverty, divorce, alcoholism, depression, and other unpleasant issues that never made it onto what we saw on the small screen.

It was not until our generation grew a little more worldly that some of us finally realized how much of the real world was omitted from TV Land’s portrayals of impossibly conventional and untroubled American families of northern European ancestry.

On the other hand, there were undoubtedly a lot of Americans who figured that out as soon as they were old enough to watch these shows.  If you were an African-American child growing up in a black or racially mixed neighborhood, it must have been painfully apparent that none of the main characters on TV series looked like you or your family. It wasn’t until 1965, when I Spy debuted, that an African-American actor (Bill Cosby) had a featured role.

Hispanic and Asian-Americans were also conspicuously absent. Thanks to Westerns, Native Americans were much more visible, though not necessarily in a good way. Tonto was not a great role model.

 

AND THEN IT ALL CHANGED

 

Clearly, I’m talking ancient history here. Unless they watch Nick at Night a lot, readers under 50 might find it hard to believe the type of shows that once dominated television.

Fortunately, the producers and sponsors of television shows eventually discovered that they were turning off a lot of prospective viewers and consumers by the narrow range of characters and actors that appeared.

By the 1970s and 1980s, people of every race, religion, ethnic background, and social stratum were portrayed on popular television shows. It took longer, but in recent years, gays and lesbians, whose “invisibility” was not limited to television, became common characters.

Changing social attitudes, especially among younger people, are one major factor in the diversification of American TV. Another is the advent of cable, which allows most people to receive hundreds of channels, which need to have programming available 24/7.

While I don’t think too many people would want a return to the extraordinarily narrow vision of TV in the 1950s, the explosion of choices and the rejection of nearly all the old taboos that have occurred since then is not an unmixed blessing. I’m not at all sure that the world is a better place because of Jersey Shore, the Jerry Springer Show, and the Real Housewives of Orange County. These and other “reality shows” are no more real and much more offensive than anything I ever heard from Ward and June Cleaver.

 

SOME ARE STILL INVISIBLE

 

If you’re wondering why this is appearing in the Hearing Views section of our blog, I’m getting to that. While there is very little that we don’t see on television these days, one group of Americans does remain largely out of sight. I’m talking about people with disabilities, whom Daniel Allott labeled “Hollywood’s Invisible Minority” in a June 3 column in The American Spectator.

Allott cited a report that characters with disabilities comprise just 1% of primetime network TV roles. According to the Census Bureau, about 20% of non-institutionalized Americans have a disability.

Before anyone thinks that Allott or I am advocating a quota of disabled roles, we’re not. His point, which I think is a good one, is that when characters with a disability do appear, they tend to be one-dimensional and defined by their disability.

 

A NEW SHOW TO CHECK OUT

 

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when I watched the premiere of Switched at Birth. The series, which appears, on ABC Family Mondays at 9, has as its unlikely premise that two newborns were accidentally sent home with the wrong parents. The mistake wasn’t discovered until one of the girls, Bay, learns from a blood test in her high school chemistry class that she can’t be related to the wealthy couple who raised her. That leads to the discovery that the couple’s biological daughter, Daphne, was accidentally given to and raised by the single mother, of limited means, who had given birth to Bay. As if growing up in the wrong home wasn’t enough, Daphne is also deaf, a result of contracting meningitis at an early age.

While the basic plot line may strain credulity, one thing that I liked about the show is that deafness is only one of Daphne’s many facets. She is smart, athletic, and good at making friends, both with her classmates at the school for the deaf she attends and among people with normal hearing. She lipreads and speaks clearly as well as signing.

The initial episode did a good job of raising some of the contentious issues that surround deafness (deaf school vs. mainstream, signing vs. lipreading, whether or not to get a cochlear implant), and did so without being too heavy-handed. Also interesting is how Daphne is shown socializing both with hearing people and with her deaf classmates.

Katie Leclerc, who stars as Daphne, has a hearing loss caused by Meniere’s disease, but is not deaf. But all the other deaf characters are played by deaf actors, including Marlee Matlin, who portrays a guidance counselor.

 

ON THE OTHER HAND

 

Deafness has considerable dramatic potential, as illustrated by Switched at Birth and Children of a Lesser God, which was successful as both a play and movie. However, people with moderate to severe hearing loss, while far more numerous than deaf people, are even less likely to be central characters in a TV program or film.

When a hard-of-hearing person is portrayed, it’s all too likely to be for a few cheap laughs. (As a fan of Fawlty Towers, I must confess to finding the episode with Mrs. Richards, a very unpleasant, hard-of-hearing guest at the hotel, hilarious.)

Actually, there are many disabilities that cause people a lot of distress, but may not make for must-see TV. Serious asthma, crippling rheumatic arthritis, or 80-dB thresholds in the speech frequencies come to mind. So, while some screenwriter or novelist may someday come up with a compelling work about a character with this type of disability, for better or worse I expect the disabled to remain largely off-screen.

 

*featured image courtesy Britannica

 

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