Shonda Rhimes, Bunheads, and the Problem of Diversity

It’s not that Shonda Rhimes is wrong, exactly. When she took Bunheads and, by extension, its creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls), to task for not featuring any performers of color (at least in the pilot), she had her own showrunning record to back her up. Rhimes’s heightened ensemble dramas tend to work overtime featuring characters of varying racial backgrounds as well as sexual orientation, so it’s certainly fair that she criticize other showrunners who don’t seem to place the same value on diversity that she does. It’s also true that Sherman-Palladino’s rebuttal – basically, that women in the industry shouldn’t attack each other, as they have it hard enough already – isn’t exactly inspiring. Would it have been preferable for a male counterpart to level the criticism?

On the other hand, something about Rhimes’s remarks feels “off.” First, there’s this idea that Rhimes requires said diversity so that she can “feel good about [her] kid watching this show.” On one level, that checks out; parents should want to feel that their kids’ realities are reflected in the pop culture they consume. On another, Rhimes shortchanges what Sherman-Palladino is up to with Bunheads, and maybe shortchanges her kids in the process. The dancers on Bunheads might all be white, but they’re very different in terms of body type and disposition, and the way the show looks frankly at how one’s biological makeup can affect one’s future, particularly in the context of ballet (and by extension, performing arts in general), is refreshingly frank. The show features young girls grappling with their shapes and abilities in a very real way, moreso even than on the likes of supposedly-adult fare like Smash. As for the race issue, as long as the writing is honest and the characterization is clear, why should Rhimes’s kids not be able to forge connections with the girls of Bunheads? While the lack of racial diversity isn’t ideal, surely the fact that these kids are dealing with very real issues of self-esteem and expectation should resonate with kids of just about any racial or cultural background.

That’s why the diversity issue is so thorny: isolating one show and complaining about its shortcomings on this front seems to miss the point. When similar accusations were thrown at Girls, for example, it seemed to me to be a very odd choice for a target. Why isolate a show that’s going out of its way to depict a certain demographic’s reality in such an unusually upfront fashion? To put it more generally, isn’t it more worth our time and effort to applaud shows that manage to communicate classically television-unfriendly truths than to cut them down over an issue that’s far too great in scope for any one show to properly address?

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