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TV drama doesn’t have to be “historically accurate”: The case for racial diversity

Recreating the Middle Ages. Flickr: Vol'tordu, CC BY-NC-ND

In the B-grade horror film You Can’t Kill Stephen King, a group of young friends takes a road trip to Maine to seek out the world-famous author. After a brief encounter with some unfriendly locals in a small town, the sole African American character remarks that he must be the only black person in the state.

King’s novels are often set in a fairly white fictional universe. Their backdrops resemble his real-world inspiration of Maine, a state with a white population of greater than ninety-five per cent.

Yet when the television series based on King’s Under the Dome was cast, a conscious decision was made to make the group of people trapped in the town of Chester’s Mill racially diverse.

The main character of Latina Deputy Linda Esquivel (Natalie Martinez) was modified from the book’s “Linda Everett”. Crazed drug dealer Phil Bushey was transformed into an African American DJ (Nicholas Strong). And African American lawyer Carolyn Hill (Aisha Hinds) was created specifically for the series.

Under the Dome trailer.

Yet does fictional television have a responsibility to be racially diverse? Does a fantasy world in which it is possible for a town to be trapped inside an invisible dome need to reflect the contemporary racial make-up of the United States?

What about in a series set in imaginary medieval kingdoms, as in Game of Thrones? The whiteness of most historical fantasies is often defended by fans who claim that these stories are merely “historically accurate”.

In its first season, Game of Thrones was criticised for limiting actors of colour to roles as the nomadic, and highly barbaric, Dothraki. Subsequently, the portrayal of the Dothraki as “Other” was seen as a foil for Daenerys Targaryen as a white civiliser and saviour of a primitive people.

These interpretations of Game of Thrones met with answers that denied that the Dothraki embody negative racial stereotypes.

Deniers pointed to the bad behaviour and poor morality of the majority of white characters in the series. They also raised the concept of historical accuracy with respect to 1500s Europe. For instance, desert dwellers like the Dothraki would have to be dark skinned and intercontinental travel would have been extraordinarily difficult, thus limiting the potential for the introduction of characters of colour.

The British fantasy series Merlin overturned expectations of historical whiteness by casting a woman of colour, Angel Coulby, in the role of Gwen, or Guinevere. Online comments referred to Coulby’s “out-of-place ethnicity”, her “seriously non-British” appearance, and her supposed unattractiveness. Then there was the issue that the name Guinevere derives from the Welsh Gwenhwyfar, with the prefix “gwen” meaning white or fair.

Guinevere is crowned.

Yet Merlin is not a documentary. In this imagined world, magic and dragons are reality. Why do some viewers find it possible to accept a fantasy of historical Europe entirely based on a supernatural premise, but in which non-white characters are seen as stretching the bounds of credibility?

Whether a story originates as legend and folklore (Merlin), a standalone novel (Under the Dome), or a series of novels (Game of Thrones), we accept that many aspects of it will necessarily be omitted, modified, or subject to the introduction of new ideas when adapted for television.

As Under the Dome shows, these changes often extend to significant alterations in plotlines and characters. Even the racial identities of King’s original characters are easily transformed for the screen. And it evidently does not matter to us whether this racially diverse cast matches the actual racial demographics of rural towns in Maine.

Yet some would still argue that as a science fiction series, rather than a historical fantasy, Under the Dome does not have to meet viewer perceptions of what the past looked like.

Analysis of more than 1,000 US television shows broadcast in the 2011-2012 season shows that actors from racial minorities accounted for 15 per cent of leading roles, despite constituting 36.3 per cent of the American population. The study, by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, nevertheless concluded that the highest rating cable TV shows tended to be more racially and ethnically diverse.

It makes sense that, though underrepresented as a whole, the sizeable, and growing, minority population of the US is eager to watch programmes that feature characters who look like them. Yet the proportion of African American, Latino, and Asian American actors on prime-time TV has remained unchanged across the past decade.

Concerns about a lack of racial diversity on TV have also been voiced in Australia.

Television depicts imagined worlds, and should not be expected to perfectly mirror real-world diversity in this particular moment. Yet we still need to be aware of how the stories that are told on television are skewed from the perspective of white people, and white men in particular. As part of doing so, we might begin to see that historical fantasies do not need to reflect our own narrow perceptions of how the past can be imagined.

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