Mindless Iconoclasm is a series of posts where I argue an unpopular opinion of mine. In this edition, I point out that ABC’s programming for the upcoming TV season is not as progressive as it appears.

ABC announced its schedule for the upcoming television season last week. It consists of the usual assortment of goofy comedies and crime dramas, but there is one thing in particular about it – three comedies that not only star minority leads, but are actually about families of visible minorities. Considering how white American television is, that sounds like progress, right? Not exactly.

Let me be clear: diversity in art is a good thing. North American society is diverse, built up from a wide range of experiences and cultures. Our television programming should reflect that. And at first glance, it seems like that’s what ABC is doing. It’s debuting Black-ish, about an upper middle class black family whose patriarch feels that they’re losing touch with their roots, Cristela, about a law student whose ambitions clash with her traditional Mexican-American family, and Fresh Off the Boat, about a Taiwanese immigrant family that moves to Florida. It’s a veritable rainbow compared to most of the programming on major networks.

But it’s really not the right kind of rainbow. These aren’t shows that feature minority families; these are shows about the minority status of minority families. Black-ish isn’t just a sitcom about a black family; it’s a sitcom about a black family dealing with being black. Fresh Off the Boat isn’t just a comedy about a Taiwanese immigrant family; it’s how about how that family deals with being Taiwanese in America.

Now, to be clear, black people have to deal with being black (duh!), and immigrants have to deal with being immigrants (super duh!) These are stories that are worth telling. What I object to is how these ideas and premises are being marketed to the television-viewing public. It distresses me than in 2014, we can’t put a show about a Mexican-American family on TV without saying, “Hey, look at how Mexican they are!” If a show doesn’t continually point out the minority status of its characters, will viewers get confused and think they’re watching a show about white people?

Ultimately, what ABC’s marketing for these comedies does is further contribute to the othering of minorities. They’re not allowed to be regular American families; they must be minorities first and foremost. From my point of view, based purely on premises and marketing materials, there’s little difference between these shows and NBC’s much-maligned (and now cancelled) Outsourced. In that show, a white character (played by Ben Rappaport) dealt with having to move to India and becoming accustomed to its culture. As for ABC’s new shows, the promotional materials make them seem like they’re putting the audience in Rappaport’s role: to gawk at minorities and marvel at the differences between minorities and themselves. As such, ABC’s programming feels less like a step forward for diversity and more like a cultural menagerie.

The sad thing is that I have no doubt that by the time each of these shows reaches episode 5, they’ll just be regular family sitcoms, indistinguishable from those about white families save for the colour of the characters’ skin. And even sadder, I have trouble feeling anger at ABC for any of this. I mean, perhaps this is a shrewd, cynical move by ABC executives – draw in minority viewers by debuting shows with minority casts, but initially portray minority families as different from white families so as not to alienate white viewers. However, the idealistic part of me would like to think that ABC likes diversity for its own sake and recognizes quality TV that has the potential to become popular. Unfortunately, they know that in order to sell these shows to white audiences, they have to play up the “minority angle.”

And that’s what’s so frustrating about this whole situation: diversity can only be snuck in through the backdoor. Minorities have to be minorities before they’re allowed to be people, or so ABC thinks. Perhaps they see Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, which features a largely black cast and was a smash hit for the network, as a fluke. That show didn’t need to emphasize the main character’s race to succeed, and while it does play somewhat of a role in the story, it’s not at all central to the premise. (Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine and New Girl have also done well with fairly diverse casts, though neither is a huge hit.)

In fairness to ABC, it doesn’t seem to have a problem with shows that have minority leads, as demonstrated by the much buzzed-about Scandal and the upcoming How to Get Away with Murder and Selfie. For that reason, it’s odd to see a trio of shows from them so clumsily marketed as shows about minority families rather than shows that feature minority families. It’s a subtle but important distinction that makes the difference between othering and progressive diversity. Unfortunately, it’s a distinction that seems lost on a network that is debuting a show with a xenophobic slur as its title. (Yes, I’m aware that Fresh Off the Boat is title of Eddie Huang’s memoir, on which the show is based. But there’s a difference between an author reclaiming a slur to title his own work and a major television network putting its name behind that slur as a title for one of its shows.)

In the end, it’s hard to get too worked up about this. Like I said, these three shows will probably largely shed their premises a few episodes into their runs. But I’m not going to praise ABC for it either. There are better ways to inject diversity into the television landscape than their othering backdoor gambit. With any luck, ABC will learn from their mistakes and do a better job of promoting new shows that feature casts composed mostly of visible minorities in the 2015-2016 TV season.

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