So there we are, sitting in front of the TV, and on comes one of those American-made murder-mystery detective shows that we all enjoy so much. Before long, we’ve been introduced to our detective — and found, to our astonishment, that the show’s central character and hero is a white heterosexual male. As we watch, we discover the particular assortment of personal props, characteristics and quirks — his battered old hovercraft; his fear of spoons; his collection of historic snorkels; his tendency to quote the Upanishads in the original Vedic Sanskrit — that the writers think will make him interestingly different from the 6,847 other white heterosexual male detectives we’ve seen since 1945…
The drama unfolds — and, as more and more characters are introduced, we begin to notice something a little, uh, worrying…
For it turns out that there’s only one Hispanic actress in the cast, and she’s playing the maid. There’s only one African-American actor in the cast, and he’s playing the murderously violent drug-dealer. There’s only one person with an Irish accent — and he’s playing a beat-cop called Mahoney who never shuts up about ‘the Holy Father’. The white women we see, without exception, are housewives, secretaries, librarians, childminders and wealthy siren-seductresses — while the black women are all shop-assistants, waitresses, cleaners, unmarried mothers and drug-addicted prostitutes. And, no less strikingly, everyone in a position of vested institutional authority — Senator, CEO, District Attorney, lawyer, police chief, judge, pathologist, traffic cop — is both male and white…
My example is entirely made up, of course; but I’d be prepared to bet that somewhere in a TV vault there is a dusty corner containing at least one show that looks exactly like this. The reason I feel so confident is that there was a time when the attitudes and values embodied in such ethnically stereotypical plotting and casting were sufficiently prevalent within US society to be both universally comprehensible and effectively invisible.
Needless to say, the exact details of the ‘invisible’ bit will have depended rather a lot upon who you were. If you were a white heterosexual male watching our detective, what you’ll have seen was basically just ‘a person’; i.e. someone like you — while if you weren’t, what you were looking at (and working that little bit harder to understand and empathise with) was ‘a white heterosexual male’ … whose treatment and behaviour inevitably reflected all manner of entitlements and privileges that you yourself could scarcely dream of possessing.
At the very same time, if you were a white heterosexual male watching that Hispanic maid, what you’ll have tended to see was simply an unremarkable representation of The Natural Order of Things — whereas if you were actually a Hispanic female, what you were looking at was a reminder of your very own glass ceiling…
The reason that nice, liberal-minded folks like you and I object to storylines suffused with such casual expressions of racial essentialism has, of course, two elements: the ‘moral’ and the ‘aesthetic’.
Morally speaking, we don’t consider it right to reinforce the idea that a person’s station in life is to be determined or limited by something as meaningless as an ethnic categorisation (even though we are aware of the truly horrifying extent to which this is actually what happens). And since we know that people are influenced by TV programmes — even using what they see to construct and refine their sense of self-in-the-world — we think it right to be cautious about things that might be taken as messages defining what a person’s limits and capacities are and aren’t.
And, aesthetically speaking, we take a jolly dim view of any writer or director who reaches for such a threadbare old set of hand-me-down characterisations as the ones I’ve described: either we will think we are being regaled with some kind of regressive, agenda-driven fantasy to which artistic and dramatic categories don’t begin to apply — or else we will simply assume that the artists responsible are as lazy as they are inattentive: happy to recycle any bits of debris they find in their society’s folk-cultural gutter, however unhelpful the thoughtless re-deployment of such junk will be in the world of real people, for the reasons just explained.
By now, I imagine, every reader who saw my previous posting has guessed what this one is really about: it’s a pendant to my complaint concerning the way some (not all!) of the 33 episodes of Inspector Morse came to us via writers and directors who, in those cases, did harm as well as good — and, in a few cases, more harm than good — by the way they treated ‘classical music’ in their contributions to the series.
In particular, I want to underline the point I tried to get across in my discussion of two of the clips that featured chamber music — one with a string quartet being played to some togged-up elite on a college lawn; the other with a string quartet functioning as the soundtrack to educational privilege, obtrusive wealth, and conspicuously irresponsible consumption.
And, spelled out in full — and this really is the longest sentence I will ever ask you to read! — the point is that there is all the difference in the world between, on the one hand, taking a musical repertoire subject to marginalisation, estrangement, stereotyping and prejudice and allowing the viewer to experience it as a thing that is of passionate interest to the rounded, sympathetic and believable central character in a popular drama — and, on the other hand, taking something from that repertoire and treating it in a way which, at the very least, heavily implies that what the ‘ordinary viewer’ is hearing is actually the unquestioned cultural possession of other people entirely, the property of some unreachably elite social stratum with a particular typology measurable in terms of dress, wealth, class, privilege and ethnicity — and is thus nothing whatsoever to do with you and your life, you miserable little prole.
[156 words: beat that, Milton Babbitt!]
If anyone needs me to explain in more detail why it is that I consider there to be a continuous spectrum of prejudice, disenfranchisement and exclusion linking the televisual stereotyping of ethnic minority characters with the televisual assignment of musical artefacts to a minority elite, then I’ll just have to go through it in a later posting. For the time being, I simply want to point out that, as we go through all the Morse episodes, we see that the two extreme situations I’ve described — the ordinary viewer locked out of a repertoire, and the ordinary viewer empathising and identifying with a character very much inside that repertoire — are each represented at various different points within the series … in the kind of wild and random-seeming variation that inevitably results when a whole stream of different writers and directors are all coming and going at the same time, with no possibility of adequate (or adequately thoughtful) editorial control over this undoubtedly overlooked issue.
But what I want to emphasise before I end is that there were occasions where it all came out just about as wonderfully well — for music, at least! — as it possibly could. And here is one such instance. It’s from ‘Masonic Mysteries’ (first broadcast 24 January 1990), which for my money is the finest episode they ever produced — and which, if you’ll take the 8 minutes to watch the clip I’ve coded up, shows you exactly how it is that presenting humanised and individualised characters who are doing something for the love of music in what seems a credibly ordinary setting has the effect of embracing and normalising a piece of musico-dramatic art that the vast majority of the programme’s viewers will have known — at most! — by name alone. In words of one syllable: that’s the way to do it.
The distance between what we see and experience here — in spite of the shatteringly poor soprano! — and what we get from those two sequences whose effect, wholly or partly, is to create the impression that ‘string quartets stink of toff’ is, quite simply, immense. Why couldn’t they have taken the trouble to proceed with comparable care in those other cases…?
Here’s the clip…
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