Book Review

The cultural politics of colorblind TV casting, by Kristen J. Warner

Bambi Haggins

Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Color-blindness; Color consciousness; Media industries; Shonda Rhimes

Haggins, Bambi. 2016. The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting by Kristen J. Warner [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22.

Kristen Warner, The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting. New York: Routledge, 2015, hardcover $140 (170p) ISBN 978-1138018303, e-book $54.95 (748 KB) ASIN B00YY64066.

[1] In The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting, Kristen J. Warner intermingles personal, pedagogical, and political insight with close examinations of the construction of televisual texts in terms of casting, reception, and industrial framing—including such diverse areas as network PR to entertainment media coverage—to create an exceptionally astute and accessible volume that provides a vital intervention on race, media, and industry studies. In the book's preface, "What Happened After Killing the [Colorblind] Messenger," Warner engages with the notion of color-blindness on a personal level with an anecdote about blending in during a social gathering (as a black woman in a predominantly white space) as a means of stating the goal of the book: "to explore how framing colorblindness as a way of seeing, as a mode of behavior, as a mode of production in casting primetime television enables a close examination of the small and subtle methods used to trap us as a society into this vicious and painful cycle" (xiii). Warner's work constantly operates on multiple levels: industrial history and current trends are intertwined with skillful textual analysis and ethnographic research, always with an eye on representations of blackness. Clarity and richness characterize Warner's writing as she moves easily between varied forms of data, including her own savvy cultural and industrial analyses and personal interviews with industry professionals; accounts from popular and trade presses; sociohistorically and industrially contextualized explorations of specific media texts and the production cultures that produce them.

[2] Warner speaks directly to the ways in which "both colorblindness and casting are founded upon unarticulated assumptions about the irreducibility of physiology—that is, in both cases individuals (casting directors or just ordinary people) assume an equality of opportunity, regardless of appearance, thus…practices of colorblindness and casting maintain an idealistic but myopic view of the world based upon normative (white) assumptions" (12). Warner consistently reflects on the ways in which the progressiveness of incremental change can remain problematic. Her assessment of the landscape of television casting recognizes prior work done on the state of minorities in Hollywood, including that of Darnell Hunt and Herman Gray. However, as a result of her accessible and sophisticated narrative style, she is able to illuminate the exceptions that complicate the logics of color-blind casting as a multicultural and utopian answer to problematic representations of race and ethnicity.

[3] In "Casting as Cultural Production," Warner looks behind the curtain to detail how those involved in casting conceptualize, discuss, and execute their respective roles in the process. She mobilizes aspects of Paul du Gay's work on cultural production (as related to the manufacturing, marketing, and cultural impact of the Walkman) as well as that of Keith Negus, who cites Richard Peterson and John Ryan's challenge to the "filter-flow" model for the "production of culture," which asserts that "the act of producing a cultural artifact is not a filtration system but a system of fabrication that each member of the process shares, because production is not just about the product itself but also about the product's symbolic meaning" (33). Thus, through ethnographic work based on interviews with industry professionals in Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles, California, Warner presents a nuanced view of casting in the allegedly postracial era—a process that continues to be inextricably tied to "certain hegemonic assumptions of racial identity that are accepted and reinforced by the Hollywood industry" (33). Warner illustrates how tactics used at various levels of the casting food chain come into play, including color-blindness as an actor's self-fashioning strategy, the priority of gainful employment, and the ways that hegemonic assumptions about minority actors and their racial performances. Thus, color-blind casting ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for media professionals, which ensures that the color politics of myriad televisual milieus remains problematic.

[4] In "'I'm glad no one was hung up on the race thing': ABC's Grey's Anatomy and the Innovation of Blindcasting in a Post-racial Era," Warner explores "post race, post feminist baby" Shonda Rhimes's first successful adventure in Shondaland, Grey's Anatomy (2006–). Amid a study of the cast, Warner engages in a moment of rupture in the race-neutral/color-blind world of Seattle Grace Hospital when the parents of Dr. Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington), played by iconic black actors Diahann Carroll and Richard Roundtree, visit their ailing son. Warner details the histories of the actors and the "divergent racial discourses of assimilation and pluralism [that] intersect in Grey's space of race neutrality." Carroll, famous for playing the Super Negro on the situation comedy Julia (1968–1971), and Roundtree, who was Shaft in the eponymously titled 1971 film as well as the patron saint of blaxploitation, are coupled to play the clearly "Afristocratic" parents of Seattle Grace's star surgeon, who happens to be black. Warner notes, "And it is for this reason that when these actors appeared on Grey's, regardless of Rhimes' preference for race neutrality, their historical personas forced race into the foreground" (87). In the preface, Warner had already teased out how Washington's use of the other F word in an on-set tussle with Patrick Dempsey (aka McDreamy) resulted in former's inability to maintain race neutrality and retain his job. I discuss this example in detail because I think it illustrates how Warner complicates the reading of Grey's by providing us with a wealth of sociohistorical and industrial context, along with the implications of casting and character construction within the series. This example provides depth and texture to the study of TV casting as a cultural and political production practice.

[5] In her second case study, "'It's tough being different': The Pitfalls of Colorblindness in The CW's The Vampire Diaries," Warner teases out the impact of the de facto blindcasting of black actor Katerina (Kat) Graham as Bonnie Bennett on the politics of race and space in the fictional Southern town of Mystic Falls, Virginia, where The Vampire Diaries (2009–) is set. Although the character in the books on which the series is based is a white redhead named Bonnie McCullough, witch and best friend to female protagonist Elena Gilbert, Bennett belongs to a family tied to the centuries-old town through what one might assume are enslaved ancestors, although this lineage is not made explicit. Exploring the series' strategies of blindcasting as a means of fulfilling postracial goals of diversity (something that teen shows from The CW in general—and creator-producer Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec in particular—have lacked) reveals many unintentional pitfalls, particularly as they relate to black femininity and the space of the South as a site of black oppression. By articulating how The Vampire Diaries reverse engineers the notion of blindcasting used on Grey's Anatomy to create a "visible balance" while also addressing the portrayal and treatment of Bennett and her family, Warner interrogates the claim that the ahistorical trials and tribulations of the Bennetts have nothing to do with race. As Warner aptly states, "Claiming [Bennett's] portrayal is not racially motivated at best and systematically racist at worst—because the character was never intentionally written for a Black woman, therefore any historical patterns that could be traced are purely coincidental—is a savvy defensive maneuver" (96). Furthermore, the fan reactions to Bennett—from the by-the-book purists to those who were members of Team Bonnie even without sociohistorical or racial context—also make it difficult to see Bonnie Bennett's trajectory as a magical tragic mulatta who ceaselessly suffers in service to her white friends, both human and nonhuman, as a step toward a utopian vision of the postracial televisual milieu.

[6] In "'Is there hope?' Alternatives to Colorblind Casting," Warner examines two TV shows that intentionally attempted to cast in a culturally specific manner: NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–2000) and HBO's The Wire (2002–8), both televisual products tied to former Baltimore Sun reporter and self-proclaimed Hollywood outsider David Simon. The realist, documentary aesthetic intertwined with the procedural genre and the production culture of the Baltimore set series allowed for—and arguably required—culturally specific casting. Although these two examples clearly stand as alternatives to color-blind casting, Homicide and The Wire (and the production cultures they generated and were generated by) are the exception rather than the rule. Although "the productions themselves called for a more realistic and authentic look, thus enabling more diverse and culturally specific representation…these examples are not strong enough to withstand the overall pressure of Hollywood logic and a nexus of power that, for the most part, has not had to be checked" (150). Warner's jadedly hopeful examination of these series as exemplars of culturally specific casting, which yields quality programming that is both relevant and critically acclaimed, is exceptionally clear-eyed: substantive change won't happen as long as industrial convention wisdom, despite all signs to the contrary, is not sold on the fact that diversity sells.

[7] The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting requires that we examine the processes of cultural production and production culture responsible for contemporary American television. Warner reveals how "how colorblind casting can teach us some vital lessons about television and society at large." This book is an immensely useful text across the spectrum of television studies because of the ways it engages the politics of race, industry, and media. Warner's ability to speak to a wide audience—those who are engaged consumers of media, media studies scholars, students at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and inquisitive members of the industry—extends this important conversation about the motivations for and impact of color-blind casting beyond the seminar room and the lecture hall. In her conclusion, "Not Quite Catching Shadows," Warner refers to her scholarly endeavor as attempting "to catch a shadow": "negotiating colorblindness in television casting is an exercise in reconstructing invisible processes and approximating visibility" (153). With her use of casting as the lens, Warner illustrates "how colorblindness shapes attitudes that reinforce whiteness at the expense of the racial and cultural difference" (153). The lessons that Warner provides on the production of culture have great value not only in the ways in which they illuminate the myriad elements that shape the formation of racial representations in television but also because they guide the reader to a more nuanced understanding of the industrial practices that give rise to those representations—and, just as significantly, to the cultural power that structures the industrial processes in the first place.