Yesterday I asked a question on twitter that led to a debate with several people of opposing viewpoints chipping in and it sparked some thoughts in my mind.
The question itself is whether I should specify each individual character as having a particular ethnical background. Basically, if irrelevant to the plot, should I state that Ruby is white, Abi is asian and Jade is black? In my head they are but that’s because I’ve attributed a picture to them that is individual to me but would I then be acting as casting director as well as writer when I’ve no need to be.
I have never stated the skin colour of my characters unless it is relevant to a particular plot point or characteristic, I don’t feel I need to tell people. However I am conscious of the fact that I want to encourage diversity, reduce the likelihood of a ‘whitewash’ casting and also ensure my characters represent the demographic of their supposed home town.
If I state the script is set in London, I would expect to see cultural diversity in casting but perhaps that is naive of me. When I turn on my television I rarely see a cast that reflects modern UK culture in terms of their ethnicity. For example, where are the Eastern European people in Eastenders? Why only minimal BME characters? The London I know is not the same one that Walford seems set in.
I am perturbed that when unspecified people assume characters are white, and that someone could indicate that mainstream characters would be white unless the ‘issue’ requires them to be otherwise. However likewise I’m not sure I agree with portraying someone with a particular name or behaviour to signify or infer their ethnic origin.
I say this because it was once suggested to me that a character eating rice and peas or jerk chicken would indicate someone black/Caribbean, or a character called Anja would be Polish. I’m a lover of jerk chicken, rice and peas myself and the Anja I know is as Cornish as you can be.
I want to promote diversity, not because of some overwhelming political desire to do so as such, moreover that the world I see portrayed through my television screen does not represent the world based outside my window and I want that to be different. You don’t have to have an agenda, just an understanding that things only change because people make them change.
If I specify the ethnicity of Ruby, Abi and Jade it restricts the casting of those characters. If I leave it open, I appear to run the risk of having yet another script where there is potential that people read it and assume a ‘whitewash’.
Surely there is a middle ground? To cast the characters based on the ethnic makeup of the area they represent as opposed to naming specific characteristics for each person.
And more importantly, as a new writer in 2013, should I be more concerned that this still has to be a debate because no one appears to have an answer?