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About a year ago, my friend Sam forwarded me e-mail verifying a dinner date with a group of his friends. After the mundane bits of information; the courses to be served and, most importantly, who should bring the wine, was this: "It'll feel good to watch The O.C., where everyone is rich and white like God intended." Sam, hyper-aware of my feelings on the topic, preceded and post scripted the message with the necessary disclaimers, he only said it to be funny, and, don't get offended it's just a joke, so don't get all cranky. I wrote back and told him of that of course I wasn't offended, because it was funny. According to the television show, it's true.
I don't know exactly when or how I started watching The O.C. It happened during a phase in which I had fallen out of love with television and besides catching some trustworthy favorites in syndication, I wanted no part. I was idly flipping channels one evening and fell into it quite by accident. The show was so sparkly and melodramatic, my life was so drab and modest-I couldn't resist. However, knowing that it was not considered the most critically acclaimed show, I hid it. Friends would call Thursday evenings and ask if I wanted to go out. I'd lie and say I had something very important to do-really, I just needed to see if Ryan and Marissa were going to break up (again). How could I, an educated, supposedly intelligent African-American woman admit to such nonsense?
When I was younger, I was fully aware that my high school was 95% white. I was all too conscious of the odd stares my family would get as we filed into the pews at our Episcopal church. At an age when I should've been tied up in Beverly Hills 90210 and the Dylan/Brenda chaos, I was already tired of being constantly confronted with examples of an idealized, homogenized White America and its neuroses.
So why then, at the age of twenty-six, am I now addicted to a show whose tagline claims, "Orange County-it's where all the beautiful people live," and the plot is akin to that of Webster, only the adoptive child is full-sized and did time in juvy? Because now I 'm old enough to know that it isn't meant to be an accurate portrayal of life.
The O.C. is so alluring is because it is so fluffy and unlikely that you haven't got to pay much attention. Everything is handed to you with little resistance. It's funny and pop-culturally relevant. I find the show serves as an analgesic after a difficult day of school or work. Still, it's easy to drift while Marissa and Summer are engaged in mindless banter. In the space between watching and not, I may forget to suspend my disbelief such that a silly aside, something like eYo, homie, what up?' becomes a grandiose offense. I rarely watch television to be enlightened and yet I often wonder, while I finish off my pint of Ben & Jerry's and wish I could reach in the television and pull Ryan Atwood into my living room, are there really no black people in The O.C.?
To find out, I visited the official website of the City of Newport Beach, where The O.C. is set, in search of demographical information. A population census taken in 2000 tells me that Among the 70,000 inhabitants who identify with "one race," roughly 65,000 classify themselves as eWhite.' 2,800 are eAsian' and 371 residents of Newport Beach, CA list themselves as eBlack/African-American.' Surprise doesn't accurately describe how I felt-and yet to say I was truly shocked alludes to the possibility that I've been living in a cave. But fine. There really are no black people in The O.C., at least not in Newport Beach. If you watch the show The O.C., you won't see any of the 2,800 Asian residents, nor will you see any of the 3,500 individuals who checked the "Hispanic" box on their survey forms.
Apparently, 3,500 residents of Newport Beach live in homes with 9 or more rooms-I want to be one of those people. I want to be one of the few thousand that own three or more cars. I want to be re-deflowered by thug-turned-rich boy Ryan in a makeshift hut on the beach. But I do not want to relinquish my ethnicity to have these things, and I shouldn't have to fantasize myself as anything but my broad nosed, bubble-butt self. However, should the writers, producers, or even the network that features The O.C. be responsible in representing cultural diversity in a place where there doesn't seem to be much of it? Because television shows ultimately thrive on inaccuracies and propagate hyperbole, wouldn't putting at least one major character of color on a show set in a town where there's an obvious absence fit their methods?
Since such forms of entertainment and information became popular, the discussion of responsibility has been had and had again. Should Josh Schwartz, creator of The O.C., be liable for creating an integrated world? The focus of the show is the drama between a core group of individuals-not necessarily the world around them. So it shouldn't matter what the extras milling around on the boardwalk look like. Still, it would be nice to see a smidge of color. The media often denies us our prowess, our status, our intellect and talents. We're even denied our stereotypes at times: on The O.C. and similar shows, most of the thugs and riff-raff are Caucasian. Have all multicultural aspects been erased to keep such issues at bay? Like Ryan, have we become complacent, too comfortable with our situation to remember how difficult it was to get where we are? Or is it still in us, as it is in him, a fire in our bellies roused in moments of extreme anger or duress?
Knee-jerk response seems to be the creation of shows for us "minorities," The Cosby Show, 227, George Lopez, and Girlfriends, to name a few. While these shows are necessary and important to create a balance, they are still lacking. They in turn serve to deepen the separation-the United States is not comprised solely of black or Hispanic or Asian people. On a daily basis, I interact with a myriad of individuals such that their race (while I am conscious of it and do appreciate the spots of color) sometimes comes secondary to their personalities. For an example, reference the show Grey's Anatomy, created by Shonda Rhimes. This show has one of the most diverse casts of any currently popular show on network television. It's important to note that Shonda Rhimes is an African American woman who was extremely conscious of the cultural makeup of her cast. The cast of Grey's Anatomy is a major reason why I tune in on a weekly basis. On one hand, it's blissfully vacant; some the situations are as implausible as they should be in those one-hour dramas, but on the other hand it is refreshing to see that rainbow-however cliched a sentiment that might be.
In the past, African Americans sought integration. The "separate but equal" status quo was not enough (especially since the "equal" end of the clause was far from realized). If history does indeed repeat, a small portion of our sullied history is being replayed for us nearly every evening during prime time. Shows directed at eminorities' are arguably not as appealing as other shows-they lack the high-gloss, while the The O.C. catches our eye like a fast and shiny new car. There is no 1-hour prime time drama with a cast comprised solely of eminorities.' It would be prudent to assume there's no market for it, and if there's not a market producers and networks won't bother. But there is a market for The O.C., a large one.
While the majority of the viewers of that show might be your average, or above-average teenaged Caucasian girls, there are women like me who watch, and certainly my friend Sam and his cronies. What message is being sent-intentionally or not--via these shows? Who is it in our society that deserves the most attention, and which of us are relegated to the new CW network? Most of us would appreciate some diversity to reflect the culture we live in. Until then, I'll keep watching for the one black extra I spotted on The O.C. a few seasons ago. I can only hope she'll be back.
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