"'It's Tough Being Different'": The Pitfalls of Colorblindness in CW's The Vampire Diaries

Curator's Note

The video I am curating illustrates the drama two of the three people of color on The Vampire Diaries (TVD) face when it is revealed they are all witches. Earlier in the episode, Bonnie Bennett senses that Luka Martin (seated) and his father Jonas are warlocks who are now persuading her to trust them. In a disarming moment (beginning at 2:59), Luka tells her that “it’s tough being different.” In context of the episode, he is referring to them being witches but as I argue here and elsewhere, it also speaks to their difference as black folks in a predominately white town. Taken further, I transgressively read his sentence as a larger comment on their unspoken difference on TVD. Unspoken because Bonnie Bennett’s role on the series was blindcasted, a process where character roles do not specify a particular race. In theory, this process is progressive because it allows for a variety of talent, regardless of skin color, to audition for a part. However the problem occurs when actors of color are cast because those roles are typically written as normatively white.

My critique of blindcasting inevitably begs the question “is the solution to turn Bonnie into a stereotype”? Absolutely not. But in a town like Mystic Falls where there clearly aren’t many minorities, it would be nice if Bonnie and Luka could have an insider moment—something I refer to as cultural specificity. But they can’t because their blindcasted status allows the show’s writers to sidestep cultural differences in favor of providing the “look” (the literal, they’re brown not white look) of difference.

This is problematic for the writers generally and Bonnie and the Martins specifically because in the world of TVD, all the witches are black, reinvoking a stereotype about “magical negroes." This is the crux of the issue with blindcasting because without intentionally writing for characters of color, the show will always accidentally fall into aged tropes.

Race is a quagmire to be sure. But abandoning the effort to negotiate it because it is too difficult (or by circumventing the effort superficially, i.e., blindcasting) isn’t the answer because dodging race only makes it emerge in different and unconscious ways.

Comments

Richard Newton's picture

Race, Tropes, and Must See TV

Great video choice! The texture of your selection really shows how the writers relegate the implications of “the brown look” to the ghetto of subtext.

From your reflections, I gather that tropes are how fringe concerns and marginalized persons are negotiated in a mainstream, normalizing discourse. So in trying to take up your final challenge, I hypothesize the following story arc for TVD. (I don’t really know the show, so I’ll paint with broad strokes.)

I think a genuine discussion on race within said show should turn normalcy on its head. Normalcy would feed into the dramatic conflict and the outsider’s culturally- specific double consciousness would quench it. The outsider’s insider moment would have implications for the rest of the cast (now outsiders themselves). However, for this to challenge the audience, the story’s resolution would not wholly sublimate difference. When it’s all said and done, all with whom we (the audience) empathize (insiders and outsiders) must sense some difference so that we may too.

I admit that the above is a trope itself. “Disenchanted whiteness” answers the “magical negro.” But can humans do anything but trope with the best and most self-critical of intentions?

Kristen Warner's picture

The Damned tropes

Thanks for your comment Richard. The problem with your story is that it priviliges race in a way that makes it "heavy." When I talk to casting director and folks involved in the industry, they always say the same thing about bringing race into a series or a film: it’s too heavy. As a result, it is designated only for those projects that need to have it, i.e., dramatic films that take place in historical periods when race was a "big deal." Now, I know that is ridiculous but…

I think for TVD to be conscious about race it must do a number of things: namely deal with the slavery piece that it is afraid of. Much of the show takes place in flashbacks of 1864 Viriginia but the issue of slavery is sidestepped through language. Bonnie’s ancestor Emily (also a witch) isn’t a slave owned by vampiress Katherine; she’s a "handmaid." Dealing with that would be a grat first step. Also, not allowing Bonnie to have a family of her own we get to know (her granny, also a witch, died in season 1) isolates her and makes her exceptional in ways she shouldn’t be. Those are some easy fixes but I fear that the writers were afraid that any playing with that would turn the show’s direction and so they just avoided it altogether. Which leads to your next point:

I admit that the above is a trope itself. “Disenchanted whiteness” answers the “magical negro.” But can humans do anything but trope with the best and most self-critical of intentions?

Tropes are literally traps that, yes, are everywhere and are damn near impossible to step into. I feel like the show is already participating in "disenchanted whiteness" through the use of vampire as Other. Yet, the writers are so careful to step around the generic conventions that surround the vampire trope—which shows that when we pay attention and are intentional, we can BEST the trope. This also shows me that if they maybe got some folks of color on their writing staff and actually took it seriously, they could potentially BEST the colorblind we all black witches (and most of us are kin) trope. But it all goes to intentionality.

 

 

 

Richard Newton's picture

flashback

Thanks for your great response. I especially appreciate how you have surfaced the politics of production. I really think the use of flashback could be helpful in surfacing the issues you raise. Are there any less-heavy shows that you think have successfully done this. I felt like Dawson’s Creek tried to channel this with the "Capeside’s black male principal v. troubled, entitled, white male student" storyline. It wasn’t a true flashback as much as the protagonists playing "Civil Rights’ Era" for an episode. 

Anyway, here’s to intentionality and all around good TV.

Kristina Busse's picture

erasing race; erasing history

Wonderful post, Kristen, especially in connection with your blog post. It’s interesting how a seemingly innocuous if not good procedure can (re)introduce problems. Because in the end, I do think it’s a good thing to change Bonnie’s race (or to blindcast Graham rather). But in so doing the dynamics certainly change, and a lot of character aspects suddenly take on new meaning—the antebellum flashbacks, the witch identity, even the romance with Jeremy.

I wonder if it might be possible to blindcast and then redefine the characters. Because clearly TPTB should have lost and added things when Bonnie became black—cultural specificity changes meaning, and as you so beautifully show, TVD fails to account for that.

Now I wonder how different casting choices would have affected other dynamics—an Asian Stefan; a Hispanic Caroline;… Which stereotypes would those changes introduce and what would be overlooked? (i’m sure you’ve seen the phenomenal Black Winchester cartoon…that’s to me a great example of fandom responding to these questions!)

I’m also thinking of Martha, and the way DW suceeded and failed to acknowledge her race within the show.

In the end, I think you argue convincingly that just like IRL color blindness (while better than outright racism) is still immensely problematic…

 

 

Kristen Warner's picture

Erasing History Indeed

Because in the end, I do think it’s a good thing to change Bonnie’s race (or to blindcast Graham rather). But in so doing the dynamics certainly change, and a lot of character aspects suddenly take on new meaning—the antebellum flashbacks, the witch identity, even the romance with Jeremy.

Thanks for your comment Kristina! I totally agree with you here. Everything changes because of casting an actress of color. EVERYTHING. The history changes, the family lineage changes, damn, the hair styling changes (and poor Kat Graham suffered through some awful hair throughout season 1. I argue that it’s from a lack of knowledge about biracial hair which happens in Hollywood ALL the time) because of race. And, contrary to popular belief, that is NOT a bad thing. But, this post-racial thing has got us in a headlock that is so hard to get free from because we’re supposed to be the same. I’m supposed to believe that Bonnie’s ancestors are Salem witches (which historically only means Tituba, the most famous "black" witch of all time excluding Marie Laveau) when that is preposterous. I’m supposed to believe she goes home to a family I’ve never met. And I’m supposed to believe when she keeps me cousins and other black witches who are black, she never has a moment of pause about it. I’m supposed to believe that the only reason she’s attracted to Luka is because he’s a witch and she’s a fool because clearly Jeremy is the better choice (I have reservations about that relationship but it’s neither here nor there). It’s just frustrating how much I’m supposed to suspend disbelief here—not to mention it’s a show about vampires, lol.

Blindcast and redefine the characters: That is definitely possible but not done very often to my knowledge. I read somewhere that Shawn Ryan blindcast Jennifer Beals’s role in Chicago Code and allowed some play with her biraciality but it requires alot of reflexivity and consciousness on the part of the mostly white, male writers.

An Asian Stefan; a Hispanic Caroline: Ha. It would totally need a show overhaul. It couldn’t take place in Mystic Falls, VA, lol. And, you certainly couldn’t have flashbacks to 1864. Can you even imagine? 

Kristina Busse's picture

 Self-reflexivity and

 Self-reflexivity and self-awareness in writers…wouldn’t that be nice!

Don’t you want to see that show where Elena’s black, Stefan’s asian, and Caroline hispanic???? :D Oh wait, that wouldn’t be THIS show of planation flashbacks and antebellum celebration balls and parades….

The thing I’m still stuck on (yes, I’m a literalist) is that being a witch isn’t all that good a metaphor for race, really…in a way, being a vampire might be better (except then you get into all the negative issues we get into in TB!) because it’s written on the body in a way that being a witch isn’t…. Or, to avoid all essentialist vs constructivist issues: Bonnie can hide and pass as a witch in a way that she cannot as a black female.

 

Kristen Warner's picture

Witches

Gosh, I don’t even know what I’d do with myself if TVD became multiculti with its leading characters (who wouldn’t be mercilessly killed off each and every time). Don’t even know.

Witches: remember that scene early on in season one when Elena is trying to get Bonnie to be friends with Stefan after she senses that something is off about him? They are talking about witches and how they are "heroic examples of individualism and non-conformity." I"m not quite sure that that speaks to the race piece but it does kinda set the pace for the remainder of the witches and warlocks.

Bonnie can hide and pass as a witch in a way that she cannot as a black female. So true. Yet, all of her difference (and her family’s difference) is subsumed under the witch category.

Kristina Busse's picture

bad analogies

 Yet, all of her difference (and her family’s difference) is subsumed under the witch category. Yes! I hadn’t even thought about it, but in a way this is strangely diplacing a visible with an invisible difference that denies the specificity of an unescapable and relentless othering.

Moreover, as much as the enslaved witches/slavery parallel are upsetting in and of themselves, by collapsing the two (or letting the witch servitude stand in for slavery), there’s again a certain minimalization going on. The enslaved witches have agency and powers denied to black slaves in the American South, and to equate them seems yet again deeply problematic!  

Darcey West Morris's picture

Parallels Between Witches and Slavery

Great post, Kristen.  You raise some interesting points, and as a fan of the show, I was unaware the role was "blindcasted." 

One concern I’ve had with Bonnie’s plotline with the other witches/warlocks is the undercurrent of slavery that is unspoken yet unmistakable.  Witches on TVD are often portrayed in situations where they are controlled by vampires either with force or coercion.  There seems to be a suggestion that wiches are enslaved to vampires (white men), and because the only witches who have so far appeared on the show are African Americans, the metaphor is powerful and opens up many layers for analysis.  This is more intriguing when considered alongside the antebellum context mentioned above.  It perplexes me, and I find myself constantly wondering if the show is ever going to address the fact that all witches seem to be African Americans or if the producers will ever cast an actor of another ethnicity for the role.

It seems that even when series engage in "blindcasting," the actor’s ethnicity dictates the narrative.  Science fiction and fantasy has frequently been a progressive genre, though I would say the teen genre is not.  You pose thought-provoking questions, and ones that I agree need further exploration.

Kristen Warner's picture

Some TVD fans suffer selective historical amnesia

Darcey, it is a powerful metaphor. And, it’s so damn overt that if I didn’t know better I’d be astonished the show hadn’t dealt with it. A few months back I was on TWoP’s TVD forum and that conversation about the witches and warlocks all being black was being started. There was so much resistance to it because a) the show isn’t about race (ha); b) no one wants to keep talking about slavery; and c) a divide between "aren’t you people always asking for diversity? why are complaining about having black people on the show" and "well, if they were all white you’d be upset/white women and magic is a trope so you have no right to complain" rhetoric. I even had a woman tell me that she didn’t see color so she never noticed the pattern that was emerging. I bring this all up because I just want you to know that noticing this pattern is threatening and puts folks up in arms. Which is how I know that it’s really happening and that the writers will NEVER deal with it. They would argue that it’s completely accidental and unintentional.

To your point about the witches are enslaved to vampires—yes, you’re right. Don’t forget though, that Katherine had two witches working for her (Emily and the cousin) so the boys didn’t get all the fun. Yet, they were all white—funnily enough, ethnic white around the time of Civil war—although that ain’t mentioned.

It seems that even when series engage in "blindcasting," the actor’s ethnicity dictates the narrative.  Science fiction and fantasy has frequently been a progressive genre, though I would say the teen genre is not.

To the first part, it does but as a trope and not as a necessarily conscious decision on part of the writing staff. So as to say, if they were writing that Jonas Martin the warlock was from Louisiana, the trope doesn’t occur until he’s cast. But the backstory (often times included in the breakdown that actors use to audition for roles) was already present. Here’s the thing: it can’t be racist or stereotyping because the backstory was written first. Colorblind casting is the greatest defense against those arguments—which is why it is deployed so often. 

 

 

 

Changing the backstory

This is a great post Kristen.  

I’m not as familar with all the backstories in the show but the history of Louisiana is known as site of multi-racial relations.  French, Spanish, multiple tribal nations, Filipino/as, and Chinese were around the area as well as other white ethnicities and blacks (some from the Islands and some from Africa). 

To your point about the witches are enslaved to vampires—yes, you’re right. Don’t forget though, that Katherine had two witches working for her (Emily and the cousin) so the boys didn’t get all the fun. Yet, they were all white—funnily enough, ethnic white around the time of Civil war—although that ain’t mentioned.

The narrative of this teen drama television seems to insist on a simplified racial history for the black and white characters and hence a rigid backstory.  So how do we change the backstory?

 

 

Alexa Jordan's picture

Magical Beings

 I definitely agree with this idea. I see this in a lot of shows or movies dealing with magic. There is a separation of race among the magical beings.  Most of the time whites are vampires while African Americans are werewolves, which makes whites to be thought of as  sleek and beautiful (It is the idea of vampires) and African American into beasty and angry (It is the idea of a werewolf) . It is wrong that this happens but as the article says it is blindcasting. Casting director try to fit actors into a certain role that has no real information on what the character is suppose to look like. So, they do what they think is right and it ends up being a race division.  Then when the show starts up the characters always say they are different and they cannot relate to anyone but it is also an unspoken thing about race. The characters get divided by race and things that should be dealing with magic actually end up dealing with race.   This happens in shows not dealing with magic too.  Stereotyping is what causes this to occur in shows. People are giving ideologies of what characters are suppose to look like and be like;  Whites are rich and African are poor. It is sad that this happens but hopefully it will change for the better. 

Allen Goolsby's picture

Blindcasting

I very much enjoyed this article and the choice of curation.  I have long been wondering when someone would speak upon lack of representation of racial trope manipulation and segregation in many of these after school evening programs meant for the typical American household, i.e. Gilmore Girls, Everwood. The lack of a diverse cultural presence is obvious but not addressed most commonly. Even though i have not yet watched other episodes of this program TVD i ascertain that the exoticism of blackness or as the article calls mysticism of blackness responds to culturally embeded stereotypes of the cultural other, which is often constructed as blackness.  We have seen in television history and media for years this approach of racial incorporation of other cultures in a stereotypically adjusted manner. In this sequence it is obvious fromt he start that the cultural likeness of these "witches" is only social obvious and narritively effective because we as social viewers are atuned to viewing the "other" or the "witch" to be a form of blackness. I 

Isaiah Masters's picture

blind casting

  

With the inclusion of blind casting into television, the progressive elements are apparent, and as you stated the actual problem lies within the fact the people of color are being casted for roles that are typically written by and for a white person. yes”>  I completely agree with you in that racial stereotypes and prevalent in almost all major television shows and films, and I think its sad because despite the fact that “blindcasting” and racial consciousness is in effect and employed, ultimately, what will be shown to the majority of our society is what the rich executives know will statistically bring in more monetary value, and because such a large percentage of middle/upper class people are Caucasian, its white people that we are going to be seen representing our popular television and cinema.  For example, in M Night Shyamalan’s interpretation of the show Avatar, he depicts the obviously Asian cartoon characters with white actors, and over pronounces their “A’s” to make them sound more Asian. yes”>  It was a complete disregard to Asian people in America yet it was produced without a second thought. Minorities act almost as props or tokens, yet we accept it as norm because we have no choice.

 

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