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Is ‘Bunheads’ too white?

Last month Shonda Rhimes tweeted a comment that was a bit critical of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new ABC Family show, “Bunheads.”

“Hey@abcfbunheads: Really? You couldn’t even cast even ONE young dancer of color so I could feel good about my kid watching this show? NOT ONE?”

Sherman-Palladino told Media Mayhem, “I’m not going to get into a pissing match with Shonda Rhimes because she’s got like 15,000 shows. She’s doing just fine for herself. As far as the women thing goes, I’ve always felt like women have never supported–in a general sense–women to the level that they should. It’s been my experience through my entire career that the biggest boost I’ve gotten and the biggest accolade have all been from men.”

That wasn’t really the point. Sherman-Palladino went on to note she had to find four girls and little time (a week and a half) who could dance on point.

Rhimes created “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” and both center on white well-to-do women in a super soapy (opera) set up. On “Grey’s Anatomy,” that’s Ellen Pompeo as Meredith Grey and Grey is now married to McDreamy, Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey). Her best friend is Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) who is Asian and almost marries the black Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington).  Yang is a two-fer; she was raised Jewish. The chief of staff in the beginning was black (James Pickens as Dr. Richard Webber) and the person in charge of the interns, Bailey (Chandra Wilson as Dr. Miranda Bailey), is also black.

“Private Practice” centers around Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) who works with Peter Wilder (Tim Daly), her friend Naomi Bennett (Audra McDonald), and Sam Bennett (Taye Diggs). Naomi is gone, but Sam remains. Both Bennetts are black, but the central focus is on the white Addison and her romances which have included the white Wilder, and the black Sam as well Jake Reilly.

“Bunheads” is less a soap opera than “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Private Practice” because, after all, this is ABC Family. It is blindingly white–and we’re not just talking about the casting. Although set in California in a small coastal town, the girls are paler than some vampires (not the ones we knew in “Buffy”).

There is some diversity in the show–in the background unnamed dance students. I don’t buy that it would have been hard to find dancers of a more diverse background. Put out a call, and they’ll be there. And really, there isn’t that much dancing in the episodes thus far.

The show missed a chance to talk about the prejudices against African Americans in dance and particularly ballet. It might have opened up the possibility of having the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on. One wonders why the writers decided to build up the possibility of the Joffrey Ballet company holding auditions in this small town.

The Joffrey Ballet is ironically once of the less strict and structured of the major American ballet companies. It experimented with bringing in current styles of dance and different body types into the ballet repertoire and is supposed to be a multicultural ballet company with dancers of diversity of race and ethnic background.  Their curriculum would include modern dance, jazz and character instead of just ballet.

For someone interested in a more classical approach,the American companies to auditions for would be the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre or the San Francisco Ballet.  Joffrey, except for the three-week program that is in Los Angeles, it based in Chicago. Do any of those girls look ready to go off to Chicago?

The San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West (in Salt Lake City) were both founded by the same brothers and are also of high caliber and more likely places for these girls to apprentice.

Being that the sitcom is based in California and coastal, the community should include Latinos and Asians. California was originally a part of Mexico before the Mexican-American War. Asians, many from island countries or coastal areas, flocked to the coastal regions to fish or become servants.

For Sherman-Palladino to imply that because Rhimes is a woman she shouldn’t criticize other women in the biz or that women should support other women just because of their gender is a different kind of prejudice and just as short-sighted and limiting. While it might have been groan-worthy obvious is there had been a cast of girls in which one was the token minority, it might be better if the show reflected California’s population better.

Only 40 percent of California’s population is non-Hispanic white. Six percent if black and so having a token black would have been a skewing of the racial makeup. Latinos of any race are 37.6 percent. Asians make up 13 percent with Pacific Islanders 0.4 percent. So that would be 2 white, 2 Latinos (any race) and 1 Asian.

If Sherman-Palladino had problems casting, she had several seasons of “So You Think You Can Dance” and the people who actually auditioned for the real ballet companies to consider. There are thousands of girls of all races who would jump at a chance in open auditions and not all of them would be age appropriate, but they’d at least look that age. Consider how old Alan Ruck and Matthew Broderick were when they played high school seniors (29 and 24 respectively) in the classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Watching “First Position,” one gets an idea of what an opportunity was missed in “Bunheads.” The directors found dancers from diverse backgrounds–cultural, racial and economic and that gave us a better idea of the devotion and different problems of the dancers.

Yet it’s not just the racial and ethnic make-up that make we think “Bunheads” isn’t good TV. It’s the script that dismisses love, marriage and death too blithely and is wrapped up in that Cinderella needs to be saved by a rich man theme that makes is horribly unworthy of watching.

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