TV is offering a fairer image, but mainly for certain groups
New York — In many ways, things are getting better for women, blacks, and Hispanics on American television. But enough better? Or better fast enough? TV is finally emancipating white women and black men. But both male and female Hispanics still suffer from gross underrepresentation - or distortion - in the way they are portrayed on the electronic screen.
In the six years since the Monitor's last survey of the treatment of minorities in television (Nov. 29-30, 1977):
* Women, especially white women, have fared very well. More and more regular series have recognized the varied roles of women in American society and are portraying the range of those female roles realistically. This is especially true of white women. Black, Hispanic, and Oriental women are still fighting the same old stereotypes - or, perhaps even worse, they are often invisible.
* Although there are several shows that either star or feature blacks, in the main they are blacks in special circumstances rather than blacks in normal family relationships. Thus, most Americans who come in contact with blacks and Hispanics only through TV are getting a distorted picture.
* Latins have enjoyed virtually no improvement - qualitatively or quantitatively. There are now five major shows that star people whose origins are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American - but in general, Hispanics are shown as comic figures or in servile positions.
Of course, there are valid exceptions to all of these observations. There has been a major change in the way television treats white women. The bland husband-dependent housewife has, in general, disappeared. Instead, many shows star women in independent roles. Some of the shows that feature strong women: ''One Day at a Time'' (CBS), ''Gloria'' (CBS), ''Alice'' (CBS), ''Amanda's Place'' (ABC), ''Hill Street Blues'' (NBC), ''Fame'' (NBC), ''Mama's Family'' (NBC), ''Facts of Life'' (NBC), ''Family Ties'' (NBC). In addition, there have been innumerable made-for-TV movies in which just about every aspect of the varied lives of today's women have been dramatized.
NBC seems to be leading the way in breaking down barriers. Probably the two most balanced shows in their presentation of blacks, Hispanics, and women are both from NBC - ''Hill Street Blues'' and ''Fame.'' In these shows, members of minority groups are integrated into the story lines, with objectionable stereotypes avoided. They function in their jobs and classes as human beings who just happen to be black or Hispanic.
NBC also leads in its sensitive handling of black stars Gary Coleman in ''Diff'rent Strokes,'' Louis Gossett Jr. in ''The Powers of Matthew Star,'' and Denzel Washington in ''St. Elsewhere.'' In the way of stereotypes, however, NBC must be faulted for Mr. T as B. A. Baracas in ''The A Team'' and Nell Carter in ''Gimme a Break.'' And, of course there is the slightly embarrassing situation of Erik Estrada in NBC's ''CHiPS - he plays a Hispanic with an Italian name, something of a compromise solution.
CBS, on the other hand, seems to be the network that gives the most balanced picture of women in American society. Aside from a long string of made-for-TV movies which concentrate on just about every aspect of women's concerns, CBS airs ''Gloria,'' with Sally Struthers; ''One Day at a Time,'' with Bonnie Franklin; ''Alice,'' with Linda Lavin; and ''Cagney and Lacey,'' about two female police detectives. (?) officers.
In the area of blacks and Hispanics, however, CBS lags behind, with only a minor part here and there. There is, of course, ''The Jeffersons'' - CBS's long-running show starring blacks - but the show has come in for some criticism.
Talk with Amos and Avalos
John Amos, once the star of the now-defunct ''Good Times,'' a series that tried, sometimes successfully, to portray an average black family group, characterizes ''The Jeffersons'' as ''a sophisticated 'Amos and Andy.' ''
On the other hand, the Los Angeles-Hollywood NAACP chapter presented its Image Awards of 1982 to Sherman Helmsley and Marla Gibbs, two of the black ''Jeffersons'' stars. So even within the minority communities, there is often much difference of opinion. Other NAACP awards in television last year went to ''Sister, Sister,'' by Maya Angelou, for best TV movie; a ''Hill Street Blues'' episode; Cicely Tyson for best actress in ''The Marva Collins Story''; and Paul Winfield for best actor in ''Sophisticated Gents.''
Mr. Amos told me, ''There is no evidence of blacks being portrayed more accurately on TV these days. If anything in the past few years, I see a further substantiation of the old stereotypes. Certainly 'Roots' proved there is a large audience for black drama, yet I see few blacks in dramatic shows.''
Mr. Amos is very concerned about the fact that the only blacks seen by so many Americans are the stereotypical ones in series TV. But he is also upset because, as he puts it, ''When I grew up there were always strong father figures , albeit whites, on the TV screen in such sitcoms as 'Father Knows Best,' 'The Danny Thomas Show,' 'Ozzie and Harriet.' Now there are few such shows, black or white. Where are the fathers who are responsible for their own kids? Also, we've got to try to obliterate the image of the black matriarchal family, which is based in part upon what slavery did to the black family.''
Although ABC is the home of ''9 to 5,'' which stars Rita Moreno in a nonstereotypical Latin role, ''Benson,'' which stars Robert Guillaume in a fairly nonstererotypical black role, and ''Condo,'' which stars Luis Avalos in a precedent-breaking Hispanic role, the fact is that in general ABC lags far behind other networks in the realistic portrayal of women, blacks, and Hispanics in most of its programs.
While ''Condo'' can be faulted for its unrelieved series of ethnic insults, Mr. Avalos told the Monitor he believes the show does some good because it features an accent-less Hispanic character, the head of a small, upwardly mobile middle-class family. And he says that ''when the character is insulted he stands his ground, sometimes insulting right back. Now that's a major change for TV.''
Mr. Avalos is especially concerned that young Hispanics cannot find a suitable role model in the communications media. ''Hispanic kids are beginning to think, like other kids, that all Hispanics have accents and mustaches. Remember when they made 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' for the movies? Redford and Newman were as handsome a pair as could be imagined. But all the Mexicans were fat, stupid, and unwashed. And that's the way it usually goes.''
Mr. Avalos was afraid Mexican groups would object to the fact that although he is of Cuban descent, he is playing a man of Mexican descent. ''But one of the major Mexican organizations, Nosotros, has told me they love what I am doing as long as I make people proud of being Mexican. After all, I play the head of a good family trying to progress within the American dream.''
February was Black History Month, but you would never have known about it if you depended on the commercial networks to keep you informed. Not so Public Broadcasting Service, which scheduled an abundance of black-oriented programs, ranging from ''Tony Brown's Journal'' to ''Fundi - the Story of Ella Baker.''
During its normal broadcast days, PBS seems to make a strong effort to include blacks and women in its subject matter. That is true of regular series like ''Frontline'' and ''American Playhouse.'' But when it comes to Hispanic-oriented programming, PBS is just about as remiss as the commercial networks. Aside from coverage of a couple of Hispanic organization conventions, ''Sesame Street'' (which tries for an ethnic mix), some documentaries on Central America, and ''Que Pasa, USA'' (a Spanish-language sitcom), the image of the Hispanic on PBS is scarcely seen at all. And that in itself is a distortion.
How do the organizations of Hispanics, blacks, and women feel about the way TV is portraying the people they represent? I asked La Raza (Hispanics), the NAACP, and the National Organization for Women.
Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, said: ''Hispanics are rarely portrayed on television, but when we do get some attention it tends to be either negative or one-dimensional. The negative images usually consist of Hispanics portrayed as housemaids, gardeners, bandits, gang members, or banana-republic tyrants. The most prevalent one-dimensional character is exemplified by Charro.
''I don't blame Hispanic talent. They need the work. I blame the producers, the writers, the advertisers. They should have better sense.''
Kathy Bonk, director of the Media Project at NOW, stated, ''I am optmistic because there has been movement forward. Shows like ''Alice'' (CBS) and even ''Remington Steele'' (NBC) are featuring women in unusual roles. We have always been in favor of showing women in a wide range of positions, not merely in top-level jobs. I think that ''Fame'' does the best job of showing all kinds of people in normal jobs. What is most encouraging to me is that the creative community - the writers, producers, and directors - is now working with us.''
According to Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, ''There has been improvement, but not nearly enough. Jobs for blacks are opening up a bit on soap operas, but there are still not enough roles in nighttime dramas. It is very important that more black people get jobs both in front of and behind the cameras, not only because there is a need for employment but because America needs to see blacks as they are, taking part in all levels of American life.''
Mr. Avalos, the star of ''Condo,'' says the apparent early success of that show (it is still in an uncertain ratings position) has influenced the networks to put into development four or five new shows with Latin families, some of which we may see on the air next season. More than anything else, this accentuates the most widely accepted theory about the portrayal of minorities on American television: The networks are not really prejudiced against any ethnic groups, they are simply partial to making money. Treatment of Jews
The portrayal of Jews in American television is probably handled with less distortion than is that of other minorities. Although many series use Yiddishisms in their dialogue, it is probably because so many Yiddishisms have entered the English language.
Usually in series TV, a Jew is identifiable only by his name. But the Tony Randall role in NBC's ''Love, Sidney'' is a definite Jewish identity. The Jewish mother is still a standard type - but more and more television is portraying her as not necessarily Jewish.
Shylock in Shakespeare's ''The Merchant of Venice'' and Fagin in Dickens's ''Oliver Twist'' are two Jewish characters that traditionally evoke protests in the Jewish community. In the past year, however, both roles have been played in revivals on American TV to a minimal amount of objection. In part, that was because the Jewishness of the characters was deemphasized.
Some Jewish organizations are hoping that the $10 million, 10-part PBS series ''Heritage: Civilization and the Jews'' (now in production by WNET, New York, and scheduled to air in the fall of 1984) will do for Jews what ''Roots'' did for blacks in establishing a prideful identity. The series host, Abba Eban, told me recently that he feels that too often Jews are portrayed as victims, losers, martyrs. And to a recent press meeting he said he hopes the series will make it clear that throughout history Jews have also stood up and fought for what they believed.
''This is a project of major significance to the Jewish people,'' he said. ''It is the first time the Jewish story will be told on television in its full scope.'' Gloria Steinem comments
The picture of women on American TV is an especially sore point for Gloria Steinem, an editor and cofounder of Ms. Magazine. She agreed that there has been a certain amount of ''emancipation'' of women on series TV, but ''the truth is that women on news shows, whether black or white, must be substantially younger than their male counterparts. How will we ever get female Walter Cronkites? Women are deprived of the chance for authority and experience because they are let go at the very point at which they have gained some experience.''
Miss Steinem points out that there are still four times as many men on commercial TV as there are women. And although she agrees that the role of women in TV commercials has improved to some degree, she asks the question: ''When will the wife in the ring-around-the-collar ads turn around and ask her husband why he doesn't wash his neck . . . or at least wash his own shirt?''
She chooses ''Fame'' as the Number One show in its portrayal of women and minorities, with ''Hill Street Blues'' running second best. And she believes that the observation that the bottom line is always the profit motive is not really valid. ''I wish it were true because there would then be a lot better shows. For instance, before 'Roots' there was general agreement that a show about black people couldn't make money. . . .''
Does that mean Gloria Steinem believes it is prejudice rather than money-grubbing which motivates some of the discriminatory practices on TV?
''Yes,'' she responds. ''If we could just get people to function on a profit motive we'd be far ahead. At least there would be some sound rationale rather than blind prejudice.
''Summing up, Miss Steinem points out that ''there have been great strides forward, but the fact is that the shows in which women are portrayed as independent human beings are frequently shows in which women are punished in some way. Surveys have shown that more than 80 percent of the victims of violence on entertainment TV are female. And frequently they are independent females.''
Does Ms. Steinem believe that the men who write those scripts are consciously punishing independent women?
She laughs. ''I would be very depressed if I felt they were doing it consciously, so I like to think it is unconscious.'' Fighting racism
Concrete suggestions to fight television racism are included in a new handbook, ''Fighting TV Stereotypes'' ($3.50, ACT, 46 Austin Street, Newtonville , Mass. 02160), just published by Action for Children's Television.
The pamphlet reports on a 1982 National Institute of Mental Health survey, ''Television and Behavior,'' which reviewed a decade of research on television. Says the pamphlet: ''A 1981 study by Brigham Young University researchers showed that the proportional representation of minorities in TV comedies and dramas has actually declined over the last decade. Yet minorities are the fastest-growing segment of the US population. Why are so many of them all but invisible on TV?''
It should be noted, however, that none of the research includes the apparently improved situation in the 1982-83 TV seasons.
Here are some of the suggestions the pamphlet offers:
* Watch TV with your children and talk about the role models and stereotypes TV provides.
* React to what you and your children see on screen. Call, visit, write to station managers, producers, writers, advertisers to applaud, criticize, suggest new ideas.
* Encourage the financing of minority ownership of broadcast, cable, and other TV technology.
* Support policies at local, state, and national levels which ensure fair representation for minorities.
* Be more involved with cable in the community. Get in on the negotiations to make certain that programs reflect local ethnic flavor and minority group concerns.