Interracial Couples More Common in Media

Multi-ethnic couples appear frequently on TV and in other media genres — but do those Hollywood-based relationships mirror the real life challenges that interracial couples sometimes face? Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, offers his take on the media's representation of mixed-race couples.

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox. Ed Gordon is on vacation. Chances are you've seen at least one interracial relationship featured on your favorite television show. The popular ABC medical series "Grey's Anatomy," for example, spotlights the love affair between an Asian woman, played by Sandra Oh, and a black man, played by Isaiah Washington. The UPN sitcom "Girlfriends" explores the rocky marriage of a Baptist black woman and a Jewish white guy. And then there are films that tackle mixed relationships like the upcoming romantic comedy "Something New," starring Sanaa Lathan. She stars as a professional African-American woman who falls in love with a white landscaper. And, of course, there are others.

So how far has Hollywood come in its portrayal of multicultural relationships? Todd Boyd has a few thoughts about that. He is professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. He joins us now by phone from Los Angeles.

Dr. Boyd, nice to have you on.

Dr. TODD BOYD (University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television): Thanks for having me.

COX: So what is your take on these mixed love affairs that we see on television? And how do they compare to, let's say, a decade ago?

Dr. BOYD: You know, there's a long history, of course, of Hollywood not representing, you know, interracial relationships at all. Of course, you know, interracial relationships for a long time in America were one of the biggest taboos, if not the biggest. You know, if you saw it represented in a film or television show in the past, in a lot of cases, it was about the conflict--you know, I'm thinking about something awhile ago, like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which sort of sets the standard for this. It's been something that I think people have been uncomfortable with for a long time. It's only now, and still quite slowly, I would say, starting to change somewhat, but if you think about the society we live in, the way things are represented--hopefully people are becoming more progressive and evolved--perhaps this is why we're seeing a difference in these representations in film and on television.

COX: Is this art imitating life or is it the--and I hate to sound so cynical about it--but is it an attempt by the producers of network television and others to just push the marketing envelope?

Dr. BOYD: At this stage in time, there may be people in our society who are uncomfortable with interracial relationships, but honestly, you know, there are far more controversial issues that are higher on the list now than, you know, that particular issue. So I'm not even sure if I think of it as pushing the envelope. You know, if we were in the '80s, if we were in the '70s, before that, that's another story. But in 2005, and it's about to be 2006, to talk about something like this as pushing the envelope, I think, is really inconsistent with the society we live in. I think it's really an issue of people being more open-minded and perhaps more progressive and willing to represent things in ways different than they've done in the past.

COX: Well, to your point, Dr. Boyd, then it would seem that that would explain in part why some of these stories involving these mixed racial relationships don't tend to center around the color of the people who are in the relationships but other issues that have nothing to do with race.

Dr. BOYD: You know, race is one factor that, you know, often defines people's identity, but it's only one factor. There are other factors at work--class and age, location, sexuality. I mean, you know, I think people are much more expansive and they think more dynamically in terms of their overall identity now, and race is a part of that in some cases, maybe a big part, but it's not the only part. And so to that extent, to move away from the interracial relationship as a moment of crisis to simply another relationship and people are represented as, you know, living in the world and dealing with day-to-day issues is, I think, more consistent with the way that people exist in society today.

COX: Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television.

Dr. Boyd, thank you very much. Very enlightening.

Dr. BOYD: Thank you.

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