Shondaland: A Fantasy of Interracial Coupling

In Kumiko Nemoto’s article, Interracial Romance: The Logic of Acceptance and Domination, we learn how the idea of racial mixing represents an ideal of integration while it denotes whiteness as a sign of normalcy. In fact, 92 percent of all interracial relationships include White partners, and this statistic is reflected in popular culture through hypersexualized racial images that reinforce the theme of White normalcy and the exoticization of people of color.

The article poses the idea that interracial relationships in American society (especially when shown on television) give the false impression that race is no longer an issue for us; but crossing the color line does not equate to progressiveness, instead, in many cases, it illustrates larger issues of domination.

“Dominant racial and gendered ideologies [traditional racial and gender arrangements] embedded in images and discourses of interracial relationships make certain couples more socially acceptable than others.” Or that is to say, relationships that do not subvert our traditional norms of marriage and the family enough to make us uncomfortable, are usually more permissible than others.

Nemoto discusses how racialized desires and gender dynamics play a large role in the relations between couples with an Asian and White partner. According to Nemoto’s study, White men often view Asian American women as ideal partners because of the stereotypes that proceeded them–ideas of hyperfemininity and docility. Differently, stereotypes of Asian men being de-sexed or feminized (as we read about in Sexualizing Male Asian Bodies) were prevalent opinions of Asian American women and contributed to their desiring of White men who they perceived to be more masculine, protective bread-winners. White privilege and the naturalization of White male dominance is understood to be an underlying factor with these perceptions.

It’s important to note how the acceptance of Asian women (and men) and their White partners is more commonplace than that of their Black counterparts–paralleling society’s trend of treating Asians as “White” in many frameworks. In this way, race as a social construct does not play too big of a role in Asian and White interracial relationships, but instead, gender roles, stereotypes, expectations, and privilege, do.

An underlying presumption within Nemoto’s entire piece is that of heterosexuality. As discussed in Theoretical Perspectives by Steven Seidman, our society is organized under the general belief that there is a natural gender order around the norm of heterosexuality–compulsory heterosexuality. Compulsory, or compulsive, heterosexuality is the naturalized acceptance and presumption of heterosexuality as the standard to which our society functions. Nemoto’s article reinforced this concept as she didn’t even address the complicated nature of homosexual, interracial couples.

Interestingly enough, though, Shonda Rhimes, an executive producer and creator of the television series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and executive producer of How to Get Away With Murder addresses the issue of interracial relationships (both hetero- and homosexual) within each of her shows.

All three series have at least one interracial couple. It could be inferred that not only the inclusion of interracial couples, but the central focus on one in particular (Scandal‘s Olivia Pope and her lover, President Fitzgerald Grant II), acts as proof of a more positive, progressive, post-racial society. Unfortunately, many of Rhimes’ interracial couples end up reinforcing dominant ideals, [racial and gender] stereotypes and also, as Nemoto argues, are doomed to fail.

Not to mention, Rhimes’ interracial couples often demonstrate White male heroism and exoticism (or even hypersexuality) of people of color. Grey’s Anatomy, now in its 11th season, has seldom included long-term interracial couples with non-White partners, the only notable one being the relationship between Dr. Preston Burke and Dr. Christina Wang, a Black man and a Korean woman. That is to say, most of the interracial couples Rhimes features include White partners, paralleling that 92 percent statistic we learned about earlier.

In regards to Scandal‘s relationship between Olivia and Fitz, we can see major (seemingly historic) stereotypes play out: a White man in power having an affair, with a Black woman for his mistress (the Black woman as over-sexualized, promiscuous and the White man as domineering, powerful). Some viewers have noted how most of the heterosexual relationships in Rhimes’ shows are similar to the storyline between Olivia and Fitz. The men are depicted as brilliant, tragic heroes that viewers, like the men’s lovers/girlfriends, are supposed to forgive despite their being neglectful, manipulative, or even violent and controlling cheaters. Think Owen in Grey’s, Fitz in Scandal, Mr. Keating in How to Get Away With Murder. 

Now, I am a fan of all three shows (although I can’t really stand Olivia Pope) and I also know there are exceptions within the shows (like Avery and Kepner in Grey’s). But, as a product of an interracial relationship, I sometimes find it challenging to understand how so many of Rhimes’ relationships function with little to no discussion about race. In Nemoto’s article, she points out how pop culture often represents interracial relationships as “race-less” in white-dominated settings–meaning that race is seemingly a perceived, non-impactful physical difference. I know that the idea of race matters, especially in a society like ours, yet Rhimes’ shows (and others like hers) act as if race is not a topic that need be discussed.

What is it about Shonda Rhimes and interracial coupling? Are our favorite Shondaland couples really any different from each other? I celebrate the depiction of interracial couples on mainstream television, but I can’t help but question the motives, the reality, and the underlying implications.

 

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