The New Year always brings with it a crop of fresh resolutions. "I'm going to lose weight." "I'm going to put back for a rainy day." "I'm going to spend more time on charitable causes." "I'm going to stop getting stark, raving mad about soap operas."
Not even a full week into 2012, and I've already broken one resolution by getting so angry at a television show I literally felt my blood boil. The maddening soap in question was CBS Daytime's The Young and the Restless, which on Thursday's air show had Harmony, a black female character played by soap legend Debbi Morgan,refer to her white female boss as "Miss Phyllis."
During the head-scratching scene, Ricky Williams asked Harmony about a job at Restless Style, the magazine the recovering drug addict was recently hired to work for. Harmony replied that the person Ricky needed to talk to was "Miss Phyllis, Phyllis Newman." I was so stunned I had to rewind it twice. I was fairly certain I hadn't set my DVR to tape a Hattie McDaniel movie from the 40's, nor an oft-recycled, racially-charged period piece like The Help or The Secret Life of The Bees. No, I was in fact watching a daytime soap opera set in 2012.
To say I became incensed on Twitter is quite the understatement, and to be quite honest, I regret that, because really, what's the point? For years we've been pointing out the passive-aggressive racism this show has exacted on its audience and stars, only to receive eyerolls from those who don't get it, or a myriad of excuses cloaking the sins of The Powers That Be.
I was too young (and there was no Twitter) to get fired up when the late Bill Bell named the Abbott's black maid Mamie; had a brother going around in white face and/or introduced Nathan Hastings as an illiterate thug called "Kong." Even at 13-years-old watching the soap in 1990, I questioned Drucilla not being able to read, when her sister grew up in the same African-American, middle class home—and managed to become a sorority sister and doctor— yet I was too caught up in Victoria Rowell's electrifying performance to focus on the negative aspects of the character.
To Bell's credit, he ended up telling popular, separate-but-equal stories for his black characters in the 90's. The writers who followed him continued that trend right up through the much lamented Lynn Marie Latham stint. Sure, the infamous LML may have destroyed the Abbotts and stripped Y&R of its glamour, but Dru and Neil (Kristoff St. John) at least had front burner stories that were equally as bad as Genoa City's white citizens during her tenure. From the moment Bill Belll's daughter-in-law Maria Arena Bell took over, however, all of that changed.
Even as we were praising MAB for restoring the Abbotts and Newmans, she did nothing for the Winters clan. After months of pressure, she finally scripted a half-baked story where Devon's (Bryton James) aunt Tyra (Eva Marcille) showed up in town with his gospel singng kid sister in tow. When a love story between Tyra and Neil failed to click with audiences, MAB revealed Tyra wasn't in fact Devon's relative and had the pair promptly screw before the character was ushered out of town.
Since that time, the black characters have been relegated to a hot plate behind the back burner, with only a botched triangle between Neil, a woefully recast Malcolm (Darius McCrary) and the monotone Sophia (Julia Pace Mitchell) to pass for diversity. Sure, it can be said that other characters like Michael Baldwin (Christian Le Blanc), Lauren Fenmore (Tracey Bregman) and Paul Williams (Doug Davidson) have been shown equal disdain by the current regime, but I don't recall any of those stars admitting they were punished for speaking out with a lack of airtime, like St. John revealed he was on Jamie Foxx's radio show.
If you ask anyone in the industry, you'll hear what a swell gal Maria Arena Bell is. "She isn't a racist," people insist. Maybe not, but she is a sadly out-of-touch, Beverly Hills socialite passing for writer. A true writer is curious about the human condition. Agnes Nixon didn't have to be black woman to write amazing tales for characters of color on Guiding Light, One Life to Live and later All My Children, where she created the iconic characters of Jesse and Angie, in creative conjunction with new Y&R hires Darnell Williams and Morgan. Nixon masterfully interwove tales featuring ALL the people on her canvases, despite their respective races. I keep hearing what a big fan of All My Children MAB was in the 80's. Did she fast-forward all of that?
Nixon has said on numerous occasions in the press she wanted to combat the racial injustices she saw in society via her writing, which is why I will defend her legacy of diversity to the time I stop writing for this blog. Maria Arena Bell on the other hand, doesn't write from a place of curiousity about those who are different from her. She writes as an afterthought to her latest big casting get.
This woman appears to love having the power of being Y&R's Executive Producer/Head Writer/Chief Craft Services Menu Decider, but she doesn't appear to want to be bothered with actually having to have passion for the job, or for storytelling. Her pisspoor treatment of black characters on this show is but one example of that.
Sure, it might not have been MAB who wrote that line for Morgan's character. She's a head writer, not a script writer, and as some have pointed out, it could have been ad-libbed by the actor. However, it was MAB who decided to bring on a daytime legend to play an ebonics-spouting crackwhore. It also was MAB who reportedly insisted on having autonomy in her contract. So in my opinion, the buck stops with her. Does she not watch the footage before it airs? Is she too busy at MOCA?
I must also ask why Morgan agreed to utter such a line? This isn't taking away any of the tremendous respect I have for this phenomenal actress, but again, unless she was starring in a period piece about "colored" maids in the 1960's, there is no way in high hell she should have agreed to refer to a white woman with a "Miss" in front of her first name in The Year of Our Lord 2012. It just ain't fittin'. Watch the offensive exhange below at the 10:00 mark.