I read a post today that got me thinking about the subject...here [livejournal.com profile] jarodrossell refers to a conversation he was having about archetypes. Specifically, characters that can redefine archetypes. The context of the original conversation is regarding African American nerd characters, of whom there aren't that many. The one everyone usually points to is Urkel, and he was on TV in the 90s. [livejournal.com profile] jarodrussell points out Alec Hardison from Leverage as an example, but since Hardison is a supporting character and a member of an ensemble, he doesn't have the power to redefine an archetype like a lead.

Which got me thinking about supporting characters in general and how they often outshine the lead--which should not be taken as an argument for white leads because leads have their own power. There's a reason why able-bodied white guys like to be both leads and supporting characters. They have their pick and that's the goal for everyone.

But my immediately response to the idea--not the one related to race (though I would also add to that list: Stevie Kanarben from Malcolm in the Middle and David Barnes from Wishbone), but the one about supporting characters--is that exactly the opposite is true. Supporting characters, team members, sidekicks, often have more of a chance of becoming a type.

Really obvious example: Arthur Fonzerelli. Originally Fonzie was a minor character and the main relationship of the show was between Ritchie and his more worldly but still dumb pal Potsie. Then Fonzie took off, and in a surprisingly wise move, the show did not try to spin him off into his own show. The Ritchie/Fonzie relationship became central, with Ritchie as the lead. Fonzie was the breakout character, he redefined the archetype of the 50s hood, but he was the supporting character. In a way he had to be a supporting character to do that, because the more nuanced you are, the further you get from a type.

Using Leverage as an example, I think it's far more common to have people refer to Parker or Hardison when referencing a type or an ideal than it is for them to refer to Nate. The two Harry Potter characters I've heard referred to in unrelated media when describing a type most often are Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy. If someone's compared to Harry himself it's usually more about looks or role than personality. You say "she's Hermione Granger in space" or "he's Draco Malfoy on the Upper East Side" and people get the personality type. (What's funny is that I've seen the Draco Malfoy description used in what fandom would consider the fanon sense as well, implying that it's an almost logical imaginative step from the canon character.)

Obviously this is a whole different can of worms when you bring race into it, because then you're more likely to have people liking the type and then projecting it on real people, expecting them to perform comforting stereotypes for their pleasure. And those types often become popular by appealing to the dominant group and so offer little inspiration to the minorities in question. Plus with less representation overall there's less room to explore what a type might really mean. (Look, for instance, at the different levels of exploration of the white outlaw vs. the black outlaw.) The nerd stereotype is still seen as a white or Asian one.

I don't think the power of supporting characters are limited to comedies where broader=funnier either. Sam Gamgee, Dana Scully, Mercutio, Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Nellie Olson...Castiel anyone? There's a lot of power in the supporting character. Use them wisely!

From: [identity profile] wneleh.livejournal.com

Probably not real useful for you, but here are some nerds of color:

Oliver Wendell Jones (Bloom County comic strip)
Taylor McKessie (High School Musical movies)
Wade Load (Kim Possible)
Tru Jackson (Tru Jackson, VP - she's a nerdy!cool teen operating in an adult world)

ext_6866: (And a magpie in a plum tree)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

Excellent--I totally didn't know those because I don't know the sources well enough.

From: [identity profile] wneleh.livejournal.com

I mostly watch TV aimed at preteen girls... which is a lot more diverse than adult TV, thank you Nick and Disney!

From: [identity profile] montavilla.livejournal.com

I think that TV aimed at younger viewers has an extra consciousness because there's still an educational aspect to it. We want to keep kids from developing the stereotypes that permeate popular culture.

So, there's a conscious effort to break stereotypes. To show black nerds, Asian princesses, and middle-class Latinos. To have girls be more active and assertive, and boys more caring and sensitive.

Once you get into adult popular culture, you're more likely to have the token black woman cop (filling TWO diversity slots!) in a largely all-white cast.

I was just watching Tina Fey's acceptance speech for the Mark Twain Award for American Humor. She mentioned that she was the third woman to receive the award -- and how she can't wait until we stop having to count things like how many women have won this award or that award. She also mentioned that she was hired as head writer on SNL as a deliberate attempt to create more diversity on the show. Which it did. I count her years as a shining example of when SNL actually wrote decent sketches for their female actors.

From: [identity profile] seductivedark.livejournal.com

Good Times mentioned the filling two slots with one body thing in an episode where James was looking for a job at a store, I think it was, and took Florida with him. The head of personnel did not know which of the two people in the waiting room was the applicant. He congratulated his underling for picking a black woman for the job since that covered two minorities at once.

From: [identity profile] latxcvi.livejournal.com

I'd also add to this list Burton Guster (played by Dule Hill) on Psych. Like, one of his pick up lines is, "Did you hear about Pluto? That's messed up."

From: [identity profile] ava-jamison.livejournal.com

Good point, and YAY supporting characters. You know, that really was surprisingly smart not to spin-off a show starring Fonzie. Makes me wonder how they resisted the urge to do it.
ext_6866: (Black and white)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

I remember reading an article about it where it said they made that decision really early because the temptation to do it must have been so obvious. It's kind of surprising that they realized where the magic really was instead of wanting to have Fonzie starring in a show with character he didn't work as well with.

It also makes me think of something I read about Frasier years ago and how they struggled to decide what the main relationship there was, because Frasier is a character who works best when reacting against others. They talked about the different possibilities and how thrilled they were when the hit upon Niles. I'm not sure how early on it was that they did it.

From: [identity profile] ava-jamison.livejournal.com

You know the temptation had to be absolutely there, especially when they were so happy to spin off two other shows from it. And that's interesting about figuring out certain main characters works best when reacting, because of course Frasier does. And yeah, Niles gives him somebody to react to/be scandalized by/be upset with. Interesting.

Also meant to say I liked the Stevie mention from Malcolm in the Middle. I really liked that show.

From: [identity profile] montavilla.livejournal.com

You could see that when they started Frasier, that they were thinking the main relationship was going to be Frasier and his crusty, working-class dad. But I think David Hyde Pierce is, like Henry Winkler, one of those actors who become a gift to the writers. Niles is very much of a type, but he managed to imbue the character with so much likeability and pathos that there probably a temptation to spin him off as well.

I'm remembering now that in the earliest episodes of Frasier, Daphne was played as much more out there. For example, when Frasier is interviewing her to become his father's PT, she lets slip that she's menstruating. And it looked that they were going to make her an earthier, more Carla-esque character.

So, it does seem like they were flailing around a bit at the beginning to create relationships that would irritate Frasier. It must have surprising for them to figure out that his best foil was the character who was the most Frasier-one of all.
ext_6866: (100% Ravenclaw)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

Exactly. As they explained it in the article, they figured out different ways to go with each character. If it was Martin then it was the blue collar dad vs. prissy son dynamic, which worked but was kind of cliche. Then they considered Roz, but that would get them back into Sam and Diane "will they or won't they" territory. With Daphne they realized that if it were her they would have to make her a lot crazier so he'd be reacting against her being way out there. They didn't really want to go in those directions for those reasons (Martin/Frasier type thing had been done, they didn't want the sexual tension center and they didn't really like making Daphne too much of a wacko).

Then DHP came in and did a scene where he wiped down his chair before he sat down and they thought...wait, that's it. Niles is even more Frasier than Frasier--he's Frasier if he'd never gone to Boston. And they realized he could play against this more extreme version of himself. And of course then Niles also got his own personality that was unique, but I remember they said it was the scene where he wiped the chair that they saw the possibilities.

From: [identity profile] montavilla.livejournal.com

Oh, how cool! One simple gesture gave birth to eleven years of story ideas!

I was kind of surprised they didn't spin Niles and Daphne off at the end of Frasier. I'm not sure how long that would have lasted, but I would have watched it.

I'm missing DHP. I'd love to see him come make and do a detective show or something. Wouldn't that be fun? He could be a sort of updated Anglicized Hercule Poirot.

From: [identity profile] seductivedark.livejournal.com

Yeah, DHP was fabulous as Niles. I like that the writers were nerdy enough to use the Jung/Freud split there, too, like Little Bro was trying academically (and outside of academia, failing miserably) to break out of Big Bro's shadow. That split was like a horse-shoe post for the two of them to play off.

From: [identity profile] montavilla.livejournal.com

There's a lot of thoughts whizzing around my head at the moment after reading your post.

Thing is, I love supporting characters. I usually love them more than the main characters, maybe because there's more room to explore them in my imagination. But I've always been more into the Professor than Gilligan, more into McCoy or Sulu than Kirk or Spock, more into Artemus Gordon than James West (am I dating myself severely?), okay, more into Alfred than Batman (in the current movie series, waaaaay more into Commissioner Gordon, but that's because it's Gary Oldman and another story...).

Main characters are less "types," but they seem far more restricted in what they can do and therefore less surprising. For example, Harry is pretty much obligated to do the right thing in every circumstance. When he doesn't, we fans give him hell. Take the cheating in HBP, or the Cruciatus in DH. But Draco, being a supporting character, has a lot more leeway to use an unforgiveable, or to get credit for doing something good--even though it goes against his established character.

Hermione gets even more slack -- so much so that she can act completely out of character and people will insist that she's being consistent. For example, she can go around breaking rules right and left, and fans will still insist that her big thing is following rules.

So... veering out into the blue now.... one of the my quirks is that I'm big Gilbert and Sullivan nerd. (The areas of my nerdiest are almost without end.) I'm old enough to have seen a few Pirate of Penzance performances prior to the 1980 Linda Ronstandt production. I actually saw it twice in Central Park that summer. You have to understand that the roles in G&S productions are practically set in stone, because, from the 1870s until the 1960s, the D'Oyly Carte company controlled the copyright and performed almost continuously (they stopped during WWII).

Prior to the 1980 production, the supporting part of the Pirate King was ALWAYS played by a stocky baritone who was costumed to look almost exactly like Captain Hook (minus the hook) in Peter Pan. Kevin Kline's portrayal of the part as if he were Errol Flynn was completely out of the box. So, imagine my surprise when I went to see a high school production of the show in 1990 and the coolest, most talented kid in the show was doing a complete Kevin Kline rip-off. That interpretation of the character is now standard. Such is the power of a single performance to break traditional ways of looking at character.

Speaking of which... and veering off even more. I'm convinced that one reason Barack Obama was able to win the presidency was because for the last ten years or so, it's become de rigor to cast the President as a black man (when it's a supporting part -- when it's a story about the president, then he's still white). I'm also convinced that Gina Davis's show in which she played an ordinary wife and mother thrust into the role of President helped make the idea of Sarah Palin sellable. Such is the power of a supporting character to change real world views of type.



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