Six Questions To Ask About A Story: #2

As I watched CAMP ROCK, Disney Channel's smash hit made-for-television movie, I found myself asking Question Number Two in my on-going series of six questions. (Note to first time Fire Escape visitors: these relate to stuff I notice about a story, whether it comes via screen or in print, because of the strange between-cultures lenses I can't seem to take off.)

Question Two: Is ethnicity used to cue either a “good” or “bad” character trait?

Today's storytellers are spearheading a strange stage in the history of American culture. It strikes me as a correction to the historical overlooking of non-white people in books and movies. What's happening now is that if you're lazy with story, you'll use race, ethnicity, or class to inform a young audience how to feel about your characters. We're trying to train a whole generation to equate WHITE/RICH with BAD, and BROWN/BLACK/POOR with good -- although I'm not sure they're buying it. The problem is that as a storytelling mechanism, this new trick is as simple and stupid as the old one.

In CAMP ROCK, one can feel the careful casting and the intentionality of each actor's race. The villain is blonde (Meaghan Jette Martin) and the hero Latina (Demi Lovato). The antagonist's allies are an African-American girl who chooses emancipation to win the singing contest (Jasmine Richards) and a mixed-race ditzy chick (Anna Maria Perez de Tagle) who also ends up renouncing oppression and stepping out on her own.

Oh, quit whining, you might be thinking, at least they're including heroes who aren't white. That's good, right?

Yes, I'm glad Disney's come a long way from the days of African-American voices cast as human-wannabe monkeys or jobless crows. And peering over my between-cultures bifocals, CAMP ROCK was lively, good-hearted, and entertaining.

Still, I don't like it when storytellers are lazy. The filmmakers give us nothing related to character when it comes to rooting for the hero, Mitchie Torres. She starts her journey without any hint of inner strength and depth, or even of being mixed-up -- all we know before she's in the middle of her self-induced conflict is that (a) she's musical, (b) her family doesn't have money to send her to camp, and (c) that she's Latina thanks to her last name.

Is that enough to get us to root for her? Apparently so, according to Disney and many other storytellers -- including some of us in the book world.