As the year draws to a close, I find myself looking back on how things have changed and how they haven’t.
More and more I think that we’re making small steps forward, but I see TV at a crossroads now. Sooner, rather than later, they’re going to need to step up and decide if they want to be real or if they want to hide.
TV Is White
It is. It just is. Look at daytime telly, look at evening dramas, look at the comedies. If I were to ask someone on the street to name a network TV show that starred Latinx actors, I would probably hear Jane the Virgin. Most people would leave out The Flash, even though Cisco is Latinx. Black representation is somewhat better, but when you look at the 2017-18 season only, Variety indicated it was mostly white and male:
Variety identified 46 lead and co-lead actor roles, and 42 showrunners and co-showrunners on the 39 new series ordered by the Big Five broadcasters for next season. Of the lead actors, only 20% were Hispanic or non-white, and only 35% were female. Of the showrunners, 10% were non-white or Hispanic and 29% were female.
To put it mildly, that isn’t very heartening.
TV is Male
Looking at CBS, they’ve had a rough year. First their current flagship show, Hawaii Five-0, lost their three main non-white leads. One moved on in a planned way, but two left over the summer in a bit of confusion – they left because they weren’t being paid fairly, they felt. The new dramas meanwhile were Seal Team (staring a white man), S.W.A.T. (starring a man of color), and Wisdom of the Crowd (staring a white man). The new comedies? Young Sheldon (white boy), 9JKL (white man), Me, Myself & I (white man).
Do you see a theme? I recently pulled Wisdom off my DVR due to the allegations against Jeremy Piven, but I was thinking about how the show starred three white people as ‘geniuses’ and two cops-of-color. It struck me as telling that they drew a line between ‘smart’ work being white, and ‘street’ working being brown. Of course, there are two men of color on the genius side. One was a criminal and the other is a Don King-esque money guy.
Diversity is Intersectional
The reality of this is that the world is a lot more diverse than TV would make it seem. I live in Orange County California, and if you ever saw The O.C., you’d think it little more than a bastion of wealthy white people. I went on a stair climbing challenge with a bunch of people from the neighborhood on Thanksgiving, and the majority were not white. They were not rich. They weren’t even male.
When we talk about having diverse representation on television, we’re not talking about just seeing more women, or just seeing more people of color. We’re talking about seeing all of them, together, in the myriad ways we see them in the rest of the world. We’re talking about proud muslim lesbians like Adena, and feminist Cuban-Americans like Elena, and even struggling Southerners like Tig. We want to see hacktivist transgender lesbians like Nomi and genderqueer fusions like Stevonnie.
But we want to see them all. All colors, all religions, all beliefs. We don’t want to just see criminals and killers or worse, dead. We want to see the world we live in, where we are all included and represented, so we stop being ‘weird’ and ‘abnormal.’
Because in the end, the only way to stop being see as aberrations is for people to realize that they’ve seen us, all of all, all along.
We Must Do Better
Back in 2016, LGBT Fans Deserve Better attempted to push the “Lexa Pledge” and asked writers and show runners to pledge to do better, to not just kill of queer characters needlessly.
Only 16 people signed it.
A number of creatives felt it would stifle their work. Others became afraid that networks would use this as an excuse to write in fewer queer characters. Some just disagreed with the premise, arguing it would be like asking them to kill fewer people of color.
It’s become clear that we can’t just say ‘stop killing people on TV!’ any more than we’ve been able to say ‘stop showing assault!’ A pledge to just do better in one aspect of our lives does less than one to say that writers, show runners, producers, and networks should all tell better stories. Do we need multiple TV shows about superheroes saving the world? Do we need seven different Law & Order type procedurals? Do they all need to tell the same story?
No. They don’t.
Write The World’s Stories
When we’re learning to write, we often hear ‘write what you know.’ As we grow, we learn to write not just what we know, but what we want. It’s time to start that. Right what we know, that the world is complicated and messy and convoluted, but it’s diverse. It’s wild and irregular, and it’s beautiful. But also write what we want to see in the world.
That was the beauty, to me, of Sense8. We saw the diverse world, how groups of people crossed into each other, and how we all impact each other. How we become better versions of ourselves, the more we see.
TV has the magical ability to bring those groups into our home. And they will be welcomed, because we will see exactly how much those ‘different’ groups are just like the ones we’re familiar with. TV shouldn’t stifle itself by telling the same stories, over and over again, in the same ways. TV should be daring. It should risk. And it should tell is the diverse stories of the world.