Earlier this year, a friend of mine revealed some good news. She was in talks with a reputable network to develop a TV show based on her life. I was ecstatic for her, and ecstatic for girls like her: alternative black 20-somethings trying to make it in New York City.
The concept for my friend’s show was to be irreverent, quirky, and decidedly unlike anything on TV at the moment. It was exciting. Then, a few weeks after sharing the news, my friend called me in the middle of the night, audibly upset. “They love the concept, they want to do it,” she said. “But they want to make my character half-white.”
The powers-that-be were adamant about this change, telling my friend that making the character a mixed girl would make her “more relatable.” Eventually, she relented.
I was absolutely dumbfounded by her story. Surely, in a year where “diversity” has been a buzzword and shows including “Empire” and “Jane the Virgin” have gotten attention and accolades for having non-white leads, it didn’t make sense.
But the incident with my friend is emblematic of the strange conundrum of the entertainment landscape. Now, more than ever, we’re talking about the importance of diversity and representation. But, increasingly, those words are becoming empty place holders while behind-the-scenes, the industry continues to take as many steps back as it does forward.
After all, it’s not as if my friend’s story is an anomaly. “Awkward Black Girl” creator Issa Rae was asked by several TV execs to change the main character of her show to a lighter-skinned, long-haired woman, to “make it as broad as possible.” For her forthcoming HBO show “Insecure,” still in development purgatory, Rae’s push for several black writers to join her writers’ room was denied by the network, who argued they wanted writers with “experience.”
In September, Matt Damon whitesplained diversity to filmmaker Effie Brown, suggesting that diversity is only an issue in front of the screen. But, as movies this year like “Gods of Egypt,” and “47 Ronin” demonstrate, onscreen diversity is directly impacted by how diverse things are behind the scenes. A $140 million fantasy film about Egyptian gods had a lead cast made up of 90 percent white actors, which speaks to a continued lack of awareness on the part of the studio, filmmakers, and casting directors — the majority of whom were white.
In a recent article for The New York Times, Anna Holmes questioned what exactly diversity is supposed to mean. “Is it raw numbers?” she asked. “Is it who is in a position of power to hire and fire and shape external and internal cultures? Is it who isn’t in power, but might be someday?”
The problem of diversity, at least as it relates to entertainment, is that it’s virtually impossible to quantify. In the past year, there’s been a lot of discussion about the progress of diversity in television, with people pointing to shows like “Black-Ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Empire,” and “How to Get Away With Murder” as prime examples of the shift the TV world is taking in presenting shows with dynamic non-white leads.
It’s true, there is a shift — the sheer amount of conversation around the idea alone is a sign that we’re moving forward. But do a handful of shows with POC leads (the majority of them black, and straight) really mean progress?
Of the major network and cable shows on television in the past year, few of them have racially diverse LGBT characters, or disabled characters. And behind-the-scenes, writers rooms are still overwhelmingly white, with people of color making up only five percent of executive producers in the 2014-2015 season.
Sometimes, the discussion surrounding diversity seems like a never-ending, fruitless exercise in complaining. Shouldn’t we just be grateful for the strides we’ve made? In 2015, there were so many incredibly firsts — Viola Davis’s Emmy win and Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” being particular highlights. But there were also numerous low points, especially in the movie world, where John Boyega’s “Star Wars” role reveal was tainted by racist fans, and The Hollywood Reporter’s actress roundtable highlighted the fact that zero people of color garnered any awards buzz this year.
The complaining, then, if you want to call it that, is totally necessary. Hammering home the importance of representation is vital. Representation reflects society and the culture as it truly is. It creates the opportunity for people who don’t usually see themselves represented in complex, interesting ways on television and in movies to connect in more meaningful ways with content. And representation is about forming a bridge of understanding, exposing viewers to stories and experiences they otherwise would never know.
But the myth of representation, a myth that was subtly perpetuated this year, is that the goal of true inclusivity has some finite end. We think diversity means Viola Davis winning an Emmy award, when diversity was better reflected in Davis’ speech, where she listed several black actresses of different ages, in vastly different genres, also putting out amazing work.
What we need to remember about representation in media is that it always calls for more complexity. As a black woman, Viola Davis is incredibly important to me, as are Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union, and Taraji P. Henson. It’s refreshing and gratifying to see them on my TV screen each week. But seeing a few black woman on screen doesn’t necessarily mean that I am seeing “me.” Their characters are not representative of my story — nor should they have to be.
But what does that mean for me, and for other black women like me? It seems, in our frenzied celebration of a handful of popular shows, or the rise of an actress like Lupita Nyong’o in Hollywood, we’re forgetting that he black experience is not monolithic. As we celebrate the handful of shows that are changing how we think about black leads, we’re forgetting that even in breaking barriers we are creating new ones. I relate to Abbi and Ilana on “Broad City” far more than I do to Mary Jane Paul on “Being Mary Jane.” But other than a few stellar web series, there are currently no shows about the black, 20-something experience. Where is that show for me?
If 2015 was about celebrating the strides that we have made, 2016 should be about taking a step backward and fixing a more realistic eye on the entertainment landscape. We need to ask questions. Why is television more diverse than film? Who are the people in charge? And why, in this day and age, does a television executive still believe that a character will be more “relatable” if she is half-white?