On Screen Diversity Isn’t Our Only Problem

by Rayiah Ross

TV shows like Jane the Virgin, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Black-ish, Empire, and all of Shonda Rhimes’ works, feature primarily Latino, Asian, and AfricanAmerican casts. Other shows like Quantico and Queer Eye, have great representation for both the Native American and LGBTQ+ community. These great shows and many others are thriving in the on screen diversity department, yet so many are failing to include diversity in the writing room.

A Writers’ Guild of America report released that staff employment for people of color actually decreased between 2011 and 2014, from a peak of 15.6% to 13.7%. The number of executive producers of color also decreased in those seasons, from 7.8% to 5.5%.

Stefani Robinson, a writer for the TV show Atlanta, said in an article written for The Guardian, “I’ve seen the impact of a diverse writing room. It’s a shame the rest of the industry doesn’t seem to have the desire to change.” Robinson goes on to explain that the reason for a lack of color in television writers- being anyone who’s not white- is that Hollywood is an “intricate machine that traditionally has served and supported an overwhelmingly white demographic. . . Generally speaking, white executives, producers and showrunners are influenced by the operations of their predecessors and their predecessors and so on.”

Often enough, a black comedy writer more often than not gets work on a black show. Not to say that black writers can’t work on “white” comedies, but they’re pretty rare. Most black comedy writers get their experience and credits on black shows while also being more likely to hire a cast of color.

Race In The Writers Room reported that the executives running television platforms today—both traditional networks and emerging streaming sites—are not hiring black showrunners, which results in excluding or isolating black writers in writers’ rooms and in the creative process. Over 90% of showrunners are white, two-thirds of shows had no black writers at all, and another 17% of shows had just one black writer. The ultimate result of this exclusion is the widespread reliance on black stereotypes to drive black character portrayals, where black characters even exist at all—at best, “cardboard” characters, at worst, unfair, inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals. Because of the non inclusive writers room, you get many tropes including things like “the black best friend,” “the funny-accented foreigner,” “the asexual Asian male,” and “the wise-cracking help.”

The “black best friend” character has a role to either revolve almost entirely around a white character or serve as a conscious effort for a white character/writer to appear inclusive.

The “old Funny Foreigner” jokes tend to be stereotypes about a particular country by making up a country, choosing a real country almost at random, and ignoring any actual facts about it. The character is just a  “generic Latino” or “generic Slav.” Playing up their ethnicity because they can get away with it.

Typically when Asian males are featured on television, they are portrayed as either too highly emasculated to be seriously considered as a romantic interest, or just completely asexual. Raj from The Big Bang Theory takes constant jams from the other characters and finds himself unable to talk to Penny because she is a girl.

The “wise-cracking help” is any butler, maid, slave, or servant who is heavily sarcastic to their master and/or their master’s guests and yet still manages to keep their job is this trope. Other characters of color generally existing only to support and advance the development of white characters.

A study, published this year by USC, found that representation in Hollywood is just as bad now as it was a decade ago. Meanwhile, a report by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), published this past summer, found that movies with a diverse cast performed extremely well at the box office. To be specific, non-white Americans scooped up 49 percent of all tickets sold in the U.S. last year, even though they make up a smaller percentage of the U.S. population ― somewhere around 38 percent. The audience side of things tells a similar story. Films that had what the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) called a “truly diverse” audience ― meaning the audience was between 38 percent and 70 percent non-white ― pulled in around $31 million on opening weekend on average, versus $12 million for overwhelmingly white films.

Speaking with Sopan Deb for a TimesTalks conversation, Stephen Colbert was asked about the overall lack of diversity in the writers rooms of comedy programs. Colbert replied that he had been “frustrated” by a seeming inability to find diverse talents for his previous show, until he realized that “the usual process” wouldn’t help him get an “unusual room.” He told the New York Times, “It wasn’t until we said, no please, don’t send us anyone but women. Because we would say, you know it’s very important, we want writers of color, we want women, and you would get 150 packets and there would be eight women. And we’re like, ‘God, that’s so frustrating.’ Until I said no, only women, and then I got 87 women.”

Writers of color exist. They’re alive and flourishing in what seems to be a very undisclosed and concealed way. What writers of color need, are opportunities for to not only break in, but stick around. They deserve the opportunity to be heard.

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