Homogeneity is boring.
In honor of Women’s History Month, #blackout, and the never-ending excellence that is Mindy Kaling’s TV show (season 4 please!), I wanted to explore not only the lack of diversity in traditional media forms, but also brainstorm a few ways to fix it. Right now, I am an avid television watcher, so we’re going to start there.
In the last 10 years or so, television has really found its high ground. The quality, depth, and artistry of shows has increased exponentially, and seems to have a much larger audience than film. Right now, I think television has eclipsed film in terms of the complexity and resonance of the stories it can tell.1 It hasn’t reached the same prestige as film yet, but as anyone who complained about Oscars snubs for the last three years would tell you, that has absolutely nothing to do with quality.
Much of this increase in quality can be tied to advances in technology, such as DVDs, that allowed fans of TV shows to go back and watch entire seasons of show in sequence at their own leisure. Shows that built worlds and characters dynamically over their runs were (and are) much more likely to attract this kind of fanbase. Television was suddenly dependent on continuity- a consistency in the small and big details that make up a fictional world throughout multiple stories. Episodes were no longer independent from one another. Stories were built to last over the course of an entire season.
Most of today’s best shows have two levels of story operating simultaneously. The first level, is the basic story arc for each episode: beginning, middle, end. This level has been present in every show since television became a storytelling medium. Even some reality TV shows or instructional shows use variants of this form: introduce challenge or task, tackle challenge or task, and then reveal the results of the struggle. TV on an episodic level is no different from the way human beings have told stories forever.
The second level is one unique to serialized storytelling: the development of plot or characters over the course of a season or series. Events or even full episodes form the framework for a story arc, which unlike stories told on the episodic level, do not have to flow continuously together. A key example is the Ying-Yang trio of episodes from the USA Network show Psych. Each of these episodes form a complete story alone: someone is murdered, the murderer leaves clues, the police investigate the clues, the murderer seems to have the upper hand, justice prevails. However, when examined together, these three episodes form another story arc: Shawn’s growth as a human being. Shawn starts and ends a relationship, while further confirming that he truly values his best friend.
Television shows give enough space to allow characters to grow in complex and organic ways. It also can explore more characters than many other mediums. This presents a massive opportunity for representations of people uncommon in mainstream media. There are so many characters to cast, and so much time to develop them. Shows like New Girl, Community, The Mindy Project, Jane the Virgin, and the lovely Shonda Rhimes lineup are already taking advantage of the part of the human population that isn’t a white male (so, the rest of the population). But the most popular (and overdone) genre shows are not. The biggest offenders, in my opinion, are crime procedurals and sci-fi/fantasies, who have so little excuse for using a majority white cast that the long term lack of diversity on these shows is frustrating (Hello, NCIS, CSI, Criminal Minds, Once Upon a Time, and American Horror Story).
Moreover, many people believe that we won’t get true diversity until the race of an actor has absolutely nothing to do with their character. These people are of the opinion that racial identity bogs stories down (e.g., this review of 2014 from The A.V. Club). This is the biggest BS I have ever heard. The whole point of increasing diversity in media is to expand the stories and characters it can tell. Taking race out of a character’s identity is only relevant in some fantasy worlds where it has no effect on where that character comes from. Additionally, gender, age, orientation, and the bit that often gets left off: where a character is from, all enrich characters and stories. Here, I’m laying out a challenge to television writers and producers:
USE ALL OF THE PARTS OF THE BUFFALO. And by buffalo, I mean the incredibly diverse and beautiful country in which we live. All ages, races, genders, orientations, places of origin, etc.
In my next few blog posts, I’ll look at how writers use race when they’re feeling lazy, and how the various genres could use diversity to improve themselves immensely. Stay tuned!
P.S. Here’s a link to a study on diversity representation in Hollywood, for those who are interested.