When TV Gets Diversity Right
It’s no secret that the entertainment and media industry has an issue with diversity and representation. TV shows and films alike are continuously criticised for the fact that often, they don’t truly showcase the various forms in which people exist, whether that be in terms of race, size, sexuality, religion or walks of life. Whilst diverse casting on screen has somewhat increased with initiatives being introduced and efforts being made, in many cases it can seem very much like a tick box exercise that production companies and broadcasters want to check in order to come across as inclusive. A new show can have a person of an underrepresented group in society in the main cast, but if that character is just there to serve as a caricature of that specific representation, or to further corroborate stereotypes, it’s not all that progressive now is it? It’s easy to be critical and to always point out the negatives, and while the world of entertainment still has a long way to go in representing all marginalised groups on screen, there are still a few TV series that are going beyond the checklists and getting the meaning of diversity on TV and representation right.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is probably one of those shows you’ve scrolled through on Netflix and not given much thought to. However, this police-comedy series has a great way of portraying diversity on TV, not just in terms of race, but also with regards to sexuality and by flipping the stereotypes cast upon certain groups of people. For starters, the show has two Latino actresses and two African-American actors in addition to the white actors who also make up the main cast, which draws upon the melting-pot society of which the show is depicting. The show is set in New York City, a place known for being very cosmopolitan, so when shows such as Girls and Friends have a predominantly white cast with characters of an ethnic minority only appearing in secondary roles, it can seem a bit unrealistic. But that’s where Brooklyn Nine-Nine has succeeded. Often amongst characters of ethnic minorities, we find that there is less character development, but here we have well-rounded and entertaining characters who do more than serve as props to prove that there is some diversity on the set.
It’s not just explicitly race though that Brooklyn Nine-Nine has mastered. We don’t often see black LGBT characters portrayed, let alone a black man in these roles. Yet, the ensemble cast is rounded up with the character of Captain Holt, who is a black gay man. A stereotypical depiction of gay men on our screens is often portrayed as effeminate and flamboyant, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but Captain Holt is neither of these. Instead, he’s shown as a no-nonsense leader, whose sexuality does not define his character or its development. Just like every other character on the show, he is multi-faceted and being gay is just another part of what makes him who he truly is.
The latest superhero TV series, Black Lightning, also lends a hand at a rightful representation of diversity on TV. We are in an age where we’re finally seeing black superheroes, but even with these depictions, like superheroes in general, we tend to see mainly the male ones. That was until Thunder made her debut in this new superhero drama. Regardless of what your opinion may be on her questionable superhero outfit (it’s no Black Panther!), she’s one of the few female superheroes that have made their way onto our screens, she is also black….oh, and a lesbian. In a time where we are more open and liberal in our acceptance of sexuality all across the spectrum, we still only tend to see the similar representations of gay and lesbian characters on TV. So not only is it empowering for black women to see themselves in a character like Thunder, it’s an extra special moment for women, and particularly black women, of the LGBT community. What’s different about her character is the way in which her sexuality is introduced to the audience. She comes onto the show, openly lesbian; there’s no big reveal or coming-out story that we usually get, and we see that it isn’t an issue of contention between her and her family, and her parents are very loving and accepting of her just as she is.
If you’re looking for another show to get stuck into on Netflix that’s also got diversity handled, On My Block is the one to watch. This diverse cast of Black, Mexican and Afro-Latina have won the hearts of many with their compelling storylines. Often young adult shows are very much whitewashed (think Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl), and even when characters of other races are brought in to prove that showrunners are making an effort to feature a multicultural cast, these characters tend to come across as unrelatable as they blend in with everyone around them. While the teenagers in On My Block are growing up in a less privileged community, battling with gang violence and gunshots ricocheting in their neighbourhood, these obstacles do not define them or their stories. Yes, elements of their surroundings weave themselves into their plot lines, but what so easily could have turned into a series showing the usual tropes of growing up in the “hood”, instead became a coming of age story focusing on first loves, parental expectations and navigating life growing up whilst getting to know oneself. The characters’ social surroundings could have steered the plot into certain narratives about the African-American and Latino community, but On My Block cleverly uses the diversity in its cast to show that those that come from these backgrounds do not have just one story, and provides each character with their own unique voice to ensure they are not just seen, but also heard.
When we speak of diversity, race and ethnicity are usually the main aspects we focus on. But like I mentioned above, diversity isn’t limited to just that; it stretches across the realms of sexuality, socio-economic background, disability, size and the list goes on. However, when writing this piece, it proved difficult for me to come up with any shows that showcase a diversity in disability and size that is a true to life representation of what’s out there in the world. Main characters, such as Karen Pearson of the tear-jerker drama This Is Us, is one of the few plus-size main characters on mainstream television these days. Her fellow cast members’ characters have had storylines that have seen their roles expanded and developed to the fullest, whilst her main story focuses on her weight. It’s great to see an honest and unapologetic representation of a plus-sized individual on a platform that so often ridicules and hides the existence of such people, but Karen’s story shows TV still has a long way to go in terms of getting the portrayal of people of different sizes right. Yes, we need to see more plus-sized characters on screen, but must their sole narrative be consumed by their weight?
There is still much more to be done in terms of accurate representation and ensuring all groups of society feel included with their depictions on screen. It’s no easy feat to overcome when for so long we’ve been conditioned to a single tale. But as you can see, there are some TV shows getting diversity right and going beyond just the obvious casting of a multiethnic group of actors, but they are also choosing to embrace often marginalised characters and tell untold stories.
Written by Aisha Rimi