I write about the social impact of entertainment and how media can be used for good. Views are my own.

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Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor in Netflix’s period drama series, Bidgerton. Image by Liam Daniel / Netflix.

How to Diversify On-Screen Talent for TV and Film

Let’s kick this off by defining diversity. When I think about “diversity,” I really mean it in the most inclusive sense of the word. Women, visible minorities, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and the list goes on and on. When we think about these historically marginalized groups of people, and we compare them to what we see in TV and film, it’s no secret that the stories we’re being told fail to reflect the mosaic of experiences that exist in life. The reason this matters is because if we don’t have examples for ourselves in TV and film, we’re left to our own devices to think about what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, and perhaps most importantly, whether we’re where we belong. So how do we correct this issue, especially one that’s been around for so long?

Fortunately, we’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we were 10 or so years ago. All it takes is an old episode of FRIENDS to remind you of that. It’s also just as easy to remind yourself of how problematic content can be when we aren’t careful as creators.

In the simplest terms, I would posit that the issue of on-screen diversity comes down to a matter of supply and demand, both in terms of the content people wish to consume, as well as the systemic, structural mechanics of the TV and film production cycle that help, or hinder, the proliferation of diverse talent. And when you look at that two-sided equation, we know the demand for this content already exists, so the root cause must be primarily driven by poor supply. Using this framework, we can start having candid, practical conversations about cultivating more diverse and inclusive content slates. Let’s take a look at a few ideas.

Establish a Business Case for Diversity

You would imagine that the demand for diverse content is a clear enough business case, and we see diverse stories perform, time and time again. We had Black Panther (RIP Chadwick Boseman), Crazy Rich Asians, Euphoria, Never Have I Ever… However, a huge reason for why certain productions get funding over others is because people leading these projects, whether they’re writers, producers, directors, and so on, are known in the industry. Perhaps they have a relationship with the financiers or the studio execs. This is an easy way to manage risk in an industry that is otherwise risky and capital-intensive. When this happens, you realize that the less diverse winners of the past tend to go on as the less diverse winners of the future. So how can we produce diverse stories if our creators are not diverse?

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Incentivize Diversity

In the business world, backed by research that suggests more diverse teams outperform less diverse teams, corporations have started to impose rules where, by example, their boards must have at least one diverse board member. Unsurprisingly, the results have been profound, and for the first time in 20 years, all S&P 500 boards have at least one woman. Now, blue-chip companies look at it as a badge of honor to be able to attract and retain the best diverse talent. Why is that same attitude not carried forward on-screen?

Haters will say things like, “The most talented people will be the most successful,” but that logic completely glosses over the systemic racism, discrimination, and unconscious bias that is so prevalent, not just in Hollywood, but in all industries. Diversity goals and incentives are not long-term solutions, but they can be used like training wheels as we start to reset and un-wire our preconceptions and prejudices. The Oscars’ new diversity rules are one example of how this can be utilized, and while I hear and respect the issues à la #OscarsSoWhite, I have to say that I think this is a helpful and necessary step in the right direction. Don’t @ me.

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Challenge Character Assumptions

If you don’t come from what’s recognized as a diverse background, there are still ways for you to incorporate diversity into your storytelling without being accused of cultural appropriation. For starters, you can start to challenge assumptions about the character archetypes in your stories. One of the earliest examples of this was probably when Aziz Ansari was cast as Tom Haverford, a sarcastic, under-achieving government official from South Carolina, in Parks and Recreation. Sure, he has a whole origin story to explain his overtly American name, but that’s far enough away from the main plot that even if it were completely absent, the series would go largely unchanged. Most of the time, that’s the whole point, and it’s usually very welcome.

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Cultivate Diverse Newcomers

This is a major problem: There is a shortage of diverse on-screen talent. It’s impossible to find data to verify this, but I have to suspect that there is a much greater supply of non-diverse talent for each non-diverse role, than there is of diverse talent for each diverse role. That’s not an excuse, but it is a contributing factor. After all, how many people have you ever met who would dream of being on TV or film, but decided not to pursue performance as a career because they didn’t see a model of success to follow? Or because it wasn’t a “practical” career?

Studios have a huge opportunity to be more intentional about mentoring, coaching, and cultivating diverse newcomers to the industry by carving out programs to develop this important cohort of creators. Holding their hands on a journey through a world that was built entirely in their absence seems like a helpful solution, at least in the short-term. The Sesame Street Writers’ Room is an incredible initiative that aims to develop talent from under-represented racial backgrounds. Similarly, the CAPE New Writers Fellowship is also a well-known program aimed at developing industry leaders from the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. We need more programs like these, not just for writing, but for all facets of TV and film production.

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Generally, I think we should be proud of the TV and film sectors for making so much progress in recent years. Offensive jokes and stories that people used to laugh at would be written off as distasteful today, and the stories we consume have become more complicated, intricate, and unique. Despite this progress, there is still a long way to go, and we see that reflected in the projects that secure funding, and the stories that break through as pop culture hits. All that aside, considering some of the solutions that are starting to come to light, I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of storytelling, and I’m excited to see how we as a society continue to shape TV and film in the years ahead.

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