IN LIVING COLOR
Is Diversity on TV Really Getting Better?
More than a dozen stars, executives, and TV creators from HBO, ‘black-ish,’ and more reveal the surprising truth about diversity—or the lack thereof—in television.
“I’ve had one casting director who was literally like, ‘I need you to be as black as possible,’” comedian Nicole Byer remembered. “And then she was like, ‘If you go too black, I’ll bring you back.’”
She feigned horror as she relives the tale. “I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ Like, ‘If I pull out a knife and like shank you, like is that too far?’”
Byer is riffing on her experience as a young black actress auditioning in Hollywood, where “can you be more urban?” and “can you have more edge?” have coded what might sadly be a uniform experience for aspiring actors of color: limited opportunity, and limited humanity.
But when her new TV series Loosely Exactly Nicole premieres on MTV this fall, it will allow Byer to finally play a version of herself—and the full, diverse spectrum of what that means.
During the first week of the bi-annual Television Critics Association press tour, in which networks parade their upcoming TV shows for firing-squad press conferences before TV reporters, the word “diversity” was on the tip of the tongue.
Even if not everyone wanted it to be.
Destined breakout star Issa Rae had everyone whispering ecstatic things over her unique comic perspective during her presentation for HBO’s Insecure.
Netflix brought director Baz Luhrmann and the cast of The Get Down, a mythical look at the 1970s Bronx that marks not only the most expensive production for a TV series centered around a story of color, but any television series ever. (As has been famously reported, the production budget for The Get Down landed in the Marvel-esque ballpark of $120 million. Luhrmann, for what it’s worth, claims that Netflix’s other fall series, The Crown, is actually more expensive.)
The TCA organization even assembled a special panel titled “Diversity in TV,” in which talent, producers, and executives from shows including Starz’s Survivor's Remorse and WGN's Underground discussed why there are so few meaningful representations of diversity within mainstream programming, and what hurdles still exist towards changing the future of storytelling in this, our post-Shondaland world.
And so it was jarring when the creators and talent from ABC’s black-ish took the stage, near the end of a week that was essentially defined by discussion over diversity in television, and they had a quite definitive and effective message.
“I’m so tired of talking about diversity,” a very frustrated and impassioned black-ish creator Kenya Barris said.
The (perhaps inelegantly-phrased) question he was responding to was from a TCA reporter who asked what the race demographic breakdown of the show is, and how it affects its writing.
“I would be so happy when diversity is not a word,” Barris said, kicking off his room-igniting answer. “And I’m constantly having to talk about diversity.”
He looked at the show’s cast seated next to him, praised their talents, and then continued. “I’m so tired of talking about diversity. These are amazing, talented actors who give their all and don’t have to do this. It’s clouding the conversation.”
Star Tracee Ellis Ross jumped in: “I actually have a question. Is that a question that you’ve asked other shows that are not predominantly of a certain color?”
The reporter was candid. “Not necessarily.” And then: “But I don’t think it’s an unfair question either.”
Ross’s brilliant response: “Sometimes those questions continue the conversation in the direction that does not help the conversation.”
And here’s the thing: Everyone is right.
This is a show that launched with the promise of incisive race commentary with universal relatability. The stories would be of a specifically black experience, because the family was, but the resonance would transcend color. We’re all families. We’re all human. We’re all the Johnsons. And now, with its multiple Emmy nominations, it is also a show that carries a banner for representation in mainstream television.
“This is for us, by us,” star Anthony Anderson even said at one point. “We get to tell our stories every week for an audience that resonates globally.”
That’s certainly true. And so is the point that Barris concluded on in response to the diversity question.
“Isn’t it just a good family show?” he said. “You know what I’m saying? It’s specifically about a black family. We’re not running from that. But don’t you see yourself in it? Don’t you see your family reflected in it? Why is that important who watches the show? Why does it matter? Why do we keep having these conversations?”
These conversations, though, are dominating pop culture at the moment.
One might argue that it would be counterintuitive to strip a family sitcom called black-ish, and which routinely tackles race-specific issues, of the importance of racial diversity in its existence.
One should also argue, as Ross did, that perpetuating the questioning about that very thing amplifies the notion that such a show is or should be unusual—that the universality that is the key to its creative success, because we keep questioning it, isn’t actually universal.
And so we have a state of the union of sorts.
“Diversity” is a word that may be becoming retrograde. But the conversation, as evidenced by the myriad opinions of people working both in front of, behind, and critiquing the camera, is as immediate as ever.
There’s a prevailing notion that—in a pop culture climate ruled by Scandal and Empire and an industry flipping a middle finger to any #OscarsSoWhite malfeasance—television is in the midst of a Golden Age of diversity.
But is that really the case?
Dozens of actors, producers, and creators of color—not just the black-ish team—were asked that very question over the course of the first week of the TCA tour. What they had to say was illuminating as to the prevailing opinions of the conversation within the industry, not to mention the utopian progress that some might think has been occurring when it comes to opportunity and representation.
There’s Issa Rae, for example, whose web series Awkward Black Girl has been seen by more than 20 million people, making her one of the most prolific and provenly successful content creators—not to mention a clearly relatable and popular voice.
And yet at a time when more than one TV series has been green-lit off a person’s popular tweet, Rae, a woman of color, fought for years to get her own show and spotlight. She finally gets it on Insecure and, in doing so, becomes only the third black woman ever to create and star in her own show—following in the footsteps of Sherri Shepherd and Wanda Sykes.
“In the past, networks haven’t outright said ‘no’ to diversity,” Rae told TCA reporters about her experience leading up to Insecure. “It’s been more just trying to convince people that people of color are relatable. It’s more about content, and that’s where a lot of my journey has had some ups and downs. Like, OK, this isn’t a show about the struggle of being black. It’s not a ‘hood story.’ It’s not any of those things. It’s just regular black people living life.”
There’s a word that Shonda Rhimes has used often to rebuff questions about her role in diversifying television. She hates the word “diversity,” she’s said. Her crusade is for “normalization.” When that happens, as Rae echoed in her presentation, these stories aren’t considered other, or token, or segregated. They’re simply considered human.
It’s been well-argued that one essential key to telling universal stories is giving opportunity to creators with those perspectives and voices that are so often ignored.
Yet for all of the talk of the inroads being made in diversity on network TV, at one point referred to as “the Empire effect,” an investigation conducted by Variety revealed that, in the 2016-17 season, 90 percent of the showrunners of the new scripted shows are white, and almost 80 percent are male.
“I’d be lying if I said it’s gotten easier,” Anthony Hemingway, the director and executive producer of Underground, said during the diversity panel when asked if the process of pitching shows featuring stories of color has changed.
He hailed networks like Starz, WGN, and TV One that have embraced those series and creators. Because of the sheer number of platforms and outlets, “we are definitely coming into a time where there are more opportunities.”
Indeed, in addition to working on Underground, Hemingway is an Emmy nominee for directing an episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson on FX.
But while things are getting better—and let’s remember, the word “better” should not be confused with “easier”—for men of color to land a plum directing job, Survivor’s Remorse director Victoria Mahoney told a disheartening story about the series’ showrunner, Mike O’Malley, being forced to take to Twitter to find a female director of color for the series because he wasn’t able to find one at any of the agencies.
Mahoney referred to herself as a “four-percent hire.” That’s what they call female directors of color in the industry, she said. “So often today—not 30 years ago, not 100 years ago, right now—when people decide to hire a person of color, they usually hire male. When they decide to hire women, they hire white.”
Even after finding gainful employment as one of the four-percent hires, Mahoney faced institutionalized discrimination and bias because she is a female director of color.
Take the conversation about experience and merit when it comes to opportunity. “There’s this cat that gets the film in Sundance,” she said. “He goes straight to $140 million franchise. But I’ve been directing TV for five years, multi-cam, all kinds of shit, and still right now, like, maybe a week ago my manager is in here, like, four days ago someone was talking about whether or not I’m experienced.”
And so the current state of diversity on television is one that merits both celebration and renewed energy to keep evolving.
There was a huge sigh of relief, for example, when there was not an #OscarsSoWhite situation when the Emmy Awards announced its nominees. In fact, the acting nominees were the most diverse in the awards’ history.
Still, many critics were dismayed by the lack of support for actors from the revival of Roots or Hemingway's own Underground—not to mention Power, Survivor’s Remorse, or series that are more typically labeled “black shows” and air on cable networks, but with talent that merit consideration.
On another note, Superstore star America Ferrera, speaking before the TCA crowd, cheered that networks might finally be progressing past the idea of token representation, pointing to the fact that, last year, she and Eva Longoria both were leads of different comedies.
“They realized there was value in both of our point of views and it wasn’t like, oh, we checked the Latina box; we don’t need more than one,” she said. “It was my point of view and my character, and my show was a totally different world than the one that Eva existed in. And I think there’s room for that. There’s room for more than one Latina on a network, and NBC knew that, too. And I think it’s a testament to kind of taking steps forward when it comes to more inclusion and more different faces on the network.”
But then, of course, Longoria's show Telenovela was canceled after just one season.
And there is the hope—at the very least, a passionate desire—that the experience of a minority American has been universalized. The success of black-ish hints at that, as does the anecdotal experience of its cast. “I really love that we’ve brought family television back,” Ross said. “It’s a multigenerational comedy that makes people laugh and think all at the same time.”
Still, too, we may be far from fully realizing the idea of normalization—at least, to lend credence to Barris and Ross’s points, to the degree that “diversity” ceases to be a defining word in a conversation about one of TV’s best and most popular sitcoms.
A highlight, and perhaps the most incisive presence of the diversity panel, was actress Tichina Arnold, who, as she said, began acting at age 11 “during a time where there were glass ceilings everywhere.”
Mahoney, sitting next to her, laughed at the undersell: “Glass walls, glass floors, glass doors…”
But, now a star on Survivor’s Remorse, she’s been able to witness the progress and experience the immediacy of the change as it’s happening. And she has an interesting idea for what’s been behind the evolution.
“I thank God for social media,” she said. “I do. It could be a gift and a curse if not used correctly, but I think social media is one of the reasons why we’re all here on this stage, because social media has opened us up. It’s forced show business to listen, to pay attention to so many types of people and individuals out there.”
Mahoney is ready for the attention. And she’s ready to work for it.
“So there’s a line in the sand, and what my job is now is that I have to move that line in the sand,” she said. “And I have to walk in, and I have to confront people who are very comfortable in old, old ways of thinking.”
“It’s exhausting,” she concluded. “It’s boring. But, as I often say, we’re built for it.”