In 2012, Kerry Washington, star of the Shonda Rhimes-created ABC political drama Scandal,became the first black woman to lead a network drama in nearly four decades. Two seasons later, the series became the first on a major broadcast network that “was created by a black woman, starring a black woman” and also directed by a black woman, when Ava DuVernay stepped in to helm an episode.
Fast-forward to 2016, when an episode of The CW’s post-apocalyptic drama The 100featured a groundbreaking love scene between the show’s bisexual female lead Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and her lesbian love interest Lexa (Alycia Debnam Carey) — right before killing off Lexa. The plot bomb resonated so widely that it sparked a Hollywood pledge to stop needlessly killing LGBTQ characters and raised a larger discussion about who was dying onscreen.
With the help of social media, both shows and others like them are shifting discussions around “good representation” from a simple desire to a necessity. Who lives, who dies, and who tells the story — as Hamilton so succinctly put it — matters now perhaps more than it has ever before.
So who is helping Hollywood tell better, more diverse stories? How are they doing it? What is Hollywood currently getting right, and what is it still getting wrong? To find the answers, I spoke with diversity consultants, many from nonprofit media advocacy organizations, who, along with tasks like compiling data on minority representation, offer free training and research support to studios and networks.
Here’s what representatives from GLAAD (which focuses on LGBTQ representation), Color of Change (race), the Geena Davis Institute (gender), Define American (immigration), and RespectAbility (disability), as well as a religion expert, told me about the work of Hollywood diversity consulting and the state of representation onscreen.
Everyone wants good diversity, but “good” and “diversity” can look different to various identities
Rashad Robinson, executive director, Color of Change
We are looking for representations that are authentic, fair, and have humanity. Where black people are not the side script to larger stories and are not just seen through white eyes. There is a way in which we get the same types of representation over and over again, which kind of decreases the sensitivity and humanity that people receive because the media images we see of people can be so skewed.
Madeline Di Nonno, CEO, Geena Davis Institute
[Through our research,] we found that even though there were female characters, they were onscreen and speaking two to three times less. That gave us a whole other thing to talk to people. You can have a cast of 100 and 50 are female, but are you hearing them?
Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees, entertainment media director, Define American
What most might consider good immigrant representation is characters that are hard-working, humble but high-achieving … non-threatening to “the American way.” We find the “good immigrant versus bad immigrant” … perpetuates the respectability politics forced upon many marginalized communities and suggests that only certain people are worthy of our humanity. [We need] reinforcement in mainstream culture that — at the end of the day — we … have more in common than not.
Jennifer Mizrahi, CEO and president, RespectAbility
The two [current] gold standards are the TV show Speechless, which is scripted, and Born This Way, which is reality unscripted, and that’s because the leads are people with disabilities — played by people with disabilities — authentically portraying their lives.
We see it as a success if an amputee is playing a police officer in an episode of Law & Orderand you never talk about that person’s disability. All you see is an incredible police officer.
Megan Reid, professor and religion consultant, Cal State Long Beach
[Some] shows do a good job of showing the faith part accurately, but that’s all we ever see. If it’s a show where religion is an essential plot, it would be helpful not just to see characters who struggle with their faith but how to make decisions about what to do in a multicultural environment.
Whether their services are offered or asked for, Hollywood diversity consultants aim to increase representation and inclusion at various levels of the industry
Zeke Stokes, vice president of programs, GLAAD
I can tell you in a very general way that if you are seeing LGBTQ inclusion on television, there is a very, very strong likelihood that GLAAD played a part in it at some point.
It may not be in an ongoing way with a production if it’s a long-developing arc or if an LGBTQ character or storyline is a basis for the show, but you can generally bet we were involved at the outset in helping them ensure that they weren’t falling into outdated tropes, that a character wasn’t just there to support everyone else’s storyline, that they have a well-developed storyline of their own and sort of a reason for being indispensable.
Madeline Di Nonno
[The Geena Davis Institute] has met with every major studio, network, cable company, and pretty much every division. We really focus on who is making financial decisions and who is making creative decisions.
Once something is in construction, we’re not involved unless someone has asked us to be an adviser. For example, YouTube Red has launched originals, and we were asked to be advisers on a show called Hyperlink, which is about young girls in STEM. We looked at the scripts, the dimensionality of the characters — are the characters balanced? Are they well-rounded? Are they stereotypes?
We are meeting with the networks and then reaching out to them and letting them know we are available. Big partners for us are the unions [like] the Casting Society of America’s Committee on Diversity, the Screen Writers Guild, and SAG-AFTRA.
Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees
There are a variety of ways we engage, including casting for undocumented and documented immigrants non-scripted television programs and films, providing storylines, and on-set consultation and scene review during filming.
The working relationship can be dependent on the entity that we’re dealing with. We do a series of salons throughout the year, where we bring together writers from a host of shows — writers from Being Mary Jane, Black-ish, and Homeland have been there. We spend hours sort of talking about different themes.
The full interview feature first appeared at Vox on August 28, 2017.