Can Television Be a Solution to Hollywood's Diversity Problem?

by Jon Lisi

19 February 2015

We are living in the second Golden Age of Television, and not just because the writing is so good: TV is where we can tune in for real diversity.
 

Over the past few weeks, Hollywood’s lack of diversity has become a hot topic of conversation. Fueled by the Academy’s failure to nominate Selma (2014) in any major categories besides Best Picture, a number of commenters have complained that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences doesn’t accurately represent the United States’ many races, religions, and nationalities. (“Oscar Nominations Lack Diversity; ‘Selma’ Snubbed”) On Twitter, the hashtag “OscarsSoWhite” was a trending topic.

Thankfully, the conversation has moved beyond the Oscars to tackle the larger question, which is, as director “Ava Duvernay” puts it, “Why was Selma the only film that was even in the running with people of color for the award?” DuVernay’s question is an important one, and it has forced many cultural critics and cinephiles to confront the biases ingrained in Hollywood’s institutional practices. Time and again, films by and about white heterosexual men crowd the marketplace, and stories about minorities are increasingly pushed aside. Selma is the rare Hollywood film that entered the awards race, but it makes sense, given its subject matter. Selma is Oscar-bait galore, and although it’s a fantastic film, it’s also the kind of historically important biopic that the Academy usually nominates.

It’s disheartening to realize that other equally great films from 2014 about people of color like Top Five, Belle, Beyond the Lights, and Dear White People weren’t even on the Academy’s radar. It’s more depressing to learn that these were practically the only mainstream films released in 2014 by and about people of color, and I apply the term “mainstream” liberally. Most of these films were independently made, but they were released theatrically and generated enough media coverage to be considered mainstream.

In the United States, black filmmakers linger on the margins, and few of them ever enter the mainstream. People of color regularly make films and submit them to festivals, but it’s virtually impossible for them to join Hollywood’s elite club, which subsequently hinders their ability to make a decent living, and limits the mass public’s exposure to different stories.

The situation isn’t any better for other minority groups, including Asian-Americans, members of the LGBT community, and women over the age of 40. There will always be rare exceptions, but the statistics continue to demonstrate that white men are the dominant presence in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood. Academy Awards are nice, but a few statues for Selma is hardly a solution, and DuVernay knows this.

The conversation about Hollywood’s lack of diversity is necessary, and I hope that Hollywood restructures its institution in order to provide opportunities for minorities. However, Hollywood is an insular institution, and if we take a step back and observe what is happening elsewhere, we can see that Hollywood’s diversity problem doesn’t extend to other popular entertainment like television, which raises a number of thought-provoking questions about Hollywood’s relevance and our continued fascination with it.

On television, diversity has become normalized to the point where it isn’t even an issue. This isn’t to say that we couldn’t use more minority directors or showrunners, but for the most part, popular television in the United States lacks Hollywood’s white male problem.

Part of this, I think, stems from the fact that television offers an even playing field. Unlike films, which can be distributed to many different platforms in many different ways, television shows generally premiere the same way, and if you own a television and a cable subscription (or Netflix and Amazon subscription), you’ll have the ability to watch all of the major shows that are offered. There may be a few shows on some obscure digital channel that most have never heard of, but for the most part, the mass public knows what’s out there. The same cannot be said about the many diverse non-Hollywood films that are released each year.

Much of what’s out there on television features minorities in prominent positions in front of and behind the camera, and the presence of minorities on television is so prevalent that we have come to take it for granted. On every major network, there are shows about different races, religions, and nationalities, with some calling attention to diversity and others simply telling stories that happen to center on minority characters.

Consider ABC, one of the most popular television networks. Two of its highest rated shows, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, feature women of color at the center, but neither of them call attention to race. Creator Shonda Rhimes, an African-American woman herself, allows stars Kerry Washington and Viola Davis to play complicated characters that are at once sexy and sympathetic, selfish and sensitive. Both Washington and Davis tried to make it in Hollywood, but after one thankless role after another, they found their place within the world of television.

Rhimes is arguably the most powerful showrunner in television, and she’s not the only woman in control. Lena Dunham, for example, calls the shots on HBO’s Girls, a portrait of four young women coming of age in Brooklyn, and Jenji Kohan heads Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, a drama set in a women’s prison. Girls and Orange Is the New Black depict what it’s like to be a woman in the 21st century, albeit with different perspectives. Dunham represents the affluent white 20-somethings that populate Brooklyn, whereas Kohan depicts the ostracized members of the underclass that populate the many prisons in the United States. One show is about women with too many opportunities, the other about women with too few.

Fortunately, not all shows on television are about women that make bad choices. The CW’s Jane the Virgin, for example, is that rare television show about people who do good things. Gina Rodriguez stars as Jane, an ambitious young woman whose life is turned upside down when she’s accidentally artificially inseminated. This ridiculous premise is based on a Venezuelan telenovela, and the show’s developer, Jennie Snyder Urman, uses it to investigate issues of motherhood, family, and identity. Jane’s relationships with her mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) and grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll) are strong and enduring, and the show deserves credit for providing a positive image of a Latin American family at a time when immigration is such a contested issue in the United States.

In addition to Jane the Virgin, ABC’s Cristela aims to put a face on the immigration issue by chronicling the daily trials and tribulations of a hard-working Mexican-American law school graduate. Cristela is co-created by its star Cristela Alonzo, and it’s an endearing comedy like Jane with subtle political undertones. ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat similarly engages with the immigration debate, this time about an Asian-American family. The show’s creator, Nahnatchka Khan, is Persian-American, and she said that she “wanted to embrace that feeling of being outsiders”. (“‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Showrunner on Working With Eddie Huang, Going Beyond Race”, by Ashley Lee, The Hollywood Reporter 10 February 2015)

Other groundbreaking shows illuminate the lives of outsiders, including members of the LGBT community. The aforementioned Orange Is the New Black is particularly astute about bisexuality, and HBO’s Looking is a complex portrait of gay men in San Francisco. Some of these shows depict characters that are comfortable with their sexuality and are supported by their loved ones, whereas others like FOX’s Empire demonstrate the difficulties many African-American gay men encounter after coming out. Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s breakout hit series uses the tense relationship between a bigoted father (Terrence Howard) and his gay son (Jussie Smollett) to expose the homophobia that plagues the African-American community. Daniels directed Precious (2009) and The Butler (2013) before lending his talents to television, and he is one of the most outspoken African-American gay men in show business.

If the recent comments by Russell Crowe are any indication, Hollywood is an ageist institution that often shuns actresses over the age of 40. This is no secret, and it has caused many talented actresses to turn to television. Edie Falco continues to shine on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, and Julianna Margulies is consistently excellent on CBS’ The Good Wife. In addition, Robin Wright steals all of her scenes on Netflix’s House of Cards, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a comedic force to be reckoned with on HBO’s Veep, and veteran actresses regularly dominate PBS’ Downton Abbey and FX’s American Horror Story. As Hollywood continues to receive criticism for its dearth of substantial female roles, our great actresses can rest comfortably knowing that television will always welcome them. 

Hollywood often prides itself on being a progressive institution, but the record shows that television is the leader in the promotion of diversity. Television broadcasting has a long and complicated history, and although certain programs have imperfections, they consistently give a voice to those that Hollywood often shuns.

Consider prolific television producer Norman Lear. His shows from the ‘70s promoted diversity and understanding, and he often tackled taboo subjects with unflinching honesty. Maude, for example, stars Bea Arthur as an outspoken feminist that supports gender and racial equality, and there’s a famous episode in which she has an abortion. Sanford and Son showcases two African-American characters with opposing viewpoints, and it often subverts racial stereotypes. These shows were incredibly influential, and although they seem tame by today’s standards, we cannot underestimate their importance within television history.

It’s fair to say that some historic shows presented stereotypical portrayals of minorities, but many of them were earnest and compensated for Hollywood’s lack of diversity; moreover, unlike Hollywood, television has moved past problematic stereotypes. Today, diversity dominates television, and the depictions of minorities are respectful and realistic.

In the United States, cinema remains the privileged art form, and Hollywood is still viewed as the ultimate desideratum for most entertainers. Despite its consistent quality, television is often considered inferior. At the Golden Globe Awards, for example, the cinema awards are presented last, and each nominated motion picture is given its own special presentation. The same applies to the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which suggests that members of the press and those within show business revere Hollywood more highly than television.

What needs to change, then, are not only Hollywood’s institutional practices, but our proverbial adulation of its members. We must knock Hollywood off of the high pedestal upon which it so often places itself, and be able to see through its self-congratulatory tendencies. Every time critics, cinephiles, and entertainers complain about Hollywood’s lack of diversity, they give off the impression that its survival is necessary to our culture, when, in fact, television is more than an adequate replacement. Television shows are obviously more sophisticated than the generic movies Hollywood continues to churn out, but the real reason why we are living in the second Golden Age of Television has to do with its devotion to strengthening diversity.

Today, viewers can find shows on television about all types of people, and television represents the diversity of the world and the complexity of humanity more than Hollywood ever has. It isn’t perfect, but the prominence of minorities on television suggests that the diversity problem is Hollywood’s alone, and that if it wants to remain a relevant institution, it must change course. A token Academy Award or civil rights biopic isn’t going to appease audiences, and they’ll simply tune in to their televisions, and tune out Hollywood.

Splash image: Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder

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