More Faces of Color Are On Screen But Diverse Writers Are Still Treated Like The Walking Dead
Great strides have been made in the visibility of diverse characters on television in recent months, but many would justifiably argue that it’s too little too late, and that much work is left to be done. Viola Davis recently became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Drama for her role on How to Get Away with Murder, and shows like The Walking Dead, Fresh Off the Boat, House of Cards, and The Daily Show have been applauded for portraying people of varying genders, races, sexual orientations, religions, and other demographic characteristics that exist out of the default normative representation, which in this country is a White male. However, much of that applause applies only to the parts of television’s inner workings that we actually see, those who appear on screen. What about the employees working behind the scenes to bring such shows to life?
According to recent reports, homogeneity continues to be a problem when discussing the statistics of television writers. For Slate, writer Aisha Harris discusses the lack of diversity in television in a piece titled “Same Old Script: On screen, TV is more diverse than ever. Why aren’t writing staffs catching up?” In it, she traces the recent spike in more diverse television casts to one woman, who herself happens to be African-American. “Thank the ‘Shonda Effect,’ a term inspired by “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes’ commitment to casting people of color in lead roles in all of her hit shows. Hollywood has taken note of Rhimes’ ascendance, as well as her outspoken insistence on diversity in her work. The success of “Scandal” in particular—when it premiered in 2012, it was the first network drama with a black woman as its lead in nearly four decades—seems to have prompted a call for more stories centered around people of color,” Harris argues. Nevertheless, it seems that when it comes to casting those in off-screen roles, there has been little to no movement, ultimately creating an environment in which storylines are being written for non-White characters by White and mostly male writers, a circumstance that to many only continues the insidious effects of White supremacy by removing the ability for people of color and varying persuasions from telling their own stories.
“A Writers’ Guild of America report released earlier this year noted that staff employment for people of color actually decreased between the 2011–12 season and 2013–14 season, from a peak of 15.6 percent to 13.7 percent. The number of executive producers of color also decreased in those seasons, from 7.8 percent to 5.5 percent,” shares Harris. These numbers continue to decrease when moving into the realm of executive-level staff, where “people of color occupied just 5.5 percent of the executive producer roles in the 2013–14 season,” a fact that only helps to recreate the cycle from which a lack of diversity is born – White men making hiring decisions. Harris’ thoughtful report includes some glimmers of hope including the world of fellowships and diversity programs but ultimately, tokenism is still very much a reality for minorities working in television writing. For now, though, it seems that the days of culturally tone-deaf casting choices may be behind us (for example, shows like “Friends” and “Sex and the City,” which featured all-White lead actors with very little, if any, racial diversity), at least for the most part.