Does TV and film reflect the diversity of America?

By Olivia Montes

Elm Staff Writer

Today’s television shows could not be any more different from one another, and that is the point. They focus more on characters representing identities far from the standard cookie cutter we are used to seeing grace the screen.  Television shows have made the effort to break away from the normalized all-white casts and production crews — but it’s still not enough.

For this form of media to be truly diverse in the eyes of its audiences, film industry must take the initiative themselves to make inclusion a number-one priority in their industry.

Unlike white-centered shows like “Seinfeld” or “Friends,” who, despite their cultural significance and impact in recreating the renaissance of the sitcom genre, depict an all-white cisgender twenty-something lifestyle in a city well known for its inclusive background. Despite the occasional character  of color in television and film, however, the original lineup unchanged in their whiteness for another day.

Television has significantly improved over the years in reaching non-white, non-cisgender audiences by encouraging programs that embrace diverse characters and settings.

While there are still shows and films featuring mixed casts with white leads, such as NBC’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” or “The Good Place”, there are programs that feature races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations in non-stereotypical fashions, such as Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe” or CW’s “Jane the Virgin”.

This is not just a phase. While streaming channels and broadcast television programs have been making inclusive strides for their viewers, the ongoing focus of major motion picture companies has not been on who they are making the movies for, but how much money is involved, whether during production or run time in theaters.

According to Dr. Alicia Kozma, assistant professor of the communications and media studies program at Washington College, this is “because it costs less and there are multiple ways to watch, television offers more space to move in better directions towards inclusion.”

“With film, however, major studios do not consider mainstream audiences to be different, and therefore have no economic imperative to change,” Dr. Kozma said.

Today’s movie-goers and binge-watchers are all vastly different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and identities, and all want to see themselves represented in complex, non-caricatured leading roles on screen. Why is this milestone still so out of reach?

“What the context looks like behind the scenes is the focus of what’s being put on-screen,” said Dr. Meghan Grosse, visiting assistant professor of communications and media studies. “Because films are still being written, produced, and directed, and given the go-ahead by white executives, there is a mismatch in the equation; something’s still missing.”

That’s not to say that movies have not been making the attempt to do so. Directors such as Ava DuVernay (“Selma”, “When They See Us”) and Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) have explored brutally honest depictions of overshadowed topics such as the African American experience and what it means to be black and a member of the LGBTQ community. Even popular film series, such as “The Fast and Furious” franchise, has a cast of characters that reflect the diversity behind the camera, written, produced, and directed by an inclusive crew.

However, as Dr. Kozma explains, making sure progress is being made towards inclusion is not that simple.

“Film and television have different economic business models moving at different speeds,” she said. “Because major film productions are led by white cisgender males, they are moving at the speed of a floating iceberg; they’re only sending out a trail of breadcrumbs for audiences to follow, when they truly need different ways of telling old stories with new characters and cast behind them.”

While television shows have steadily made attempts to improve upon the quality of their diverse characters, films have yet to catch up — and they must, if they are ever going to compete in the future.

“We are living in a multi-everything kind of world today, and the movies and shows today should reflect the livelihood and sincerity of people making up their audiences,” Dr. Kozma said.

That is to say, broadcast companies are ignoring the fact that diversity needs work both behind and in front of the camera. “Steven Universe,” for example, breathes new life into gender identity and race through strong, non-conforming characters, while “Jane the Virgin” explores the lives of independent Latinx characters through a traditional telenovela format.

These shows allow audiences to see how that characters learn, in some underlying moral-driven capacity, how to positively accept themselves as they are, rather than watching them try to mold themselves into the stereotypical picture of unrealistic physical beauty standards upheld of modern society.

“The system is definitely complicated,” Dr. Grosse said. “There has to be deliberate effort made to actively understand unique experiences without resulting to misleading and offensive tropes.”

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