What does it mean to have a diverse media, and why does it matter? These questions are explored by Anna Holmes in a recent New York Times piece, which looks at the issue more generally but touches on the film and TV industries. The term ‘diversity’, says Holmes, has to many people become at worst an irritant and at best a box to thoughtlessly tick.
She suggests that we tend to trumpet the exceptions to the rule whilst conveniently downplaying the enormous – and very provable – amount of bias that still remains.
Small victories are often overenthusiastically celebrated as evidence of larger change. In September, for example, when Viola Davis became the first African-American woman to win the Best Actress in a Drama Series Emmy, the moment was cheered in the press as a triumph of racial equity in Hollywood. But just a month before, Stacy L. Smith, a professor of communication at U.S.C. who, with other researchers, had just released a damning report that studied gender bias in 700 films made between 2007 and 2014, lamented ‘‘the dismal record of diversity, not just for one group, but for females, people of color and the L.G.B.T. community.’’
It’s a subject I’m passionate about, and I’m sure will be covering fairly frequently on this blog. I’m no kind of expert, but as someone who sees a lot of films, the glaring sameness of much mainstream cinema is anger-inducing and frankly just boring to me. Take a look at the Best Picture nominees for the 2015 Oscars. The actual merits of the Oscars are of course dubious, but in some essential, popular sense these are the films being held up as the most important of the year. Seven out of the eight have a white man as the primary focus of the story. (And Selma, as has been well-recorded, was snubbed in almost all other award categories). I saw and loved most of those films, but that love is complicated and kind of painful.
By always telling stories about the same kind of people, Hollywood tacitly implies that these are the only people whose stories are worth paying attention to. Again, and again, and again – while all the other kinds of people are Supporting Actors and set-dressing. The ‘other’ people don’t get to have the same range and depth of feelings, the same capacity for heroism or villainy or any of the grey shades in between. In other words, they don’t get to be as human.
The media acts as a kind of collective unconscious, both reflecting and shaping the world we live in. As a woman, I find the shape of contemporary cinema distressing because it gives me a glimpse into what this culture, on some level, really thinks of me. Not just in the obvious cases where female characters are eye candy or Manic Pixie Dream Girls, but in all those depressingly normal instances where a woman is only onscreen to further a man’s story. To tell him how brave or special or needed he is, to represent what he’s missing out on by being too focused on his work, to be his conscience or his moral compass, his temptation or his prize.
Films which feature women in this way make me wonder whether the (overwhelmingly male) filmmaking establishment really believes, deep down, that women are actually people, with the same hopes and fears and complexities as men. And I worry about the effect that these stories have, feeding back into our thoughts and decisions and actions, individually and collectively, in the real world. Diversity matters to me because stories matter. When we can make the imaginative leap to recognise somebody’s full humanity on the screen, we’re that much more likely to make it in real life.
The problem is big and complicated and deep-rooted, and much cleverer people than me have written much more insightful things about it. Caring about it at all can leave you feeling on a week-by-week basis as though you’re banging your head against a wall. Even those of us who agree that change is badly needed can get frustrated with constantly seeing our entertainment through this lens, and with the constant news stories and think-pieces the topic generates. But, as a recent Guardian piece noted, not nearly as frustrated as we are with waiting for something to actually change:
If you’re privately bored by the considerable noise made about the need for diversity – because hey, you’re not racist, but can no awards ceremony, TV show, evaluation of a corporate board, media organisation or university go by these days without someone bemoaning the lack of minorities on show? – then imagine what it’s like to actually be the minority person who has to constantly talk about it. Imagine having to be David Oyelowo, Lenny Henry, Viola Davis, repeatedly pointing out that, yeah, we’ve had a lot of chat and a lot of coverage about identity politics but, when you actually look close up, it is to relatively little gain.
I care about diversity in film because stories genuinely have the power to make the world a better place; because it’s an issue of justice, and an issue of having a much more interesting time at the cinema. Calling for diverse media isn’t just some trendy outrage bandwagon – it’s is a way of caring about people and expressing their value. If you’re in agreement with this but the word itself still leaves a dry taste in your mouth, then Selma director Ava DuVernay feels the same. ‘It feels like medicine,’ she says:
‘Diversity’ is like, ‘Ugh, I have to do diversity.’ I recognize and celebrate what it is, but that word, to me, is a disconnect. There’s an emotional disconnect. ‘Inclusion’ feels closer; ‘belonging’ is even closer.