With the January announcements of the Oscar nominations, there was a glaring problem: The demographic makeup of the nominees. People called out race in particular, but disability and gender were also huge issues, along with pretty much all axes of the diverse human experience. The Academy, which includes mostly older white men, nominated people who looked like them for accolades in their industry, while the public was not impressed — the world the academy sees doesn’t reflect the real world, and those positioned as ‘minorities’ are actually majority filmgoers and television consumers, so the trend of focusing on people in positions of power in the course of handing out awards is painful to witness.
The result was a flood of calls for more awards for actors of colour, as well as more representation for characters of colour in general — with so few roles available, it’s very hard to be considered for awards nominations. When the majority of characters on film and television are white, people of colour have an extremely difficult time seeking representation. This is part of the reason why ‘colourblind’ casting has become so trendy, though as we can see, it’s not very effective. Instead, colour conscious casting and writing is critical to shift the racial dynamic of what we see on screen. The same holds true of many other marginalizsed identities who are underrepresented in the cast of characters that inhabits mainstream Hollywood.
But there’s another issue too: representation behind the camera and in the writers’ room. The people who are creating media are as important as the people representing it, and unfortunately, the diversity conversation when it comes to film and television often leaves this issue out. In publishing, we’re seeing more and more discussions about diverse editors, authors, publicists, executives, and more, but that isn’t spilling over into film and television. The cost of that is high, because it’s difficult to disrupt the status quo when people in positions of power are making the most important decisions.
Take a look at the extra features and ‘making of’ minidocumentaries sometime. What you will tend to see is a lot of people who look very alike behind the camera, editing, working on sound, writing, and in executive offices. This uniformity of creators means that there is a corresponding uniformity of characters, because people tend to write what they know, rather than pushing themselves to consider experiences beyond their own. Consequently, diversity remains a perennial problem, even with members of the public and people within the industry calling for more parity.
People telling stories for others tend to mess up, because they’re telling stories through their own lens. One of the most striking examples of this comes up in work surrounding the transgender community, like Transparent. Works that advance stereotypes, don’t expand conversations, and are sometimes actively offensive are very common as a result of a lack of diversity on the creator side of film and television. This is something that is starting to change, as seen in programming like ‘Her Story,’ which was trans-written, directed, and produced, but these things are still very rare. They don’t attract the same level of attention as mainstream programming, and many people find them uncomfortable to view because they challenge social attitudes about marginalised groups.
As we have a critical conversation about the need to diversify awards nominations, we also need to talk about what is happening behind the lens. There needs to be a greater incentive for marginalized creators to get involved in film and television, and that requires approaching the problem from a number of different angles. Barriers to participation are considerable, and include issues like pay inequality, feeling unsafe in the workplace due to failure to address institutional oppressions, and being unable to access the career advancement tools that are more readily available to people in positions of power, like internships and industry connections. Many people from marginalised backgrounds cannot afford, for example, to work as an intern on set or in the offices of a studio, and similarly, they may have trouble with the costs of film school. Likewise, it’s extremely costly to produce independent film and television — and many studios and networks aren’t interested in diverse content, which pushes diverse creators to pursue this route if they want to see their work make it to distribution.
There’s a myth that working in film and television is a meritocracy and everyone works their way from the ground up, no matter what kind of career they’re pursuing — positions on film crews, editing work, animation, directing, producing — but in fact, this isn’t the case. Some people start out with advantages and they leverage them, leaving others scrabbling for crumbs. The lack of diversity in screen reflects social attitudes about what people want to view, but it also reflects the faces of the people who are making the content — and the fact that content featuring marginalised people is often offensive further illustrates the fact that creators and crews are often part of uniform groups in positions of power. Cis people cannot be trusted to tell trans stories. Nondisabled people cannot be trusted to tell disability stories. White people cannot be trusted to tell stories about people of colour. Wealthy and middle class people who have never experienced poverty cannot be trusted to tell stories about poverty and class struggle.
That Hollywood needs reform is undoubted, but as people push for diversity, they need to remember firstly that diversity is much more complicated than race alone, and that fair representation onscreen is important, but so is fair representation offscreen, and the two in fact directly feed into each other. All people should have equal opportunities in Hollywood, and be recognised for their work.
Image: Camera Crew, shrtstck, Flickr