Why Is It So Hard for Networks to do Diversity Research?

In an era when the voices of marginalised groups talking about their depiction in pop culture are growing louder and more inescapable, networks are being forced to be more accountable when it comes to how they handle minorities in their television productions. No longer can they assume that it’s acceptable to upset a few people and ignore them. Now, television fans can take to social media to organize huge campaigns to push back on racism, sexism, homophobia, and more, and such campaigns are often backed by professional organisations that advocate for minority groups and pay a particularly close eye to the depiction of minorities in the media (as well as our representation as creators and shapers of media).

There’s one thing that continues to puzzle me, though: why do networks seem to have such a difficult time doing their ‘diversity research’¬†before¬†writing, filming, and airing an episode? Couldn’t they save a great deal of time, furore, and energy by just working on getting it right in the first place? I always say that people shouldn’t use fear of getting it wrong as an excuse when it comes to depicting minorities, as do many other people (I think Nisi Shawl may be the one who originated that phrase?), but we don’t mean ‘don’t bother researching at all’ when we say that — we just mean that even with research, you can still get it wrong, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

It’s actually quite easy to conduct research about the lived experiences of minorities, whether you’re adding a character who uses a wheelchair, depicting a gay couple in a standalone episode of a show, or casting a Chinese-American woman in a high-profile role. You can interact directly with members of minority communities who have volunteered themselves to work with creators and the media to help them improve representations. You can read texts and watch depictions created by members of minority communities to discuss and explore their experiences. You can pay consultants, even!

These are not difficult things to do, and they don’t require Herculean strength or incredible feats of coordination. It’s pretty basic research; at its most fundamental, you can conduct it while lying on the couch in pajamas, which is how I do the vast majority of my research. When you start to amass a critical mass of data, that’s the time you can take advantage of the fact that there are people who may be willing to talk to you, allowing you to set up appointments to discuss specific details and questions with them (you, naturally, will compensate them for their time).

Consultants should be on hand during writing, development, and filming. They should be listened to, and should play a vital role in the creative team. They have valuable experiences that writers don’t, and they can both help networks avoid really obvious and ridiculous mistakes, and make characters richer, more diverse, and more deep. Using a consultant offers tremendous advantages, and only a network that didn’t care about basic representation issues wouldn’t use one — so the takeaway is that most networks really don’t care about basic representation issues, and aren’t interested in working with the communities they want to exploit for entertainment to get their depictions accurate and interesting, since very few networks use consultants for their minority depictions.

Fundamental research of this nature should be done without a second thought, without even needing to check to see if network officials will approve the expense or the possible delay involved when creators seek out consultants and work with them to bring authenticity to their work. The fact that consultants on minority experiences are still not considered standard on television productions is a telling testimony to attitudes across Hollywood, where creators and studios don’t seem to think their depictions matter until they’re called on particularly egregious examples of stereotyping or negative portrayals.

It’s not like this is hard. We aren’t asking networks to completely rework or rewrite their entire way of doing business, here. We’re simply suggesting that doing research before you get in trouble, rather than after, is definitely the way to go — and that lots of people are ready and willing to help with that research. Minorities don’t enjoy seeing negative depictions and don’t take particular pleasure from having to organise around yet another hateful, gross, exploitative portrayal of their lived experiences, and would much rather just be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy their pop culture as it comes.

But that’s not possible when you have to spend so much time waiting for the other shoe to drop, preparing to cringe when the Black character you like is shot first, knowing that a nondisabled character was cast as a wheelchair user yet again, being aware that a gay couple will be hopelessly stereotyped because no one bothered talking to anyone, let alone picking up a laptop and doing some brief research, reading, poking around, exploring, learning.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to improve depictions of minorities on television. And it says something about the world of television production that when rocket science is depicted on screen, a rocket scientist gets called in to offer advice and suggestions to make it feel more authentic, but when a minority experience is depicted, networks seem to think they can just wing it, until they’re called up short by critics. Rather than confronting public relations nightmares over really basic mistakes, wouldn’t it be much nicer to just invest in making your productions better?