The Rise of a More Diverse Television Landscape

Shonda Rhimes was already a power producer before Scandal started airing on ABC, but now she’s pretty much got it in the bag. After what feels like centuries of Grey’s Anatomy, along with a few shows of lesser renown, she’s managed to establish quite an audience, and a fandom, with Scandal, which appears to have taken many people by surprise. Twitter in particular goes bananas for the show, making Thursday nights a rather unique experience, and the show has been critically received in a huge variety of circles, especially in communities where people are interested in the intersection of race and pop culture.

In Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes focused on casting a diverse mix of people — while the leads are still white, which is disappointing, the show has a powerful supporting cast of people of colour, and they don’t fall into predictable and obnoxious stereotypes. Scandal, however, is explicitly about a woman of colour and the racial politics that surround her, and her relationship with the President. It’s a show where race is confronted head on rather than being shuffled under the carpet, which is one reason why the show has become such a conversation starter, and why it appeals to so many people.

Olivia Pope is a complicated, strong, tough, vulnerable woman, and she leads a compelling professional and personal life. Scandal is much more emotionally and politically complex than Grey’s, and it’s also a sign of some interesting shifts on the part of ABC. The network appears to be more willing to take on shows that specifically involve race, challenging a mostly white norm and a media landscape where race is dealt with by ignoring it.

Next season, the network will be running Black-ish, a half-hour comedy revolving around a Black man trying to raise his kids with a sense of personal and cultural identity in a middle class environment. I’m really hoping that it will be a send-up of ‘colorblind’ white culture, where people argue that the best way to address racial issues is to pretend that they don’t see race. It has the potential to be a sharp, insightful, funny comedy, and also specifically a show that explores Black culture and, like Scandal, is aimed partly at Black audiences.

Which is not to say that I view either show as a niche show designed only for people of colour (just the contrary — the white community should be watching media like this to get to know the Black community), but rather that, finally, we’re seeing more racial equality in entertainment. ABC is shifting away from narratives about Black life told by white people to narratives about the Black community from the Black community, and that marks an important divergence from traditional media approaches to race and society. That, in turn, gives me some hope that we could see an important shift in the media landscape, one where people of colour are taken seriously as producers, writers, and characters.

We see Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Show writing and talking about the Indian-American experience over on Fox, and ABC is also introducing Fresh Off the Boat (about the Chinese-American experience) and Cristela, a Latina-led show. The growth in diverse programming is illustrative of the fact that US media is changing in response to social and political pressures. And it’s also a sign that larger US culture is changing, as the idea of a show centred around people of colour is no longer considered beyond ridiculous, or aimed at a special interest community.

Shonda Rhimes should certainly be credited with a fair chunk of that, for proving that shows with diverse casts can be profitable for the networks. Her shows have generated huge ratings, and the kind of loyal following that we usually think is reserved for white male creators and their sycophants. It’s also due, though, to a community of colour that has been relentless when it comes to pushing for more diverse and accurate representation in pop culture. And it’s due to digital activism, which has made it possible to quickly and efficiently exchange information, commentary, and ideas across broad networks and communities.

Just a few months ago, we saw the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag consume multiple social media networks, generating a broad and important conversation on representation in literature not just for people of colour, but also for other minority groups. This was hardly the beginning of a push for better representation in text, although it was a well-organised and thoughtful one. Today, we’re looking at more and more minority organisation to push aside conventional, majority-dominated narratives.

It’s not just about getting more minorities into media and pop culture, though of course that is critical. It’s also about creating accurate, honest, intriguing media representations. This is a world where minority groups are often represented through the lens of the majority, and as a result, when they do appear, their representations are often painfully unpleasant, laden with stereotypes, and difficult to stomach. As minorities take back the narrative and tell their own stories, they’re changing the face of media and pop culture, hopefully forever.

I’m excited about shows like Scandal not just because I like them, but because they represent a huge and important media shift. While I’m not always happy with how Rhimes handles minority issues on her shows, particularly with respect to the disability community, she’s making important strides not just for herself but for other creators. The fact that she’s essentially written herself a blank cheque with the network is telling — and something I don’t think I would have been able to imagine a decade ago.

Image: Kerry Washington, Sam Javanrouh, Flickr.