Saturday, January 2, 2016

Let's Leave "Diversity" in 2015 [Contributor: Jen W.]

I am tired of talking about diversity on TV.

It’s true. Far too often, when diversity is brought up, it’s to say that the term diversity is “in” now. That it’s Hollywood’s latest buzzword, or in its worst iteration, something that’s weighted with an agenda — the "black" agenda, the "LGBTQ" agenda, the "feminist" agenda, etc.

To which I say... what?

The reason I’m tired of talking about diversity — specifically diversity on television — is that it often comes with lip service and no follow-through. Another reason is because, well, the world is actually diverse. Whether or not that’s reflected on television is another story. Women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community have always been around. Now, however, we have a vehicle to have our stories told and since it’s a major shift from the last 90s through early 2000s of television, it feels apparently like "too much" for some people. Which I guess is what happens when you normalize television instead of skewing from one very specific perspective. Who knew!

I’ve spent a great deal of time lately thinking about the excellent speech that Shonda Rhimes gave for the Human Rights Campaign:

I really hate the word 'diversity.' It suggests something... other. As if it is something special, or rare. Diversity! As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV. I have a different word  normalizing. I'm normalizing TV. I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal way more than 50 percent of the population. Which means it ain't out of the ordinary.

This is what television should be striving towards. Fiction is pervasive, much more so than the truth. Television is a medium that is the most immediate and available form of entertainment, and as such, holds an incredible amount of power. How we see each other, and how we see the world around us is very much affected by how we’re seen in fiction. Stereotypes may be born of some truth, but when non-nuanced stereotypical representations are on display, they become damaging and harmful beliefs that seep into culture as if they’re truths.

This is something I so desperately wish to see fade into the ether in 2016.

All people are complex. But only some people on TV are given the opportunity to look that way. One-dimensional characters serve no purpose, and one-dimensional female, POC, or LGBTQ characters often receive the harshest treatments possible. Like Shonda Rhimes said, we make up more than 50 percent of the population. Listen to us — let us tell you our stories. Understand that we are so much more than what you see.

I long to see the idea of "diversity" die out and be replaced with actual, real representation. Some of my favorite shows of 2015 did just that. They don’t seek out "diversity" in order to fill quotas and appease. Instead, they give the audience actual, real stories featuring people we know and see every day. That’s why representation is important. It matters. Real representation, not "diversity" that’s for nothing but show, matters.

One of my favorite shows of 2015 was Jane the Virgin. Gina Rodriguez is a dream. During the Kennedy Center Honors, Gina paid tribute to one of her life-long heroes — Rita Moreno. Gina said something that struck me as so vital, and so incredibly important. When Gina was younger and watching televisions and film, she asked her mother, “When did Puerto Ricans come about?” because she didn’t see them represented in her favorite shows or movies, so as a child, she deduced “we must not have existed back them.” It is so important, especially in our formative years, to have that to hold onto.

I consider my early childhood and teenage years to be very lucky because I did have shows like A Different World, Living Single, and Martin. These are shows that have stuck with me throughout the years and mean a lot to me, even now. But as the years went on and I decided to become an actor, I saw fewer and fewer portrayals of me — of women who not only looked like me, but sounded like me, who had hair like mine and spoke in a certain vernacular. Our stories became bit roles, relegated to the tried and true stereotypes, the things that only perpetuated the negative and rarely highlighted the positive.

Viola Davis, in her Emmy speech, made it clear that it is opportunity stands between women of color and roles, not talent. And I truly believe that if the "diversity" buzzword was put into actual practice, that the landscape of television would change. It is changing. And I believe that it’s changing for the better. Our stories are growing and taking shape, but it’s still not an accurate representation of the world around us, for, every time a show like Jane the Virgin appears, one like Blood & Oil (now defunct?) appears alongside it.

Nothing is wrong with shows like Blood & Oil (... okay, bad example, but you get my point), but people of color, women, and LGBTQ characters shouldn’t be set decorations in television shows. If you’re committing to having them in your stories, then their stories should be told — accurately and well. We should all have the opportunity to turn on the television and connect with someone whose story feels something like our own.

For the many years I’ve been watching television, I can honestly say that 2015 television gripped my attention in a way that hasn’t happened in my recent memory. I fell in love, I laughed, I cried, I screamed in anger, and I did it all while watching the stories of people who looked like me, who didn’t look like me, who loved the way I do, who got angry the way I do, flourish.

I believe audiences are more sophisticated than some showrunners and critics want to believe. We don’t just one want or two characters for appeasement. For me, I’d much rather have one fully developed woman of color on a show than a whole show of stereotypes with no nuances, no life, just empty punchlines for the sake of drawing in audiences.

I love the rise in Latinx representation on television, and it’s far overdue are Latinx peoples are the fastest-growing population in the United States. You wouldn’t necessarily know that by the state of television, but I believe that brilliant women like Gina Rodriguez, Eva Longoria, and America Ferrera have and will continue to make substantial progress in roads on television. They’re trailblazers who are telling funny, endearing stories that we can all relate to. Because, at the end of the day, we’re all made of the same stuff, and the things that separate us are more arbitrary than not.

When our shows begin to truly reflect the world around us, look more like us, and want to tell compelling and rich stories, then we’ll be on the right track.

Let’s leave "diversity" in 2015, and make 2016 the year where we’re represented to our fullest and truest capacities.


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