We are in the midst of a culturally critical era of television in both refreshingly positive and severely negative lights, and both are important to note. Always formerly known and ridiculed for being the lesser creative outlet to cinema, TV shows have been elevated to a much higher status due to a revelation of beautiful art direction and skilled writing and acting.
The innovations in television are undeniably remarkable but there is a blaring flaw: television is dramatically white-washed.
This discrepancy is furthered and clearly seen in a series of videos from The Hollywood Reporter’s YouTube channel, which were in the form of roundtable interviews with the actresses and actors most likely to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for this year’s most critically acclaimed television comedies and dramas. Out of the eighteen actors and actresses interviewed, including favorites like Andy Samberg and Zooey Deschanel, only one was not white. This person was Mindy Kaling, former writer and cast member of The Office and creator and star of The Mindy Project. She is the only Indian-American woman to have created her own show on an American television network. Her accomplishments are astounding and praise-worthy as not only a woman but a woman of color. Kaling is a jarring contrast to the norm.
If you think about it, most major shows on television feature a complete or mostly all-white cast playing heterosexual characters. A few examples include Friends, Sex and the City, and How I Met Your Mother, among many others. All of these shows, which are set in the racially and sexually diverse areas of New York City, boast a cast that is homogeneous in that it is full of white and straight actors and characters. There may be a small homosexual subplot or a minority guest actor, but these token characters and stories are never a part of the main plot of the series, creating a number of problems.
People watch television for more than just to be entertained. They watch to relate, to see other people going through situations they’ve struggled with and to feel less alone. They want to see their stories and lives broadcasted to millions of homes in America to be understood. Television is not offering these things to those who are not white, gay or cisgendered.
There are few shows that centrally focus on a person of color’s perspective on the racism and discrimination they have to deal with every day of their lives, or a person’s struggle with their sexuality or gender. The short-lived series The New Normal does focus on a gay couple that wants a child, but the show instantly loses its potential to give real insight when it perpetuates gay and racial stereotypes — which it does often. This misrepresentation of marginalized groups is isolating. It can make people in these underrepresented groups feel like they do not matter and that their struggles are not valid. Sure, you can use Google or Yahoo Answers to get advice and feelings of solidarity, but words on a screen are only so beneficial — seeing actual people living your real situations is something invaluable and inspirational.
We cannot blame the actors, who are just playing the part that they have been given. We cannot blame the writers, who have just been given the opportunity to tell a story. Those at the top of television networks, who are most likely straight white men, that are casting actors and approving show pitches that are so lacking in diversity, are the ones to really blame. They are perpetuating, and thus reinforcing, heterosexual white privilege that is ever-present in real life into this outlet that is so available for an accurate depiction of someone else’s story.
Sometimes, a television show is able to break the mold. For example, the critically lauded Netflix series Orange Is The New Black refreshingly features a female-centric cast that can easily be argued as one of the most racially diverse in the history of television. Not only that, but it deals with the confusing conflict of questioning one’s sexuality through the character of Piper Chapman. It also boasts a transgendered person of color, Laverne Cox, and her character’s story and struggle is depicted in detail. The sketch comedy series In Living Color is another example of a show that did not follow television standards. Ahead of its time and often compared to Saturday Night Live, this series boasted a cast of mostly black actors.
The stories of the black teenager, the Latina woman, the female-to-male transgender person, the Korean-American student — they all need to be told. Not as a token, one-episode special, but as full-on character studies to bring some form of equality to an outdated television representation system. These groups are so misunderstood in real life as discrimination remains to run rampant in our country, and this permeates through vessels that we have the untapped power of controlling: our screens.