For a blog earlier this week, I wrote about how validating it is to see yourself depicted on screen. I meant that in a sense of personality – a character who shares your hopes and dreams, your fears, or who has the same heroes as you. A character who walks like you and talks like you.
But what about seeing yourself on screen in a more literal way? Say, a character that looks like you. Well, as a straight white female, this is a pretty regular occurrence for me. I have the luxury of not only being able to see someone who looks like me, but to explore characters who I identify with as a person.
While diversity and inclusivity on screen has been improving in recent years, many Black, indigenous, and people of color have limited characters to choose from. The same goes for members of the LGBTQ+ community, or people living with a disability. There’s a decent chance that your favorite show features a character or two who resembles a person from one of these communities, but the list dwindles when you start looking for complex versions of these characters.
There are many production companies who would like to pat themselves on the back for the representation in their respective films and shows. It’s true enough that we’re seeing more racially and ethnically diverse characters on screen, and certainly more representation of the LGBTQ community in the past decade. But too often these characters are just tokens – a box for companies to check, signifying that they’ve filled their ‘diversity quota.’
This is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is the failure to get to the root of the issue. Yes, it is hugely important to have diversity in front of the camera, but it is completely meaningless unless said character has agency – the ability to act on their own and exert power. If every word of dialogue by a Black character or a gay character is informed by the actions and thoughts of the white character, they might as well not be there at all.
We’ve come a long way from minority characters being the butt of jokes, but we still have so far to go before Hollywood can truly brand itself as an inclusive place. The solution here is to hire more Black people, people of color, indigenous people, LGBTQ people, and women behind the camera. More writers, directors, casting agents, and showrunners who are members of these communities. Because they actually know and understand the experiences of these people in a way white writers, no matter how educated and how informed they are, ever will.
While the creatives in these communities have been calling this out for decades, only recently has white Hollywood seem to have taken the time to care. Just in the past few months, we’ve seen a number of actors and actresses step down from roles where they voice a person of color, or reconsider playing a character who is transgender or of a different sexuality than them. We’ve also seen production companies and streaming services promoting Black stories the way they always should have been: loudly and proudly. Shows like Pose, Sex Education, The Politician, Hollywood, and Orange is the New Black are some of the few legitimately diverse and inclusive shows we have today, and ones that have enjoyed enormous success.
My point here is that everyone deserves to see themselves in a character from their favorite show or film: young people of every color, from every spot on the gender spectrum, whatever their sexuality, whether they have a disability or not. Call me crazy, but it’s about time that our on (and off) screen representations of culture actually represent culture.