When I'm not discussing social justice for Windy City Times, I work as an entertainment writer. At first glance those two fields might seem like polar opposites. After all, analyzing a glossy new superhero flick or dishing about the latest Beauty & The Beast casting news is frothy fun compared to dismantling systems of oppression. But for better or for worse, entertainment is a massive part of our culture. And I believe changing our fictional stories can have a big impact on our real world.
It's old hat at this point to note that The Cosby Show helped shift perceptions about middle class Black families for white viewers. Similarly, Joe Biden has credited Will & Grace with normalizing the idea of gay people for much of Middle America. Even those who don't have any gay friends can flip on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and see that Ellen is a warm, friendly, funny, empathetic woman, and that her sexualitythough part of her identitydoesn't change her humanity.
For a more recent example one need only look to Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox, who apart from being a phenomenal actor and wonderful public speaker, has done more to humanize the face of the transgender experience than just about anyone. It's easy for concepts about sexuality, gender, and identity to feel nebulous or even scary to those who don't have a personal connect to the LGBTQ community. But in spending a little time with Cox ( or at least the character she plays ), it quickly becomes apparent that she's just a normal woman who has taken a slightly different life path. Simply by telling one character's story, she's helped thousands of people understand and relate to the trans experience.
Sadly, our media is still utterly failing at representing the true diversity of our country. GLAAD recently found that LGBTQ characters make up only 3.9 percent of scripted series regulars on broadcast TV, and 66 percent of those characters are white. LGBTQ characters appeared in only 20 of the top 114 major studio films in 2014.
In 2013, Black characters held only 14 percent of speaking roles in the top 100 films, and Hispanic/Latino characters held a paltry 4.9 percent of such roles, despite representing more than 16 percent of the U.S. population.
And even though women make up a whopping 50 percent of the population, they portrayed only 29 percent of major characters and 12 percent of protagonists in the 100 top-grossing films of 2014; 74 percent of those female characters were white.
Behind the scenes the numbers are even more dismal. Men outnumbered women 5-to-1 in key, behind-the-camera roles in 2012, with women accounting for only 4 percent of directors and 12 percent of writers. Of the top 100 films of 2013, Black men directed only 6.5 percent and Black women directed none. Meanwhile in television, women created only 21 percent of cable shows and 25 percent of network shows.
It's embarrassing to see how little these numbers have changed over the years. There are fewer women employed in film production today than there were in 1998. Not only do we need to encourage writers to add more diversity to their projects, we need to allow diverse creators to tell stories in the first place.
And while part of this plea stems from a desire for social equality, diversity just leads to better stories in general. I love romantic comedies, but if those were the only types of films I could watch I'd pull my hair out. We already get enjoyment out of hopping between genres, so why shouldn't we be equally excited to watch projects about diverse experiences too?
For instance, we've pretty well covered the white male perspective on World War II. But there are far fewer films that explore Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps, women taking over factory work, the Army loosening its anti-homosexual stance to allow more men to enlist, or Black people fighting for the "Double V" campaignvictory overseas and equality at home. Telling those stories would not only increase onscreen representation, it would allow audiences to enjoy fresh films that don't feel like retreads.
There is quite literally no downside to telling diverse stories and adding characters from different backgrounds. It's better for an audience hungry for new kinds of films and TV shows, and it's better for underrepresented groups who are given a humanizing face in the public sphere.
Thankfully, Laverne Cox and Orange Is The New Black are currently sending that message loud and clear.
Caroline Siede is a freelance writer living in Chicago where the cold never bothers her anyway. You can also find her work on The A.V. Club and Boing Boing.