Diversity on television
Meaningful representation in small screen productions has historically fallen short. Thankfully, things appear to be moving in the right direction but there is still a long way to go.
For all its faults, when Sex and the City first aired in 1998 its depictions of female sexuality were frank, new, and refreshingly non-conventional. Writer Patrick McLennan recently called the show “era-defining” in the RadioTimes, noting its focus on female empowerment. However, a recently announced series reboot is drawing some scepticism because society has come a long way in 20 years. Women’s sexuality and how it’s represented on screen has moved on, and rightly so. As the writer Sanjana Varghese noted in the New Statesman, despite its feminist draw, Sex and the City is “outdated, wealthy and white”. Recent shows such as I May Destroy You (2020) and Fleabag (2016) have shown new depths of female sexuality on screen, tackling key issues of desire, identity, intimacy and rage. It will be intriguing to see how our favourite Sex and the City characters navigate the modern world.
Actress Tracee Ellis Ross told Vogue in November 2019, “Black women have been the leads in our own lives for years. That should be reflected on TV.” Ross is a star in the sitcom Black-ish, which has made headlines by covering controversial topics including police brutality. Race is part of the show’s identity. As one journalist describes, it follows a family who does not “happen to be black” but a family who are black. The show’s popularity highlights an appetite among audiences for multifaceted characters of colour. As does the success stories of How to Get Away with Murder, Insecure, Master of None, Quantico and Empire, which all feature complex, imperfect characters who happen to be non-white. It is sobering to read a recent report from Britain then, which found that the representation of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic people went backwards both on- and off-screen in 2020. No recent report in Australia seems readily available, itself a sign of how far we must go to reflect cultural diversity on the small screen.
Film and TV production studios NBCUniversal and CBS Entertainment have pledged to include actors with disabilities in auditions for new film and TV shows. Disability rights advocates are hopeful other industry giants will soon follow. According to a recent report, only about 22% of characters with disabilities on US network and streaming shows in 2018 were "authentically portrayed by actors with disabilities."
As outlined in the JWT Future 100 for 2021, in a covid climate animation is having a resurgence due to its relative ease of production mid-pandemic. "The global animation market is projected to reach $473.7 million by 2026, up from $272.1 million in 2020". With this in mind it is crucial to hold this medium, targeted heavily towards children and increasingly more adults as well, just as responsible for their role.
Some studios are embracing animation to showcase underrepresented groups . Pixar short film Float follows a Filipino American father who discovers that his son is different — he can float — and aims to conceal the child's ability; it's based on the filmmaker's relationship with his son, who is on the autism spectrum. Nonetheless, from a lack of overweight females to zero neurodiversity, kids’ animation can do much better, according to new Ryerson University data out of Canada.
While diversity on the small screen isn’t where it needs to be, these past few years have seen progress made in studios around the world. There are more kinds of stories waiting to be told though, stories that reflect everyone in the community.