Many of you alerted us to the recent irresponsible article from Deadline Hollywood asking whether an increase in ethnic* lead roles included in the current pilot season is “too much of a good thing.”
Typically it’s best to avoid click bait like this. Personally, I tend to save my black outrage for projects that the general public doesn’t care about and that media outlets are afraid to share, because quite frankly it’s more edifying than ranting about racism**, which is clearly here to stay. But it’s a constant struggle in the mind of the writer as to whether to disregard poorly written, poorly thought-out work in order to give it less of a platform, or to address it directly in hopes of shedding light on the situation and having a productive dialogue. Here, we’ll try the latter.
The outcry on social media over this particular article was swift and biting, with many listing the ways in which actors of color have been historically shut out of lead roles in television and film, and how the strides made in TV in the past few years are only beginning to crack the surface of diversity in entertainment.
– Kerry Washington was only the first black woman to lead a network drama in nearly 40 years.
– There is only a handful of shows on television today with diverse leads. That those shows are wildly successful (see: “Empire,” “Black-Ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat”) doesn’t change the fact that there is still only a handful.
– Characters of color continue to be marginalized and relegated to supporting roles, and are often treated as disposable (see: “Sleepy Hollow,” “The Walking Dead,” et al).
Those are just a few facts, and we could list many more to argue that casting diverse actors should always be seen as a positive. We could also argue that the number of actors of color in any given cast should not matter to an industry that claims to be color-blind.
But I’ll argue another point: that focusing on color in casting is simply a diversionary tactic to get us all to forget what an abysmal year this has been for diversity in Hollywood in general. If we focus on the handful of actors of color that are actually working right now, we don’t have to think about all the “ethnic” writers, directors and producers still struggling to get their work made and seen.
One has only to look at UCLA Bunche Center’s annual diversity report to see that people of color remain underrepresented on every front in both television and film – among scripted leads, writers and directors. In a time when it’s been shown that ethnically diverse content results in higher ratings, yet the WGA and DGA report actual decreases in diversity; in a time when a person of color walking into any major agency in Hollywood seems to be breaking the color line; in a time when diverse TV showrunners will personally tell you how hard it is to hire diverse staff on their own shows; how can anyone in Hollywood complain of too many “ethnic” people?
If you’re into conspiracy theories, you might say that the lack of diverse content creators is intentional, and allows Hollywood to maintain the facade of diversity without actually having to be diverse; to cast actors of color when it’s convenient in order to avoid having diverse people control the narrative, thereby telling their own stories, hiring their own diverse casts, and subverting the status quo.
But regardless of the intent, the facts couldn’t be clearer. No, there is not too much ethnic casting. No, jobs for non-diverse actors are not drying up.
Rest easy. If there’s one thing that Hollywood has never, ever had too much of, it is “ethnic” people.
*For the sake of space and to avoid a separate discussion on the problematic nature of language, we’ll use the Deadline author’s term “ethnic” as a catch-all phrase to include diverse people, or people of color.
**For those of you that can read no further than the word “racism” and need a specific definition: Racism is not simply someone burning a cross on your front lawn or calling you the n-word. When most of us refer to racism today, we’re referring to implicit bias and systemic oppression that ever-so-subtly suggests whiteness as the norm and non-whiteness as inferior. For an example of racism, see Nellie Andreeva’s article here.