At CultureBeat, we keep track of diversity on television because it’s so important for marketers and researchers, and not just for advertising purposes. Television reflects the attitudes of society while also helping to influence what people think and believe. Understanding trends in television is crucial for understanding your consumers and how best to position your brand.
In recent years, we have seen an increase in diversity on television shows. However, simply including multicultural characters isn’t enough; shows need to authentically represent multicultural audiences, and this gets a bit trickier. Year after year, TV networks in mainstream media are criticized for relegating characters of color to minor supporting roles, if including them at all. Too often, representations of minorities are stereotypes, exaggerated for comedic effect, such as Apu from The Simpsons (Fox). On the other hand, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black sets the standard for multicultural representation with carefully constructed characters with a diverse range of gender, racial, and sexual identities.
DIVERSITY BEHIND THE SCENES
Last August, producer Shonda Rhimes signed a deal moving her production company from ABC to Netflix. Her shows, which made ABC over $2 billion, are some of the most diverse on primetime television; Scandal stars an African American actress, and How to Get Away with Murder features a diverse cast including a bisexual African-American female lead. Her move to Netflix raises questions about the future of multicultural representation on national network television. Network stations are already lacking in diversity compared to streaming services, especially in drama shows like Rhimes’.
Network stations will need to do more to compete with increasingly popular and successful streaming services. This starts behind the scenes, which is why Rhimes’ move to Netflix is so critical. It’s difficult to authentically represent multicultural people if the decision makers behind a show don’t reflect this diversity. For example, when Netflix reimagined the 1970’s show One Day at a Time, this time featuring a Cuban family, they knew it was important to be as diverse behind the camera as in front of it. The co-showrunner is a woman of color; all of season two’s directors are either women, people of color, or both, and the writing staff is 50% female, 50% people of color, and 20% LGBTQ+. So, it’s no surprise that the show is full of cultural references and that the Hispanic and queer characters feel so authentic and relatable.
Multicultural audiences are much more actively engaged with television today—they leverage social media to promote shows that authentically represent them and critique those that rely on negative stereotypes. For example, in response to so many television shows killing off their LGBTQ+ characters (referred to as the Bury Your Gays trope), fans took to social media, getting #LGBTFansDeserveBetter to trend for hours on Twitter worldwide, created two websites to offer support and explain how harmful the Bury Your Gays trope is, and raised over $50,000 for the Trevor Project to support LGBTQ+ youth.
And shows are responding back to fans, too! Offending shows’ casts and showrunners have acknowledged the backlash, but the response from other shows has been even more noteworthy. Emily Andres, the creator of Syfy’s Wynonna Earp, promised fans that the show’s lesbian couple would survive the first season and be in the second season. A writer for the Netflix remake of One Day at A Time promised not to kill off the show’s Hispanic lesbian character, Elena. Other writers and producers have also signed an official pledge promising not to kill off LGBTQ+ characters for the sole purpose of furthering a straight character’s storyline. In addition to directly responding to and opposing the Bury Your Gays trope, they also show how LGBTQ+ characters can be authentically represented; One Day at a Time has been praised for its unique and realistic coming out narrative and Wynonna Earp for featuring authentic, dynamic, carefully constructed characters whose storylines are about more than just their sexuality.
Authentic representation isn’t only noticed by audiences—if the 2017 Emmys are any indication, it means more awards, too. Black Mirror’s (Netflix) “San Junipero” episode about an interracial lesbian couple with a happy ending won two Emmys. Hulu’s popular show The Handmaid’s Tale took home eight Emmys, including one for the portrayal of a lesbian character. Lena Waithe, who identifies as queer, won an Emmy for writing the Master of None episode, “Thanksgiving,” which tells the story of Waithe’s character realizing she’s gay and coming out to her family over seven years of Thanksgiving dinners. The 2017 Emmys also saw outstanding lead actor awards going to African-American, Asian, and Muslim actors for the first time. And while it may not have won any in 2017, Orange is the New Black has won a total of four Emmys since its premier.
Many popular shows from the 1990s and 2000s have been getting reboots recently, including three popular LGBTQ+ shows: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Will & Grace, and The L Word. Each of these shows were groundbreaking when they first aired for featuring multiple main characters that openly identified as LGBTQ+. All three shows were popular among straight and LGBTQ+ audiences alike, were nominated for and won multiple GLAAD Media Awards, and are often credited as having helped increase acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in America.
But despite this praise, these shows still had their faults. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was stereotypical, generalizing that all gay men love fashion. Will & Grace also reinforced stereotypes, lacked racial diversity, and made jokes at the expense of transgender people. The L Word was basically a soap opera, focusing more on drama than on authentically portraying lesbians.
Today, more shows than ever feature mindfully developed LGBTQ+ characters, break down barriers, and explore real issues. With more shows authentically representing LGBTQ+ people and fans being more vocal about those that don’t, the remakes of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Will & Grace, and The L Word need to do better to avoid feeling outdated in order to be as successful and influential as when they first aired. The reboot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in particular has distinguished itself by focusing on empowering people, self-care, and mental health.
Television reflects the attitudes of society while also helping to influence what people think and believe, so keeping a pulse on television shows can give insight into understanding your consumers’ attitudes and what should be important for your brand. Consumers are looking for authentic multicultural representation from their entertainment, so you can bet they are looking for it from brands, too, when deciding where to spend their dollars. This gives brands a powerful opportunity to connect with their consumers and distinguish themselves from their competitors. As consumers become more engaged, the stakes become a lot higher, so it’s important to listen and be inclusive. Researching multicultural consumers can help you better understand them and position your brand to appeal to them.