Scandal, Selma and a Black President

In the round up of 2014’s mass media themes, many critics pointed to an increase in diversity. Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal magic, lovely Lupita and Selma marching into theaters it seems like a flood of great media representations of black, right?

36_Shonda_Rhimes_Cover_Embed Sure it’s great to see characters from all different back grounds displayed across network TV and in the wondrous world of scripted cable drama. Yea. But if it sounds like I’m doing the slow clap its because I can’t help but feel like our forward progress may be an illusion at best, and at worst? Well, keep reading.

BN-BD772_zamata_E_20140119084301The past year has seen its share of memorable milestones towards a more diverse media: SNL cast its first woman of color in seven years; the major networks aired shows with minority lead characters—like ABC’s Blackish and How To Get Away With Murder, NBC’s crime drama ensembles and even Fox’s Octavia Spenser drama.

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Directors and show runners like the ubiquitous Shonda Rhimes, rising star Tim Story (Think Like a Man) and Hollywood heavyweight Tyler Perry proved that there is even some color behind the camera. With these high-visibility success stories, audiences may increasingly feeling like they already see a post racial America on their screens at home.

Except, its not true.

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Remember when we elected a black president and believed that this would magically bring about racial harmony and understanding? It did’t. In the same way, seeing a few black faces on your screens may make you think that we are entering a post racial Hollywood. The truth is, it won’t.

People of color continue to be woefully underrepresented and misrepresented in media. A comprehensive survey of mass Media published last year out of UCLA showed that minorities are underrepresented in Hollywood films by a factor of 3, and in TV by a factor of anywhere from 2 to 7 .  Behind the camera of your favorite TV show is even worse with minorities directing on 4.2% of all broadcast comedies and dramas.

Selma-special-VIP-screening-6When it comes to the best films—those that take home Oscar gold—100% of winning directors are white. That’s right, in the Academy Award’s 85 years a person of color has never won for best director.  If the Selma snub at last nights Golden Globes is any indication we are unlikely to break the streak this year either.

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Underrepresentation is just half the story. Accurate voice and representation is about number in front of and behind the camera, but its also about the quality of representation. Even if the number of minorities on TV were a dead match for census numbers, if those stories continue to reinforce old stereotypes, then we can’t call it progress.

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On the quality front, 2014 was looking more like 1974—a black woman serving up sex for her powerful master, happy faces shucking and jiving to a laugh track, and Queen B twerking for the teens. And these aren’t the B and C-listers—this is what A-list black stars do to get that check.

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The illusion of progress that we toasted at the end of the year masks the steady restabilization of racist narratives of the past. We end up celebrating just a fiercer crop of mammys and jezebels. Don’t settle just for Scandal.  We need a diverse media that reflects out increasingly diverse country, but unless the industry starts making some changes in front of the camera and behind—especially in those writing rooms—we might find ourselves raising a glass to the same old same old.

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Before you trash the idea of better media with your resolution to hit the gym, there is a glimmer of hope. You see, the same UCLA study that put numbers to the lack of diversity also showed that shows with more diverse casts are more profitable. Media is made by for profit companies, so listen up suits! It seems that more color equals more green.

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Supporting media that celebrates diversity make sense. Vote for better media with your dollars. Go see Selma, and rent those series that get it right. Finally a New Year’s resolution you can keep? Watch TV and movies with diverse casts!

Susan X Jane

Susan Jane thinks a lot about media and race…a lot. She teaches Communications at Wheelock College, writes and speaks about media…and race... and generally encourages everyone she meets to think about the way media shapes their sense of self and their ideas and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

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