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White Out

Arts & Culture | October 23, 2017

It’s 2003: Friends is approaching its end, One Tree Hill and The O.C. are competing for the hearts of teenagers nationwide, and major characters of color are still a rare sight. Fast-forward to today, and more shows than ever are bringing people of color front and center: Master of None, Jane the Virgin, and Empire are just some of the examples that are critically acclaimed and feature diverse casts. So when you think back to the age of all-White casts, it’s easy to think that we’ve come so far. But as we pat ourselves on the back for celebrating the diverse characters in Orange is the New Black, our complacency keeps us from looking deeper at a much larger problem. One quick Google search gives a look behind the scenes, revealing a room of White writers crafting the stories of people of color. A few more Google searches in, and you will find a discerning gap in what we see and what is told, which leads to the question: where are all the writers of color?

In a 2015 report from the Writers Guild of America West of the 2013-2014 television season, overall staff writer employment of racial minorities has decreased since a previous 2013 study. While Latinx and Asian employment saw increases, Black writers saw a decrease in employment, and of the 292 TV shows across 36 networks airing during the 2013-2014 season, only two writers self-identified as Native American. More than a third of the TV shows had zero minority staff members, and only three networks met the proportionate representation of racial diversity: Black Entertainment Television, El Rey, and weTV. Minority writers continue to be underrepresented by a factor of nearly three to one, and those that are employed continue to be paid less than their white co-workers, earning 80 cents for every dollar. In fact, this earnings gap has widened since 2011, when it reached its closest point at 91 cents to the dollar.

These statistics are cold numbers to consider and difficult to fully comprehend when we see and praise the diverse casts on television today. More importantly, it becomes clear that while visible representation is important, it is merely a Band-Aid solution for the lack of diversity in not just television, but all forms of media. Diversity is more than just what the eye can see; it is about experience, identity, and the feeling of accurate representation. Tasha Oren, a visiting professor in Tufts’ Drama and Dance department, argues that diversity has even broader implications. “The stakes in diversity are not about a single show or a character but the pictures from a higher vantage point, the cultural landscape in general,” Oren says.

And just like every other institutional problem that has been “fixed” with an image makeover, deeper problems lie within that are slowly being revealed.

To first address this issue, it is necessary to find out why little has changed since 2015. Regardless of the good intention to hire diverse writers, it only works if the necessary effort is put in to make a difference. Several networks and studios have launched diversity fellowships, like NBC’s Diverse Staff Writing Initiative or the Disney-ABC Writing Program, that mean well but create a new set of problems. In an in-depth Slate article written by Aisha Harris, several of writers of color describe the process of bouncing from one initiative to another as, “fighting every diversity person, of any ethnic diversity, for one spot.” Even if they get that one spot, it doesn’t typically lead to a staff position; it just means they are filling the token diversity position for that team of writers. The many who don’t find their job through diversity programs are often left relying on supportive mentors willing to fight for them. And even when writers of color make it to the writers’ room—regardless of how they got there—they are often the only representative of their race at the table. This has been a burden for all people of color, as they face the challenge of having to represent their race. However, one individual is not a representation of an entire racial experience. Their personal identity is just one story of many, and to ask them to be the voice of an entire race is an immense amount of pressure. Without getting that first staff position, it becomes difficult to become executive producers and showrunners who are the ones who can incite greater change and bring in more minority writers to reduce the burden. But as of 2015, not only have less minority writers been employed, but also less executive producers. As a result, the cycle continues.

Certain areas of TV have done better than others addressing this minority gap. Shonda Rhimes is famously known for her diverse casts and writers in hit shows like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy. Meanwhile, late night television is notoriously run by White men and is the least diverse sector of television. According to the 2015 WGA report, only 3.5 percent of the staff writers for late night, talk, and game shows were minorities, and only 18 percent were women. However, steady attempts at reform have been made. A recent New York Magazine interview with Samantha Bee, host of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, revealed her show’s extensive “blind application process,” which resulted in a 50 percent female, 30 percent minority, and diversely experienced staff; one writer they hired was previously working at the DMV. In addition, they specifically hired an experienced playwright to launch a mentorship program to draw in more writers that aren’t in the standard applicant pool. This type of hiring takes effort, not just a quick addition of one non-White writer for a year.

Late Night with Seth Meyers uses another concept to start the conversation, bringing some of the show’s writers to the stage to tell their own jokes. Oren says, “since most authors do write from their own experience—and hire writers who have similar life experiences to help them in the writers’ room—we end up with too many stories from a certain point of view and not enough from others.” To combat this sentiment, host Seth Meyers, a White man, brings two female writers, Amber Ruffin, who is Black, and Jenny Hagel, who is queer, to tell jokes about their own identities in a segment called “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” On television, the words spoken by a person of color are too often not their own but those written by a White person. And as Meyers introduces in the segment, “Every night I deliver a monologue comprised of jokes written by a diverse team of writers. As a result, a lot of jokes come across my desk that due to my being a straight, white male would be difficult for me to deliver. But we don’t think that should stop you from enjoying them.” Not only do the women get to present their own jokes to the audience, but also the diverse audience is not deprived of hearing fresh jokes that they can relate to their own experiences.

With more diverse writers, more stories can be told, and more audience members can feel accurately represented on television. Audiences today are certainly becoming more and more diverse and prefer diverse storytelling. In a 2013 study done by the Bunche Center at UCLA, more viewers were drawn to shows with ethnically diverse leads and writers. While it is understandable to prefer diverse casts, the diversity of writers also affected ratings, even without audiences knowing who the writers were. Television ratings dropped significantly for shows on cable television with writing staffs that were less than 10 percent minority, which were the vast majority of the shows in the analysis. Similarly, broadcast shows that had more diverse writing staffs (21-30 percent minority) had the highest ratings. With consistent results demonstrating the benefits of diversity in the writers’ room, it becomes clear that this is a structural issue, not a “fear” that audiences would not enjoy such a change behind the scenes.

All this evidence reveals that achieving representative diversity is hard work. Reports continue to be published every few years, and though a steady improvement was observed between 2008 and 2014, an updated 2016 WGA study found no progress whatsoever: minority writer employment has remained at a low 13 percent since 2014. It is not that networks and shows do not want more diversity nor that audiences would dislike it, but that diversity is not made a priority when it should be. While change requires more than an attitude check and a quick visual test, it needs to be made easier.

Harris suggests incentivizing union-staffed writers’ rooms and holding studios accountable. The WGA-East submitted an amendment in 2016 to reallocate just less than 1 percent of the $420 million credit for film and TV productions to be used to hire qualified women and people of color as writers and directors. It certainly is possible to have a representative writers’ room, given the praised examples that have succeeded. Just how onscreen minority roles turned from praiseworthy to the standard, writers, executive producers, and showrunners of color need to become the norm. “It’s not a simple story of progress,” says Oren, “It slowly gets better, then worse, then better again, and often it takes viewers to protest and make noise for that to happen.”