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Shonda Rhimes on diversity in television
- Salon.com: How much pride do you take in the fact that your casts are much more racially diverse than most other shows?
- Shonda Rhimes: I don’t take pride in it at all. I think it’s sad, and weird, and strange that it’s still a thing, nine years after we did “Grey’s,” that it’s still a thing. It’s creepy to me that it’s still an issue, that there aren’t enough people of color on television. Why is that still happening? It’s 2013. Somebody else needs to get their act together. And oh, by the way it works. Ratings-wise, it works. People like to see it. I don’t understand why people don’t understand that the world of TV should look like the world outside of TV. Like, why is there an assumption of whiteness on television? It’s very weird to me. I think there are some people who work really hard at it. I think J.J. Abrams really goes out of his way to try to make television look diverse. I think it’s happening. And I think that some people just assume whiteness, because that’s what they see. It’s weird.
- Salon: Do you feel like that’s because it is mostly white guys making TV?
- SR: I don’t think it’s about that. I really don’t. J.J. Abrams is a white guy, he does it. Norman Lear, years and years and years and years ago, did it. I think it’s ridiculous, that the networks don’t demand it more. I think it’s crazy that the person who everybody asks this question of is me. Everyone always says to me, “Why aren’t there more people of color on television?” I’m like, “Why don’t you ask a bunch of people who aren’t putting people of color on television why there aren’t more people of color on television.”
- Salon: You’re right. But you know why we’re asking, it’s not because you’re not doing it.
- SR: But, you know what I mean? Like, but I can’t tell you why. I don’t know why the white guys aren’t putting people of color on television, maybe we should ask them. And if you ask them all the time, after a while they might start thinking about putting people of color on television.
Here I’m going to write out an unfocused ramble about why I think it’s a smart idea to diversify one’s fictional cast of characters whenever possible. Full disclosure: I am a straight white man.
Everybody likes stories. Stories are just one of those things every culture uses to tell itself about itself, its values and its identity. The thing is, Western culture is saturated with stories about heterosexual white men doing everything from exploring outer space to becoming lord of the apes to descending into a suicidal spiral of drug abuse and sex addiction. There are literally thousands of complex, interesting, flawed, brilliant, straight, white male characters. I honestly think we could go 100 years without another straight white male protagonist and still be extremely well represented.
But as we all know, straight white men are hardly the only people on earth. They’re not even the majority. Of all humans on the planet HALF, that’s one in two, are women. And that doesn’t even account for all the myriad races and cultures outside ours with all their unique perspectives and contributions.
So where are the gay latin ninjas? Or the black female jungle explorers? Or the genius trans woman detectives? Where are the complex, fascinating, flawed and brilliant people of colour (POC), women and queer people in our fiction?
(Now, I appreciate links if people can send me examples, but the fact that there may be one or two decent Mexican superheroes is not really what I’m trying to get at.)
The reason POC and women and queer people have so few really great characters to choose from is that the powers that be, Hollywood, the publishing industry, the games industry, mainstream comics, have decided to play it safe and not take risks on characters that some people might find it hard to relate to. In the same way that Hollywood thinks you only care about ‘splosions, Hollywood also thinks you’re racist and sexist. They really do. It’s not hard to find stories of well meaning, concerned, “liberal” producers being just a little worried that audiences may not find a black woman protagonist very appealing. It’s not that concerned Hollywood people are racist, heavens no! It’s just that some audiences are a little old fashioned and blah, blah, blah excuses.
The year is 2013, by the way.
Now I understand huge monolithic media empires like Disney and whoever’s still not Disney have to protect the interests of their investors because money.
What I don’t understand is how the rest of us who are not beholden to some evil empire can possibly be content with just doing variations on the same straight, white, male characters all the time. If for no other reason than to be different.
So look, I’m familiar with the history of poorly conceived “inclusive” characters that have been shoehorned into franchises for the sake of political correctness. The one (and only one) girl on every cartoon show who has to represent her entire gender and the one, (never two or three) black character that appears on every sitcom just to prove it’s not racist. Those characters usually suck. Why? Because they’re there just to check a box. They’re never given anything interesting to do and they rarely get to be more than just a representative of their demographic.
Well nuts to that I say. Nobody should write a character just for the sake of having demographic X on display. That’s just bad writing. Only write characters who contribute to the story, are interesting and who have good stories to tell. BUT there is absolutely no reason whatsoever that your genius idea for a character can’t be black, or Hispanic or Arab or queer or a woman. None whatsoever, in fact, it’s an opportunity to add texture to a character that otherwise would have to struggle to stand out in a crowd of samey white guys.
Example: Omar Little from the Wire. He’s based on a real man who held up drug dealers to steal their money. How awesome is that? A completely unique character, totally thrilling. The creators also had the brilliant idea to make Omar gay. There was no money reason to. People might object. But they did it because it made Omar just that little bit more interesting. It was a smart creative decision that did just a little bit to make gay black men more visible and little bit more cool. I can’t see a single creative reason not to.
Now I’m not saying you should arbitrarily make a character Chinese without familiarizing yourself to some extent with Chinese people. But a little research into another culture will enrich your understanding of the world and is worth doing anyway.
It’s also important to not appropriate elements of a culture in a way that takes from it without giving back. (Example: all the white guys who got rich recording the kinds of music created by black people, while those black artists died in obscurity.) Other peoples lives are not yours to strip-mine for ideas. I want to be clear about that. That’s not at all what I’m suggesting. I’m merely saying I want my queer, Asian and women friends to have wonderful characters to relate to so they can join the party we white people have been enjoying for centuries.
So here you accomplish two things, 1) you better represent the diversity of people found in the real world and 2) you give an under served community a character of their own.
BUT WAIT! And this is important: think about how much you love the characters you identify with. How you take ownership of them and they become a part of you. It may be the Doctor, or Sherlock Holmes or Batman. Now think about how you’d feel if some writer exploited or mistreated that character or wrote them with disrespect. Consider that if you give a community outside your own a character they can become attached to, you have a responsibility to them to do your best by that character.
I can see why writers would still shy away from writing diverse characters in order to avoid falling on their face. Yes, you may look stupid. But then again, so what? Are you really going to let your fear of failure allow you to contribute to marginalizing people? Your friends even? And look, with all the embarrassing failed attempts at diversity over the years, you cannot possibly fail as hard as DC Comics or sitcoms already have. So grow a spine.
So to all my queer, Chinese, black, female, Muslim, Indian and all the other friends and acquaintances whom I have learned from, partied with and enjoyed the company of my whole life, I want to include you. I want to welcome you into all the genres and spaces of fandom where you may have felt excluded. Come aboard. We want you here. I want you here. Fiction is too much fun not to share. Let’s explore it together.
Please ask questions and comment as you see fit. I’m learning as much as anyone and I’m aware that my tone can be hard to interpret at times.
A friend of mine alerted me on Twitter that I may have come off as opportunistic. In a way, I’m okay with that and here’s why: We professional creative types are constantly being told by cowardly executives that we can’t make characters more diverse or that we can’t let a token character be actually entertaining or interesting. I don’t buy that. I think there are millions of people out there who want stories that reflect and represent them and who aren’t being catered to. That’s called leaving money on the table. Ideally, people of colour and women will get the opportunity to create characters of their own, but they don’t have to be the only ones working toward greater diversity. If I make a comic with a popular gay character that causes a publisher to give a gay creator a shot at making his own comic, I helped both of us.
The powers that be follow money first and foremost. If we show them there is money in diverse characters, they will have to present more diverse characters. We are in a period of time where mainstream media is doubling down on reboots and sequels and public domain works which means more of the same old straight white male characters over and over again. If we want better representation in the future, it’s up to us to make it happen.
(I do care about social justice, but the primary concern of an entertainer is to entertain, so I’m focusing on the entertainment value of inclusiveness rather than the social value. A well-intentioned agenda can drag down a story like few other things. Nobody likes being preached to.)
“I always find it comical that supporting something that others have intentionally or accidentally ignored, somehow makes YOU wrong. I can sit here on name all of the games with Black lead characters on two hands and still have a finger or two left over. Naming ones which featured a Black female as the main character? I only need one hand.. and i’ll have one finger left over. Right or wrong, video games feature mostly white male characters saving the universe, cept for those games which offer you the ability to create the look and feel of your own character to control. The belief is that since mostly white male buy games, they are the ones games should be catered to. Or is it that games are mostly designed BY white males? OR is that, and I have heard this a lot by my white friends whom are authors, that you intentionally stay away from doing Black characters because anything you get ‘wrong’ is always misconstrued as you being a racist.”—Wanting to support a video game with a ‘Black’ female lead makes me a racist apparently.
This is like such a scarily accurate summary of so many of my fandom experiences that it’s unreal.