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Why making Hollywood more diverse requires far more than shaking up who’s onscreen

Three great showrunners on why TV has gotten more inclusive — and why it still needs to go much further.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Vida, Black Lightning
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Vida, and Black Lightning all tackle stories not often told in fiction.
The CW; Starz; The CW
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

For the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I wanted to commemorate the end of another TV season (the 2017-’18 TV season ended May 31, though several shows launched during it will continue into the summer) by having some of my favorite showrunners on to talk about the state of the industry.

It was one of those great conversations where I could just sit back and listen as smart people whose work I love bounced ideas around and asked each other questions and built on each other’s thoughts. The whole conversation is worth listening to, but I especially wanted to highlight what happened when I asked the group why they thought TV had gotten slightly better at telling stories about groups traditionally underrepresented in fiction, while movies had gotten so much worse.

It was a good group to ask that question.

Aline Brosh McKenna is a showrunner on the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical comedy that deconstructs romantic comedy tropes and shows how they don’t paint women as full people, while also destigmatizing mental illness, something TV has never been comfortable talking about. (She’s also the writer of several movies, including the fantastic Devil Wears Prada.)

Tanya Saracho is the showrunner of Starz’s Vida, a heartfelt, soulful half-hour drama about two Mexican-American sisters reconnecting after their mother’s death. The series also tackles themes of queerness and gentrification.

And Salim Akil, as the showrunner of The CW’s Black Lightning, has turned a superhero show into an examination of black masculinity and issues affecting black communities, while not skimping on the cool superhero fights.

So I didn’t have to say much. Indeed, the three talked for much longer on this topic after the segment I’ve excerpted here, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

March Of Dimes Celebration Of Babies: A Hollywood Luncheon At Beverly Wilshire Hotel on December 5, 2014 In Beverly Hills, California.
Aline Brosh McKenna.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for March of Dimes

Aline Brosh McKenna

You don’t have to make money in the more traditional manner. Television used to be really, really run by bean counters, and it was incredibly dictated by numbers. It’s really because of cable and streaming have redefined what a successful show is financially. We were the lowest-rated show on network television for a couple years. Now I think we’re maybe third from the bottom? [Laughs.] But we offer other things to the network. Strictly ratings, we wouldn’t have made it 10 years ago.

And networks really treat shows that have a more niche appeal completely differently. That’s why they’re making stuff that is across the board speaking to different types of audiences. And movies have gone the other way. They’ve gotten bigger, bigger, wider, wider.

We’re lucky that you can address different kinds of audiences and take certain artistic risks and that has paid off for networks. Other networks have seen that work. It’s still in progress, but I think you can see a lot more voices represented at the moment.

Tanya Saracho

There are a lot more. I’m myopic about how I look at this — just Latinx, you know?

We consume, if you look at the numbers, more especially movies than almost any demographic, especially young Latinas. There has not been a movie about a young, millennial Latina ever in the past decades. I still don’t understand, and I’m trying to figure out why we’ve been so invisible and why we continue to be.

In TV, it’s better because we’ve popped up, especially in front of the screen but behind the screen; out of 520 shows, we have now five, with mine, of a Latinx perspective, a Latinx gaze. But we make up almost 20 percent of this country. I don’t understand why we haven’t caught up or why they haven’t seen our value.

Aline Brosh McKenna

It’s the same reason that things are male-centered. They believe that women will go see things with a male protagonist.

Tanya Saracho

And we do, yeah.

Aline Brosh McKenna

They think the protagonist bias only goes that direction.

Tanya Saracho

But it becomes an erasure of a people in a way. We’re not counted. Our narratives are not up there. We still have these old ’90s immigrant narratives that are so different and complicated now. We’re still going back by Mi Familia and by Selena and by La Bamba. It’s crazy that those were the last big [movies].

I know in TV it’s better, but I think we still have a long way to go. If you look at those numbers, it’s like, why? Why are we not valued, our narratives? I’m still in that space.

Of course, Starz has been amazing to us. I do think because my executive is Marta Fernandez, and she’s Hispanic, and that matters, because you have to have someone in the castle to keep the door open. But if I look at the landscape, it’s really bleak.

SCAD aTVfest 2018 -  'Black Lightning'
Salim Akil.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images for SCAD aTVfest 2018

Salim Akil

Honestly, I think it’s getting better because you’re hearing more authentic voices. Black folk are writing and running shows about black folk. Before, I would look at television and I would say, “Oh, yeah, a white man wrote that. It doesn’t seem like anything a black person would do or say.” It was always some guy with tennis shoes on running from the police in a short jacket, and his name was Willie Earl.

When you have other people writing and [turns to Tanya] you said gaze — gazing for you, then they gaze from their point of view. It’s the gaze that usually makes them feel comfortable. I think what is happening now is that women and so-called minorities are writing things for themselves and their people, and so it gets better and better, and people become more and more interested.

I’m not really interested in the concept of what percentage of black folk are watching television in the United States, because we’re in a global economy now. So these images and these stories aren’t just being shown in America. They’re being shown on phones and TVs around the world. I was in South Africa, and Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane were on television, and people were watching them on their phones. And I guarantee you Starz isn’t just making your show to show in the United States.

I think that when you look at how we are disseminating these images and these stories, it becomes less about what’s going on in the ratings and less about what’s going on in the United States. We’re in a global economy now.

I think the reason you’re still having that conversation about an erasing of people is because there’s still the majority white men running these companies, and until there’s more inclusion in the higher ranks, where you don’t just have that one “blackspert,” the woman or the man who’s really working for corporate America and has no interest in fighting for you.

Once we start to replace those type of people with people who really do have an interest in not only making money but in telling stories about human beings, I think it will get better and better and better. But as long as we have the majority white men running companies, it’ll be a struggle.

But it’s a struggle I think worth having. When you look at African Americans, I always say we’re basically one generation up out of Jim Crow, and the things that we’ve managed to accomplish as a people on television and in politics speaks to the idea of struggle.

Starz 'Vida' Premiere - Red Carpet
Tanya Saracho.
Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

Tanya Saracho

So if perception is filtered through American television because we’re selling it around the world, we haven’t gotten that many shots to do it.

Aline Brosh McKenna

Well, also, they’re weirdly immune to actual data, because if you look at Wonder Woman or you look at Girls Trip, or you look at whatever, it’s still seen as an outlier. People still don’t identify, and it’s because we need to wick people into the system more from a creator’s standpoint but also from an executive’s standpoint. After a certain level, it really becomes a homogeneous group of people. So people can rise to a certain level, but in order to get kicked those four or five levels upstairs that you need to be to be a real decision-maker, there is no diversity there.

One of the things that I’m very concerned about is getting the best and the brightest to come here [to Hollywood] and stay, because the entry-level jobs don’t pay anything, and if you’re a smart kid and you’re from a different kind of community and you graduated from a good college and you can go get a consulting job and make a good living, why would you come here? So the only people who are coming here are the people who can get checks from their parents to help them survive.

We’re creating a lot of barriers to entry for creators, which is why you have to go grab people and pull them in and help them. You can’t wait for people to apply and show up. So there needs to be way more people as writers assistants and staff writers who are going to have that idea. We still have a lot of invisible barriers to entry just to get people to get into those jobs.

For so much more with all three, including a look at how they define success in an era when ratings mean less and less, listen to the full episode. And you can watch Vida on the Starz streaming app, and both Black Lightning and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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