In 2012, Kerry Washington, star of the Shonda Rhimes-created ABC political drama Scandal, became the first black woman to lead a network drama in nearly four decades. Two seasons later, the series became the first on a major broadcast network that “was created by a black woman, starring a black woman” and also directed by a black woman, when Ava DuVernay stepped in to helm an episode.
Fast-forward to 2016, when an episode of The CW’s post-apocalyptic drama The 100 featured a groundbreaking love scene between the show’s bisexual female lead Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and her lesbian love interest Lexa (Alycia Debnam Carey) — right before killing off Lexa. The plot bomb resonated so widely that it sparked a Hollywood pledge to stop needlessly killing LGBTQ characters and raised a larger discussion about who was dying onscreen.
With the help of social media, both shows and others like them are shifting discussions around “good representation” from a simple desire to a necessity. Who lives, who dies, and who tells the story — as Hamilton so succinctly put it — matters now perhaps more than it has ever before.
So who is helping Hollywood tell better, more diverse stories? How are they doing it? What is Hollywood currently getting right, and what is it still getting wrong? To find the answers, I spoke with diversity consultants, many from nonprofit media advocacy organizations, who, along with tasks like compiling data on minority representation, offer free training and research support to studios and networks.
Here’s what representatives from GLAAD (which focuses on LGBTQ representation), Color of Change (race), the Geena Davis Institute (gender), Define American (immigration), and RespectAbility (disability), as well as a religion expert, told me about the work of Hollywood diversity consulting and the state of representation onscreen.
Everyone wants good diversity, but “good” and “diversity” can look different to various identities
Rashad Robinson, executive director, Color of Change
We are looking for representations that are authentic, fair, and have humanity. Where black people are not the side script to larger stories and are not just seen through white eyes. There is a way in which we get the same types of representation over and over again, which kind of decreases the sensitivity and humanity that people receive because the media images we see of people can be so skewed.
Madeline Di Nonno, CEO, Geena Davis Institute
[Through our research,] we found that even though there were female characters, they were onscreen and speaking two to three times less. That gave us a whole other thing to talk to people. You can have a cast of 100 and 50 are female, but are you hearing them?
Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees, entertainment media director, Define American
What most might consider good immigrant representation is characters that are hard-working, humble but high-achieving ... non-threatening to “the American way.” We find the “good immigrant versus bad immigrant” ... perpetuates the respectability politics forced upon many marginalized communities and suggests that only certain people are worthy of our humanity. [We need] reinforcement in mainstream culture that — at the end of the day — we ... have more in common than not.
Jennifer Mizrahi, CEO and president, RespectAbility
The two [current] gold standards are the TV show Speechless, which is scripted, and Born This Way, which is reality unscripted, and that’s because the leads are people with disabilities — played by people with disabilities — authentically portraying their lives.
We see it as a success if an amputee is playing a police officer in an episode of Law & Order and you never talk about that person’s disability. All you see is an incredible police officer.
Megan Reid, professor and religion consultant, Cal State Long Beach
[Some] shows do a good job of showing the faith part accurately, but that’s all we ever see. If it’s a show where religion is an essential plot, it would be helpful not just to see characters who struggle with their faith but how to make decisions about what to do in a multicultural environment.
Whether their services are offered or asked for, Hollywood diversity consultants aim to increase representation and inclusion at various levels of the industry
Zeke Stokes, vice president of programs, GLAAD
I can tell you in a very general way that if you are seeing LGBTQ inclusion on television, there is a very, very strong likelihood that GLAAD played a part in it at some point.
It may not be in an ongoing way with a production if it’s a long-developing arc or if an LGBTQ character or storyline is a basis for the show, but you can generally bet we were involved at the outset in helping them ensure that they weren’t falling into outdated tropes, that a character wasn’t just there to support everyone else’s storyline, that they have a well-developed storyline of their own and sort of a reason for being indispensable.
Madeline Di Nonno
[The Geena Davis Institute] has met with every major studio, network, cable company, and pretty much every division. We really focus on who is making financial decisions and who is making creative decisions.
Once something is in construction, we’re not involved unless someone has asked us to be an adviser. For example, YouTube Red has launched originals, and we were asked to be advisers on a show called Hyperlink, which is about young girls in STEM. We looked at the scripts, the dimensionality of the characters — are the characters balanced? Are they well-rounded? Are they stereotypes?
We are meeting with the networks and then reaching out to them and letting them know we are available. Big partners for us are the unions [like] the Casting Society of America’s Committee on Diversity, the Screen Writers Guild, and SAG-AFTRA.
Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees
There are a variety of ways we engage, including casting for undocumented and documented immigrants non-scripted television programs and films, providing storylines, and on-set consultation and scene review during filming.
The working relationship can be dependent on the entity that we’re dealing with. We do a series of salons throughout the year, where we bring together writers from a host of shows — writers from Being Mary Jane, Black-ish, and Homeland have been there. We spend hours sort of talking about different themes.
Who is asking for help may not always be who you expect
The majority of folks that reach out [to Color of Change] are not black, but it’s really about what the show is trying to achieve. Do folks feel like they’re talking to us under duress? Do they feel like they’re actually trying to get something right? Are folks trying to get a feeling for the general surface rather than trying to go deeper? Each situation is very different, and I would say there have been a number of white folks in Hollywood that have reached out with good intentions and interest in trying to deal with challenges that have existed in the past.
What we have seen [from RespectAbility’s] work in Hollywood is that there is a huge number of people working who have ADHD, dyslexia, and mental health disorders. Just like sometimes people on the autism spectrum can be better at math, science, and engineering than people not on the autism spectrum, it does seem that people who have mental health differences can be better sometimes at acting or comedy.
But those people don’t come out about it.
In many, many cases, they tell us when they speak with us, “Well, I’m living with X, but don’t tell anyone.” It’s really quite common that there are people working in Hollywood with hidden disabilities who are not publicly disclosing those disabilities.
[GLAAD] works with a lot of straight creators who want to tell stories in a really authentic way, and ... the same is true for LGBTQ creators. If you’re a white gay male creator, you might not have the depth of personal experience to write a really authentic queer woman of color.
I think more and more the LGBTQ creators in Hollywood are realizing that there are so many LGBTQ points of view that if you’re not bringing in people that have certain experiences to help guide your creative process — either as a full-time part of the production or as a consultant — then you’re very apt to get it wrong.
The questions and challenges that Hollywood needs help with are not one size fits all
Madeline Di Nonno
A lot of people come to [the Geena Davis Institute] for help with getting their projects greenlit. Some come to us for recommendations on financing, or they come to us for recommendations on things like female directors and writers. Many of the talent agencies don’t represent enough women writers and directors. We’re at a point where the really well-known female writers and directors are working, so it’s creatives who are maybe on the cusp that really need the support and need to be given a chance.
A lot of times people are well intentioned, but their lexicon is wrong. For example, [a script] might use the expression “wheelchair-bound,” which is just really bad to say. If someone uses a wheelchair it’s an element of freedom, because that’s how they get around. So we look at scripts and help with that lexicon.
[Color of Change] has a big report coming out this fall with UCLA on the diversity of writers’ rooms, and much of that report is about content. We’re looking at upward of 150 shows ... tracking back to three different themes. One is racism in the show and whether it’s individual or structural. Another is ways in which black people or black families feel like a problem rather than a solution. Then we’re looking at how the criminal justice system is often shown as infallible — so police officers, district attorneys, DNA evidence.
There are a lot of identities and issues outside those traditional sexual orientation and gender binaries that are suddenly in the public consciousness, and [GLAAD is] being called on to do work around that a lot. We’ve been living in this sort of transgender tipping point, so we get a lot of calls from creators and networks who want to get that narrative right.
Just in this past year or so, networks and creators have begun to tackle the realities of this next generation, which is, that they’re eschewing labels in a lot of respects. So we’re doing a lot of consulting around what that means and ... the impact of bad representation on that community.
[There] is definitely a huge effort to portray religious rituals correctly. Also an effort to make settings plausible ... [and for] more respectful portrayals of prayer leaders. Many networks are seeking to get right issues with regard to [religious] law and how it plays a part in people’s lives here and abroad.
What they have gotten wrong, but don’t normally ask for help about — and it’s a problem of perception: the lack of a plausible, nuanced range of the level of religiosity in portrayals of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, [and others].
Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees
We're starting to see more of the linking of universal themes with the stories and experiences of immigrant families. Storylines that appear in TV and film often follow the headlines we are seeing in the news media, so specific topics like deportations and ICE raids have had high-interest levels recently, [too].
Increasing intersectionality is a top priority
Madeline Di Nonno
The point of view is: Infuse your content with a lot of female characters, and as you add, then think about the rainbow of what that could be. Could that person be someone with disabilities, could that person be someone of color, could that person be LGBTQ? Lots of times if creators have a limit on female characters, if they have only one female character, they tend to try to make her flawless. The problem comes in because there’s often just one.
If you look at the inclusion that’s happened on television over the last 20 years, from Will & Grace forward, while there has been a lot of LGBTQ inclusion, the vast majority of it, for way too long, was white men. That’s one of the things [GLAAD is] really working to change. We want to make sure that it’s not just diversity and inclusion, but we’re seeing diversity in inclusion. People of color, women, Muslims, immigrants — when you think of all these communities that have been marginalized, they all live within the LGBTQ community as well.
[RespectAbility] feels very strongly that people with physical disabilities should be represented in every crowd scene and they cannot only be white. In terms of the invisible disability — mental health, sensory, attention deficit — that can be put into a storyline. If you want to be authentic and tell authentic stories, they need to be as people are in humanity. Where’s the person who is a wheelchair user? Where’s the service dog? Where’s the person with Down syndrome? We have 56 million Americans with disabilities, so one out of five Americans. The disability experience is something many Americans live with.
Some Hollywood diversity consultants see their job as a challenging balance between education and accountability
There may be a variety of reasons that people reach out to [Color of Change], but a lot of this is about building relationships and trust and then having enough honesty on our part to say, “Just because we give you advice doesn’t mean we’re going to like the outcome.” It’s getting people to understand that the content they put out doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
GLAAD is the organization that literally started tracking the characters, the representation, the kinds of portrayals we were seeing, and reporting that publicly, so that the industry was being held responsible.
It’s one thing to know something, but to see it in writing and reported in the media I think awakens the industry to a different level of consciousness. So not only do they want to do better because it’s the right thing to do, but they want to do better because there can be consequences if they don’t.
Changes are happening, but not in the same way or at the same pace for everyone
[RespectAbility] just did a focus group in Hollywood, and these folks said when they’re casting, they now know that if they’re going to have four stars of a show, one needs to be nonwhite. But they are hesitant to have that person have a disability because they feel that it’s a stigma. But why can’t a person with a disability be a black person who has the most talent in the room? Disability means you can’t do Thing A, but it doesn’t mean you’re not the best in the world at Thing B. The stigma is [harming] employers’ willingness to hire people. Ninety-five percent of the time [that] there is a character with disabilities onscreen, they are played by an actor without that disability.
Many issues don’t come up as issues of religion until the story is actually about religion. Much of what else we see on television — actors and storylines — are about white, even black, Americans, and we just assume they’re from the Christian background.
Otherwise, [religion is] nearly always in the context of a violent incident. Why can so few people name a single incident on TV or film where a Muslim, Hindu, or several other devout practitioners of their faith laughs so hard he or she cries?
Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees
Honestly, there hasn’t been a huge shift yet with writers and executives wanting to portray a more diverse and accurate depiction of immigrants. What we have seen is a desire for more intersectionality, which naturally results in more diverse characters.
As we increase the quantity [of representations], it also raises the bar on quality and that requires content creators to be much more surgical. It’s one thing to be a straight white person who is creating a woman of color on their show, who finds a queer woman of color to talk to about this, but what are we doing as an industry to empower queer women of color to tell their own stories, to create their own content, to have access to writers’ rooms and a career path in the industry?
One of the shifts that I’ve seen is that with black showrunners ... there’s been a wider range of portrayal and a wider range of stories about the black experience. I still don’t think we see enough economically challenged people on television, and I feel like this has been a trend across race that we’ve seen. I think not having stories featuring people who are economically challenged adds to the lack of empathy that we have for the challenges people are having.