Growing up, The Disney Channel was my bread and butter.
As I was sucked into the world of Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, and more, I wasn’t really aware that a majority of the characters I watched on my beloved television channel were mostly reflections of myself. Namely, white.
Luckily, there were blips on the radar. The Proud Family, That’s So Raven, and re-runs of Sister, Sister all added a little bit of racial variety to my viewing habits.
I transitioned into ‘older’ television shows rapidly. Dark Angel and Alias were my two all-time favorites, because at the ripe age of 11, I skipped right over The WB for the edgier stuff. (And later returned to The CW because of Chuck Bass.) Diversity was there, but I only saw it in minor characters. A lesbian black best friend that killed two birds with one stone. The occasional Asian guest star.
However, it wasn’t until my parents adopted my little sister, who is black, that I began to notice a problem on television: there weren’t enough characters representing her. She got older and watched live-action programs on The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, and suddenly I began noticing that her personality changed to reflect that which she saw on television.
There were black characters on her favorite shows, fortunately, but they were predominately the sidekicks. Sassy little black girls who talked too loud, got in trouble a lot, and generally did a lot of finger snapping. So what happened? She talked too loud, got in a lot of trouble, and perfected the z snap.
It was then that I noticed the problem with diversity on television isn’t just the number of characters representing a different segment of the population – whether that’s race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc – but the manner in which those segments are represented.
I mean, it’s good if we have black women on television for my sister to see as role models – and little girls tend to pick up things from what they watch on TV, but what about black women who break the stereotypes? What about the black main character who is the girl-next-door? The smart one? The quiet one? The kickass vigilante? The heartbreaker?
I didn’t see it, and I felt guilty that I had the ability to truly envision myself as female characters ranging from Lizzie McGuire to Sydney Bristow, picking and choosing who I wanted to be, while she was relegated to a small subset of the population.
Thankfully, diversity in television is hitting an all-time high these days. We’ve got shows like Black-ish, The Mindy Project, Fresh Off The Boat, Jane The Virgin, Scandal, and more all reclaiming our television screens with more life and diversity than ever before.
“Now what you have are lead characters and whole families that are complex, flawed and kind of terrible sometimes and different from each other and funny and stupid,” Michael Schur, executive producer of Master of None, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Parks and Recreation, told Variety. “…all of the things that white people have been able to be on TV forever.”
Not only that, we’re watching groundbreakers like Viola Davis becoming the first black star to win an Emmy for the outstanding lead actress in a drama series for How To Get Away With Murder.
Is it enough? Earlier this year USC Annenberg released the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity (CARD), which found that “only 28.3% of all speaking characters across 414 films, television and digital episodes in 2014-15 were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.” More than that, only one-third of all speaking characters were female.
We might have a long way to go, but I’m glad to see how far we’ve come and I can’t wait to see what happens next.