Voting with your wallet: Media diversity edition

Anyone who’s on Tumblr and loves to read the words of a smart, funny woman who also happens to be black and queer needs to go follow Jasika Nicole. She frequently comes up with some amazing perspectives about the world from where she stands, and expresses them in breathtakingly lovely ways.

Case in point is her response to a question about what she’s done in her position as an actor to help increase the number of other people of color in mainstream entertainment.

It’s unfortunate that a lot of fans don’t understand that merely having one’s face on a movie or TV screen doesn’t grant superpowers (or scads of money, either.) It just means more people recognize your face and name. Sometimes that recognition means getting some perks, but it also means getting a lot of crap, too. Unless you’re in the upper echelons of marquee names, your only real power is having a slightly bigger soapbox than a non-“famous” person.

Yet there is also an indirect power, and it’s one that Nicole’s words here allude to: the way that the faces we see in entertainment influence how audiences see themselves and the other people around them.

Like it or not, media-saturated kids model their views of the world in part on what they see in entertainment. If what they see is a distorted picture of what people really are, their views about reality are going to be distorted, too. Granted that some of this is mitigated by caregivers firmly teaching that the real world and the onscreen world are different, but it still matters. So when the vast majority of prominent faces in entertainment aren’t ones like their own, it makes those kids feel that they’re not as important–that their lives, their interests, their needs come second to those in the ruling classes whose faces we see all the time. If we want those kids to grow and thrive and be happy, self-sufficient adults, we need to give them more people like themselves to look up to.

This doesn’t mean that every individual show, movie, book, etc. has to have proportional representation. Such thinking leads to tokenism, which is actually kind of worse. But it does mean that the people holding the purse strings really should think twice when they’re offered yet another project that’s overloaded with the kinds of people who are already overrepresented in media. (Hence my objection to the deification of Girls. It’s not exactly groundbreaking for a show to feature a cast of wealthy, cisgendered white New Yorkers, even if they are all female.)

Unfortunately, getting the kind of media diversity that helps improve things is difficult, for one reason: money. Entertainment is a business, and that business is all about feeding the most lucrative demographics what they want. And, well, straight, white guys are a lucrative demographic, and conventional wisdom has it that they want stories that are primarily about other straight, white guys, with the occasional PoC sidekick or cisgendered female love interest. Even though the conventional wisdom on this is behind the curve of social change, it’s still entrenched enough that the major players in the industry are going to keep catering to boorish white guys because they think that’s where the most money is.

So how do we change it? How do we get the studios to start giving us more diversity? Well, we start asking for it. No, not with petitions or asking actors to risk their necks to make demands of the suits, but with our money.

As Nicole points out, talking does help–there is definite merit in raising awareness. It’s also true that there’s no way for her or any other low-power industry person to go barging into studio bosses’ offices and demanding jobs. But the biggest hurdle we face is just simple economics: without the numbers behind it to prove to the bean counters that yes, they can make money this way, our only choice is to generate those numbers.

Without getting too far into a rant about the fallacy of supply-side economics: the true power in a capitalist economy doesn’t lie with the people holding the purse strings. It lies with consumers. How consumers choose to spend their money is what drives what products we’re offered and what kinds of jobs are necessary to make those products. If you want more kinds of alternative-fuel cars, you have to buy the alternative-fuel cars that already exist. That goes just as much for entertainment consumers as it does for people buying cars or groceries.

As regards entertainment, that means if you want more diversity in it, then consume stuff that’s already at least somewhat diverse, and–this is key–ignore the stuff that isn’t. It’s the same principle as keeping scripted TV on the air instead of letting cheap reality shows dominate: You have to buy more of what you want, AND less of what you don’t want.

This doesn’t mean that everything you buy has to be perfect. On the contrary: the perfect stuff is so rare that when it’s successful, people tend to consider it a statistical outlier, and ignore it. But it does mean making a point of consuming (in a way that’s counted, by the by–pirating doesn’t actually support it, folks!) stuff that’s at least trying.

In the case of Nicole’s show, Fringe, even though most of the cast is white, it does have two major PoC characters, the lead is a woman and there’s a prominent role for an older woman in a power position. It could use some queer characters, undoubtedly, but aside from that, it’s definitely a good step in the right direction. Likewise, while the PoC count on Game of Thrones is low (so far; there are more coming in future seasons), it has queer and non-cisgendered characters, people with disabilities, a wide variety in class, and probably the greatest percentage of female characters–of different kinds–of any major show currently airing.

The more we support stuff that’s at least making progress, the more likely we are to see more of what we want. Supporting shows with prominent PoC characters, for instance, probably helped get the new UK version of Sinbad–with a majority-PoC cast–into production. Supporting shows with gay characters helped us get Game of Thrones’ Renly and Loras a good amount of screentime, without any shyness about the physical side of their relationship.

… and so on.

Again, talking about this helps–I wouldn’t be blogging like this if it didn’t–but the best action we can take to change things is to use the mightiest powers we do have–our votes and our consumer dollars–to send a message about what we want.

(And yes, this does mean you need to watch the final season of her show. It’s an awesome show anyway!)


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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