Thinking about fiction

A blog about fiction and imagination, from a philosopher


"If one loves stories, then one would naturally love the story of the story" Lorrie Moore

What does on-screen diversity look like?

What does on-screen diversity look like?

People sometimes talk as if diversity in media representation is an end in itself. In this post, I'll examine whether this is true. I'll focus on the UK television and film drama industries, since that's what I'm most familiar with, though presumably many of the points I'll make will generalise to other places.

By 'diversity', I mean the representation of what are often referred to as minority groups in our society: for instance, black British, British Asian, and British Chinese people; disabled people; gay people. These groups are statistical minorities within the UK population as a whole, though of course, if a society is defined more specifically in relation to a certain UK city or geographical location, supposedly minority groups often aren't in a minority there. (Meanwhile, I'm going to steer clear for now of discussing the dire state of levels of representation of women on television and in film, as made vivid this week via this BAFTA Filmography, since they aren't in a minority in any conceivable sense. However, it should be noted that some of the points made below go double for women in minorities).

Of course, diversity on screen is good for actors from minorities. Their livelihood depends on parts being available, and their job satisfaction depends on those parts being meaningful and challenging. But why is diversity good for those watching?

One reason sometimes hinted at in response is that we live in a diverse society, and for that reason alone, television should represent the degree of diversity amongst its viewers.  In 2014, the then acting head of the BBC Trust, Diane Coyle, came close to this point when, commenting on the fact that the soap Eastenders was almost "twice as white" as the real East End of London in which the soap was set, she said that it was "important to ask whether the BBC can do more in its popular output to provide an authentic portrayal of life in modern Britain".

 On its own, the fact that the UK is diverse in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, and physical ability, doesn't explain why we need to represent diversity in terms of these aspects.  Perhaps an underlying accompanying presupposition is that it is the aim of fiction, or drama at least, to be realistic. If we put in this assumption, then it seems to follow that drama should represent the society we actually have. 

However, on closer inspection, this line is obviously problematic. After all, in any given community, people differ in all sorts of ways, and yet there seems no particular reason to dramatise diversity across every such characteristic.  In any case, it is clearly false that the aim of drama is always to be realistic. Many dramas aim for goals in competition with realism, such as sensation or thrill, comedy, fantasy, or moral improvement.  (This point can equally be used in reverse against those who refuse to cast minorities in otherwise wholly and unashamedly unrealistic dramas, such as the ex-producer of the show Midsomer Murders who said, shortly before his sacking in 2011, that "we just don't have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn't be the English village with them..It just wouldn't work..." Yes, you've got it, the small village in which 246 deaths have occurred within only a few years - 246 deaths, moreover, about which the remaining population don't seem even remotely concerned or anxious - must be white, or viewers won't think of it as realistically English.)

A different reason to aim for on-screen diversity is to socially educate the mainstream to become more accepting of minority groups. However, we should note that the mere fact of diverse representation need not on its own do much to promote acceptance; it obviously depends on how it is done. As has been pointed out by many before me, US dramas regularly represent people of colour in high status jobs - judges, police chiefs, politicians - but equally these roles are only minor within the drama as a whole.  We see nothing of these characters' inner lives, nothing of their particularity, and they are not foregrounded in the drama, so that it's debatable to what extent this practice promotes equality or acceptance in the long term (and it may even be counterproductive).

Equally, even when the experiences of people from minority groups are foregrounded and focused on in a given drama, to be properly effective in the aim of educating the mainstream, the drama needs to sit in a full context of other alternative representations, to avoid stereotyping. The writer and actress Meera Syal recently pointed this out when discussing Three Girls, a BBC drama about the child abuse scandal in Rochdale. "Of course it's not like those things don't happen.. But if that's all that TV is doing, it looks like that's the only thing Asians do. It's a problem." So if education is the aim (and after all, education is at the heart of the BBC's Reithian values) it is obvious that simply putting "different" faces and bodies on screen is not enough; broadcasters need to think in detail about how they are represented too.

A third and probably the best reason for representing diversity on screen is that it is a good thing for viewers who themselves belong to minorities, and never mind the others. I've written before on this blog about the powerful experience of seeing people like oneself represented on screen in sympathetic ways, when one is unused to it. But again, this point needs to be qualified, because, I'll suggest, it is only certain kinds of representations that do the job properly, even within broadly sympathetic characterisations of minority figures.

Quite often, viewers talk of "identifying" with a character. What does this mean? In one sense, to identify with a character need only be to see his or her or its viewpoint as central to the point of the drama. To achieve this, there need not be much detail offered about a character's inner life. The effect can be mostly achieved through conventional signalling, of which the audience has an implicit understanding (e.g. close ups of the face; over the shoulder shots; proportionately more screen time than other characters; voiceovers; music; and so on). By such means, an audience can be brought to recognise where their interest and focus are mostly supposed to lie. 

Now, one problem here is that in mainstream drama, minority characters tend very often to be given only secondary roles, albeit often relatively important ones. Producers and directors recognise that it's important to show black, brown, gay and disabled people positively and in some detail, but clearly still feel nervous about making them the central focus. They are the sidekick, the right-hand man or woman, the plucky best friend. So despite appearing prominently on screen, they are precisely not foregrounded - not given the right amount of screen time, close ups, over the shoulder shots, and so on  - to prompt a viewer's identification in the sense just identified. This comes at a particular cost to the minority viewer.

A second more full-blooded sense in which a viewer can 'identify' with a character involves something like desire and/or fantasising. To bring this sort of identification about within a viewer, certain characters are intentionally presented for the audience to admire, to fascinatedly linger over, to desire, and/or to want to be like. This is a central aspect to much populist television and film drama - think of beautiful blonde cheerleaders, glamorous spies, rich millionaires, sharp-suited businesswomen, etc. - and here too a lack of diverse representation for minority viewers bites. Not only are these viewers often deprived of familiar characters to  idolise  pleasurably; but faced with this vacuum, in watching TV and film they are also encouraged to idolise members of a majority group or club which may well in reality oppress them, and to which they feel they cannot be admitted. This can result in a terrible internalised struggle with self-hatred, a phenomenon memorably evoked by Aisha Mirza when she writes of "[t]he depressed version of myself, unable to be looked at by anyone, watching British TV dramas with entirely white casts in the dark and feeling cozy, or some fake version of that. The adolescent version of myself getting hot for Mary-Kate, for Cameron, for Scarlett, waiting for them to notice me, lick my face, touch my hair".

In short, there is both a) a lack of primary, foregrounded roles in dramas for minority characters, and b) a lack of aspirational minority characterisation, conducive to pleasurable idolising/ fantasising; where providing material for such thoughts and feelings is a central function of much populist drama. For majority viewers, there's a wealth of characters on screen with which to identify, in both the first and second senses. For minority viewers, where there are minority characters at all, they're usually either foregrounded but the story is a traumatic one (typically involving discrimination, because a main aim here is to be educative of majority viewers) or their lives  are portrayed as admirable and desirable, but they are only secondary characters. The combination of one or both of these absences is a particularly toxic double whammy for minority viewers; a fact that simply counting the number of black, brown, disabled or queer characters on screen will tend to mask.



Image credit: Coronation Street corner shop by jayneandd (Flickr: Corrie) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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