Dissecting the lack of diversity in lead roles
I love watching the “good guy” on TV; he’s always an idol in some way. He reliably does the righteous and just thing, and he is always a hero, the person who we wish we could to turn to in times of trouble. However, there are equally awe-inspiring people of the opposite sex, admirable people of differing ethnicities, and praiseworthy people who speak in accents. They are usually not the good guys. They are the people cut out of the lead roles they deserve.
In media culture today, it is quite obvious that most mainstream media institutions do not accurately reflect American society. Although America is hailed as a “melting pot” rich with cultural and ethnic diversity, the America portrayed through television is a bland cup of soup in comparison. And the worst part is audience members love it, so much so that it is consumed blindly.
Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother: What do all of these shows have in common? They have good guys. And not only is the good guy white, male and successful, he makes the show. Their storylines are easy to follow and the characters are complex, human and lovable. Without Walt, Don, Phil, Sheldon and Ted, what would these shows be? Or rather, what could they be?
According to the Geena Davis Institute, women are only about 37 percent of primetime TV characters. Meaning males make up about 63 percent of characters portrayed. Additionally, for every one female speaking character in a primetime comedy, there are more than two speaking male characters. This gender imbalance in the media is only one representation of gender bias in our society. Even though women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, they continue to be underrepresented in the media and entertainment industry. In essence, the entertainment is and has been failing women, not to mention everybody who is not a privileged white male.
Interestingly enough, this fall 2014 primetime TV season has established itself as a season categorized by ethnic diversity. There are dozens of shows that feature nonwhite males that highlight the talents of other, traditionally underrepresented artists. Stalker, Black-ish and Gotham all feature a variety of diverse leads and co-leads, as well as a diverse team of writers and creators behind the screen.
Regardless of their emerging presence in media, it is nevertheless important to realize that before entertainers are “that Asian guy in that one show” or “the badass Indian girl” in the other, they are entertainers. Even though many minority entertainers can easily be hailed as pioneers of American entertainment and looked up to by society, choosing to embrace the “otherness” about their identity is detrimental. It allows for entertainers to become easily distracted by their own “otherness,” but more importantly audiences start to see them as representative of the binaries they are a part of, and thus fail to appreciate their hard work as a person independent from their minority status.
However, as more diverse writers, directors and producers emerge in the entertainment industry and justifiably gain recognition, new “progressive” shows that portray more diverse protagonists are evoking mixed reactions from the public. While some shows, such as Commander in Chief and Veronica Mars have failed and were eventually canceled due to declining viewership, other shows such as Girls, Orange is the New Black, Scandal, Parks and Recreation and The Mindy Project are widely popular and thrive under the new boom of diverse protagonists.
The fact that a more equitable female presence in entertainment is considered by many as “controversial” speaks to the inherent gender biases we hold as a collective society. The restating of the “good guy” protagonist has evoked a cultural renaissance in which those who are historically underrepresented now have the opportunity to reinvent themselves, securing their voice for the future.
When asked about the political nature and social ramifications of her hit HBO show Girls by COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, creator Lena Dunham replied honestly: “I just wanted to tell stories that felt real to me, I wanted to depict my friends and my family who were characters who I feel I haven’t seen before… These incredibly complicated women who have come of age in a time of social media that are scared to drink but will take tons of Adderall… I didn’t realize telling the truth about the women around me would be an inherent political action.”
And indeed, communicating the truth about the real world should not be something that is condemned but rather something that should be celebrated. More shows portraying women in a realistic, human light are not an attack on white males, but rather an expansion of media representation, one that includes diverse, creative and imaginative perspectives. It symbolizes the death of traditional ideals and the repurposing of our horribly skewed perceptions of entertainment and media.
Michele Hau is a freshman culture and communication major who doesn’t want production without representation. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org