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feminist friendly: on diversity on television

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While bingeing on Orange Is the New Black on Netflix I’ve fallen for the show and its “diverse” cast. I’ve relished seeing women of all ages, all sizes, all sexualities, women of colour and, of course, seeing trans advocate Laverne Cox killing it.

I didn’t really think about what OINTB wasn’t doing well until I read an essay by Roxane Gay. Gay says of the show: ‘Orange Is the New Black is diverse in the shallowest, most tokenistic ways…This is the famine from which we must imagine feast.’

She points out that the show is seen through the lens of a middle class white woman, because being white and being incarcerated can be portrayed as an “unusual” experience. And that as such, the diverse cast members ‘are planets orbiting Piper’s sun.’ The portrayal of Crazy Eyes, or rather, Suzanne, is as Gay says, ‘more caricature than character.’ Her character is a vehicle for addressing mental health rather than a fully developed, complex person.

I think I subconsciously avoided critically examining OITNB while watching because it just felt so good to switch off my feminist inner voice for an hour each night. I chose not to think about the problems with the show because it is diverse television, and even though there is still so much that could be improved, I don’t want to be unappreciative.

I felt similarly reluctant to criticise The Good Wife, a show whose driving force is Alicia Florrick, a woman who has risen to the top of the legal profession in Chicago. And the “feast” doesn’t stop with a female lead – there is a bevy of successful women characters on the show, including the sensational Diane Lockhart played by Christine Baranski. But I began to tune out when my inner voice questioned the construction of the Big Bad of the series: Lemond Bishop, a violent, manipulative drug dealer who is the only regularly recurring African American character on the show. Considering The Good Wife is set in Chicago, a place that has the third largest urban Black population in the US, it’s a problem that the only recurring Black character exists as a reductive stereotype.

Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder, spoke on diversity and its role in television at this year’s Human Rights Campaign Gala: ‘I really hate the word “diversity”. It suggests something … other. As if it is something … special. Or rare. Diversity! As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of colour and LGBTQ characters on TV.’ Instead, Rhimes is “normalising” television and creating an on-screen world that resembles our own.

As a feminist, I sometimes feel that my viewing options are limited. I find it frustrating that it takes so much effort to find something to “relax” to. But now instead of switching off my critical self, I enjoy engaging in the discussion of a show’s flaws in a respectful and thoughtful way. This discussion can allow female creators to grow and “diversify” further. This happened with Lena Dunham who educated herself in a response to complaints of Girls’ lack of racial diversity. She said of the experience, ‘It is our job as creators to represent more than our own experience and to represent more than what we’ve seen.’

While we can’t demand perfection of writers, as viewers we can help them get there. Returning to Shonda Rhimes, who really needs no help in portraying people of colour and LGBTIQ characters on television, she makes the point that, ‘The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them. And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them.’

Television has the potential to encourage viewers to address their own gender and racial biases. If we leave behind sassy black friends who are sidekicks without depth or the jealous stalker ex-girlfriend, perhaps then we can focus on our shared differences. Or at the very least, erase the evil of Two and a Half Men.

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