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Identity

New Report Says Diversity on TV Is Better, But Still Not Great

The results of GLAAD's 'Where We Are on TV' report show we've got a long way to go toward adequate LGBT visibility in media.
October 27, 2015, 9:25pm
Photo by Mosuno via Stocksy

The media monitoring organization GLAAD has tracked diversity on television for twenty years. At the opening of their Where We Are on TV report on the 2015-16 season, In the report, President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis explains that when GLAAD first began recording this data, LGBT people were barely represented on television at all. "You could count them on one hand," she writes.

"Since then we've seen amazing changes in the television landscape, especially in the quantity of LGBT characters." But, as Ellis explains, there's more to be done than to monitor representation numerically. In addition to increased representation, GLAAD is calling for LGBT characters that are diverse and whose stories are complex and substantive. The way LGBT people are portrayed matters. In a different report that they published earlier this year, GLAAD found that "84 percent of Americans continue to learn about transgender people through the media."

Read More: More Americans Than Ever Say They Know a Trans Person

GLAAD's findings show that despite a technical overall increase in LGBT characters, the numbers still fail to represent the general population. The study also measures racial and gender diversity, noting that over 70 percent of LGBT characters are white. This year marks the first that GLAAD monitored the streaming services Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu.

Even when marginalized demographics are represented on TV, their characters are often poorly developed or perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Casting LGBT people, women, and people of color is an essential step toward equality, but there are other areas in a production that need changing, too. At best, writer's rooms that lack diversity make for boring television. At worst, they perpetuate stereotypes about marginalized demographics, encouraging cultural prejudice that has real world consequences.

You can't write diversity. You can live diversely and write authentically.

NewFest is an LGBT film festival in New York City. This fall, in their 27th year, they brought transgender Hollywood professionals to the LGBT Community Center in Greenwich Village. Jen Richards, of Caitlyn Jenner's reality hit I am Cait, premiered Her Story, a new series about transgender women and relationships. After the screening, Richards summed up her feelings on the issue of Hollywood writer's rooms. "You can't write diversity," she said. "You can live diversely and write authentically."

Logically, if writer's rooms in Hollywood are full of straight white men, the stories their shows tell will come from a straight white male perspective—writers may stereotype LGBT characters without even meaning to. The nuance of authentic experience is substituted with the writer's best judgement about someone they may never have known or understood.

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NewFest presented the Trans Hollywood Panel, hosted by trans activist Tiq Milan and featuring Harmony Santana, Zackary Drucker, Michelle Hendley, Angelica Ross, and Brad Calcaterra. Santana, Hendley, and Ross are best known as actors, Calcaterra teaches acting to LGBT people, and Zackary Drucker is an artist and producer on Amazon's Emmy Award winning series, Transparent. After the panel ended, I caught up with Drucker. She shared her insight into the intricacies of LGBT representation in film.

"There are unspoken biases and roadblocks that prevent people on the fringes from advancing in the entertainment industry," she said. Drucker described the myth of meritocracy and argued that the idea of equal footing is false.

Her point was exemplified in September by Matt Damon when he publicly criticized producer Effie Brown's approach to diversifying a production. Damon claimed that merit trumps affirmative action hiring, that the best person for the job should be chosen regardless of their race or gender. "The reality is that we won't have merits until someone goes out on a limb to counteract the invisible but implied parameters of the status quo," Drucker said.

"There are unspoken biases and roadblocks that prevent people on the fringes from advancing in the entertainment industry,"

Productions need to improve diversity behind the scenes. "Providing jobs is a tangible return to an under-represented community," Drucker argued. "If productions are interested in representing, say, trans people, then they should also be prepared to hire trans people behind the scenes." Transparent is an example of a production that has prioritized the employment of transgender people throughout the production chain. The series follows a transgender narrative, and trans people are employed in every department.

Rather than trying to piece together an idea of diversity, the television and film industry needs to diversify itself from the ground up. GLAAD's 2015-16 report shows an increase in productions portraying LGBT characters, but it isn't clear if those productions have done the legwork to employ and empower marginalized people. The issue of representation in media is inseparable from the broader cultural discourse around social inequity. Surface level representation may look good, but more must be done in both pop culture and politics in order to enact lasting change.