Why Netflix Has Decided to Make Diversity a Top Priority
The streaming service is launching multiple shows that feature predominantly non-white casts. Creators and executives explain why now, more than ever, this is what they are focusing on.
Image via Netflix. Design by Taylor Lewis
In the ongoing and necessary conservation about diversity on television, Netflix is often presented as an example of a network that's getting it right. Last year, numerous articles championed the streaming service for its diverse programming—from Master of None and Orange is the New Black to Narcos, and so on. But is Netflix's commitment a lasting one, or just a fad?
Granted, writing off diverse television as a mere "fad" can come across as callous—but it's not completely off-base, either. While analyzing TV's landscape in 2015, author Robin R. Means Coleman explained to me that the prominence of minority narratives on television follows a cyclical pattern, popping up "about every 20 years." During the 2014-15 season, we saw the broadcast debuts of Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Jane the Virgin, The Carmichael Show, among others—all which indicate that, right now, we're in a positive cyclical pattern. Still, there's the oft-unspoken worry—especially from diverse viewers and critics—that the industry will eventually return to its old ways.
So maybe that's why it's important that Netflix has continued to greenlight more diverse shows—not just as a token gesture, but as a commitment to real representation across genres and behind the scenes. Rather than just throw in a few non-white characters to balance out the cast, Netflix's programming slate actively explores the specificities, cultures, and lived experiences of marginalized groups that don't often get to tell their stories—or have them told at all.
And April 28 marks the premiere of Netflix's Dear White People, a television adaptation of Justin Simien's 2014 film of the same name. Like the movie, the series doesn't just feature people of color, it's about people of color. "It's not just: Hey white people, these are things you need to know," Simien told the crowd during a recent Netflix press event. "It also allows people of color to see themselves and to see, you know, their humanity." Dear White People follows a diverse group of students on campus—Logan Browning plays biracial protagonist and controversial radio host Sam, stepping in for Tessa Thompson who originated the film's role—as they navigate their mostly-white Ivy League world and speak truth to the microaggressions and racism they encounter.
The trailer is blunt: Sam explains to her peers that her culture isn't an appropriate Halloween costume, as images of white students in blackface appear on the screen. The reaction to the trailer was both frustrating and unsurprising: former BuzzFeed writer and current "outspoken member of the so-called alt-right" Tim Treadstone tweeted that the "anti-white" series "promotes white genocide," along with a screenshot showing he canceled his Netflix account. Others took aim at the show's perceived content—this, based on a 34-second long trailer—and Simien fought back at some of the hate on social media.
It's clear that detractors will become more vocal once the series is actually released, and their reaction also emphasizes why a series like Dear White People is so necessary. It depicts the daily struggles and frustrations of simple existing as a brown person in a white world; the reaction proved exactly the series' point.
The reaction also suggested that, somehow, producing more diverse content still could be considered a risk—especially when it comes to a series that explores and picks apart race issues instead of tiptoeing around them. Earlier this year, Netflix released a Cuban-American remake of Norman Lear's One Day at a Time that places Cuban culture as a driving thematic force of the series itself. It garnered positive reviews—but executive producer Gloria Calderon Kellett tells me that they "were worried in every step of the way" when it came to pushback from audiences who may not have wanted to see a beloved sitcom rebooted with diverse characters.
One Day at a Time co-executive producer Mike Royce explains that the remake's origins were "literally as simple as 'Let's look at Norman Lear's properties and see what good projects we could do'." He believes that there was "a goal to do something with a Latino family, probably because Norman had a show back in the 80s that wasn't really a success and he always felt like he didn't do it right." (That 1984 series, a.k.a. Pablo, focused on a Mexican-American stand-up comic and his family; it was canceled after six episodes.) The decision to make this new version of an old family specifically Cuban-American was owed to Kellett's involvement; once she was brought on board, she realized there was "so much to mine from" her own Cuban background.
One Day at a Time is perhaps the strongest example yet of Netflix's commitment to real representation over superficial diversity; the show gives equal attention to military veterans and queer youth in the form of well-rounded characters with narrative arcs that transcend mere label box-ticking, while also touching on subjects from PTSD to religion.
Much of the show's thematic scope is owed to the diversity of the writers room itself: "We made it a priority to make sure our writers room had a lot of voices, a lot of points of view, and is very diverse," Royce said, citing the multiple Latino and LGBTQ voices. "I think we try to get it right [by] coming from people who have had these experiences. Every writers room, every show I've ever been on, comes from people telling personal stories." (It's also worth mentioning that, according to Kellett, about 90% of the first season's directors were diverse and women.)
The end result is a show that has universal family appeal—who hasn't gotten annoyed by a younger sibling, or fumbled with online dating?—but one that also remains hyper-personal and specific, as we see Penelope (Justina Machado) deal with the hell of the VA while her daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) tries to help a friend whose parents have been deported. By depicting these diverse families and their daily lives, shows like One Day at a Time are normalizing the "other."
And Netflix is extending this approach to its kids and family programming, too: This Friday, they'll debut Las Leyendas (Legend Quest), the network's first animated foreign-language show produced in Latin America. The decision makes sense, according to Netflix's Director of Global Kids Content Andy Yeatman: "We're rapidly coming to the place where more of our members are outside the United States than are inside, so we want content that reflects our membership base." With the exception of Canada, Netflix has been in Latin America longer than any other international country, and as he explains, "our membership in Mexico watches a ton of Netflix—particularly kids and family content, so it was a logical place to start."
Based on a trilogy of popular Mexican animated films, Las Leyendas is a spooky, supernatural, and funny children's series that combines an adventurous and mythical story with what Yeatman describes as "What has traditionally been Mexican legends." The show's characters traipse around other parts of the globe too, an approach emphasized by Las Leyendas executive producer Fernando de Fuentes, who spoke to me from Mexico: "We specifically targeted most continents and most cultures. Why not show to the audience, not only fun and scary, but also other cultures?" De Fuentes also talks up the diversity of the behind-the-scenes crew—"Our director is from Mexico, we have Cuban animators, Spanish line producers, English writers. We're from all over"—and notes that involving so many different, diverse people in the production process "gives this show a global appeal that we wanted to achieve."
Even outside of Las Leyendas, Netflix has been thinking globally: last year's dystopian thriller 3% was Netflix's first original Brazilian production, and the upcoming Ingobernable is a Spanish-language political thriller that stars Kate del Castillo as the First Lady of Mexico (it was originally slated to shoot in Mexico, but now has to shoot in the U.S. because of Del Castillo's ties to El Chapo).
Of course, Netflix is far from perfect: There are still loads of ultra white shows—Santa Clarita Diet, The Ranch, Girlboss, Haters Back Off, the list goes on—and it will never quite get rid of the bad taste that Adam Sandler's notoriously racist The Ridiculous 6 left behind. Speaking specifically to Netflix's children's programming, Yeatman says that "I think we're doing quite well on screen but I think we can improve, and I think we can certainly improve behind the camera as well, but that is something that we're working on." The upcoming Magic School Bus reboot, for example, will have a "cast that is a lot more diverse than the original version was," and even Julie's Greenroom, the Julie Andrews-hosted children's show in conjunction with the Jim Henson Workshop, makes it a point to include diverse puppets, even including a young boy puppet in a wheelchair. "It was our shared goal to create characters that were reflective of all kinds of families," said Lisa Henson, CEO of The Jim Henson Company in an email to me. "We want kids to watch this show with their parents, and see themselves in the puppets we've crafted, which is why this cast is so diverse."
Netflix does have an advantage in that it produces so much original content and isn't tied to traditional primetime television schedules. As Yeatman said, "One of the things about being an on demand platform is that people can choose what they want to watch ... part of what we offer to consumers is such a variety of choice." Royce echoed this sentiment, likening Netflix to a supermarket: "You can go in and get whatever you want whenever you want as opposed to just one thing on at one time, so [Netflix is] happy to try things out." This "trying out" method is perhaps one that more networks should employ, especially since numbers keep proving what we already know: a recent Nielsen study reiterated that programs "with a predominantly black cast, or a main storyline focusing on a black character, are drawing a substantial non-black viewership, too."
But this process has to be an ongoing commitment—and not just for Netflix, but for all networks. In June, Variety's Maureen Ryan analyzed the showrunners of the 2016-17 broadcast TV season and found that "90% of showrunners are white, and almost 80% are male." And during our interview, Kallet spoke passionately about the frustration of pick-up season, the need for continued representation, and the importance of first generation kids creating art that speaks to their experiences. She explained that she still thinks we have a long way to go. "Not one [show] got picked up that has a Latinx creator this year thus far. That's discouraging to me because I was hoping that after One Day at a Time came out, that people would go 'Oh! We should make more of these Latino shows!' But there's no network or studio that I know of at this point. I think the fight is continuous. We can't just rest on our laurels. We have to continue to create content, we have to keep trying, and hopefully by continuing to try and getting better and better, the landscape will continue to change."
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