We watched this year as the Ghostbusters reboot became an unlikely cultural battleground, an innocuous entry in a long trend of remakes that somehow inspired a backlash that could be charitably called “passionate” but at least sometimes veered into the territory of “frothing.” It became a vitriolic debate about whether diversity itself was worthwhile, and while the arguments against it were never very convincing, they were loud enough to keep the discussion focused on the most basic level: should this exist, or shouldn’t it?
To its credit, television seems to have gone beyond that question. The success of black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and Empire has been treated as a turning point, one in which underrepresented stories have taken their rightful place in the mainstream. And, at a glance, fall’s TV lineup seems to confirm it. Even if you don’t agree with Ghostbusters most vicious critics, it can be easy to agree with them that diversity in media really is on the rise.
Which it…sort of is. There’s no dispute that TV has a wider range of stories than it did fifty years ago, but that progress is not necessarily a linear climb year to year. A GLAAD report shows the highest number of queer series regulars on scripted, primetime broadcast television ever, but the numbers aren’t as good for other metrics: queer recurring characters are down, lesbian representation is way down, and shows keep killing off their queer characters. GLAAD did find record highs for Black series regulars, but only 30% of LGBT+ characters were non-white. The Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA found more mixed news: the number of people of color playing leads in scripted TV is up from their last report, but every other measurement of marginalized voices in entertainment is stagnant or down. And behind the camera, showrunners for new programming on major networks were 90% white and around 80% men.
The takeaway here is that diversity on TV is not quite as widespread as its proponents would like and opponents would fear. And yet, 2016 has seen major successes by underrepresented voices, both critically and commercially. Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar centers its story on an estranged Black family, has a first season exclusively directed by women, and sees impressive ratings for OWN. Donald Glover’s Atlanta is one of fall’s highest rated shows, which focuses on the work of Black creatives both on and off the screen. Cheo Hodari Coker’s Luke Cage broke Netflix. And Scott Silveri’s Speechless seems to have cleared the—admittedly low—bar for representing characters with disabilities set by Me Before You.
There is a distinction, though, between shows like Queen Sugar and shows like Speechless. Queen Sugar’s majority Black cast translates to a story where Black stories are not just included but made central. Writer and activist Son of Baldwin described it as such:
Queen Sugar is an astute meditation on the black humanity Hollywood is stubbornly unwilling to render. But this treatise on behalf of Blackness is not new for DuVernay. Operating from a place of love for her people, and a desire to tell the exquisite, funky truth about us, the dimensions captured by her lens are inevitable. From the way she frames her subjects (off center, giving them room to imagine) to how patiently the camera lingers on them, the viewer is confronted by an unshakeable, but long-denied reality in which black people are merely people .
By contrast, Speechless is a story featuring a marginalized main character (marginalized through disability instead of race or gender), and it even casts an actor with cerebral palsy for the character with the same disability—which is surprisingly uncommon—but it’s foremost a story about a family whose son has CP rather than a story about that son. The show is based off Silveri’s experiences with a disabled older brother, which may explain why Speechless is told from the perspective of an able-bodied sibling. And so Queen Sugar is a story about underrepresented identities, while Speechless is a story that widens its scope to include them.
This distinction between inclusion and re-centering isn’t a new one, and the debates that have accompanied it aren’t new either. Speechless’ approach to marginalized identities echoes Jill Soloway’s Transparent, which has been critiqued for using its trans characters mainly to further the plot of its cis ones. Like Speechless, Transparent is created by a writer with second-hand (albeit intimate) knowledge of the underexplored identity it’s examining, and that distance between creator and subject is clear in the finished product. Transparent has been lauded as brave for including trans characters, but as the above link shows, that lauding isn’t always being done by actual trans people.
And here is the more interesting (though still well-established) argument about diversity: the degree to which it serves the communities it depicts. In the essay “We Need a Decolonized, Not ‘Diverse’ Education,” Zoé Samudzi distinguishes between re-centering the conversation and simply expanding the margins:
[U]ntil marginalized communities are the storytellers of their experiences, history will be rendered partially complete but wholly privilege the knowledges and perspectives of colonizers… In this context, diversity agendas are hindrances rather than stepping stones to justice and equity. Diversity might be the inclusion of a lesson about Chinese-American contributions to American infrastructure within a lesson about westward expansion. It might also be learning about traditional Native American garments during November lessons about the observation of Thanksgiving at Plymouth colony. In both cases, diversity signifies the inclusion of communities on the margins in ways that do not decenter dominance, but actually insulate it.
And this is far from the only discussion on this topic. Beyond the tired squabbling on whether stories should depict more than the experiences of white men (they should), there’s compelling debate about the degree to which media contributes to real-world justice. For instance, is this September’s Luke Cage unapologetically Black or an exercise in respectability politics? How does Atlanta reconcile Donald Glover’s history of saying some pretty objectionable things? And does a show like Speechless actually help people with disabilities? Or does it just make all the right gestures?