Why Diversity in Television is Important

This is something which has been on my mind a little bit lately; in part, because of the comments on this article, but also because it’s an issue that I just find quite interesting. It is, of course, something that’s rather controversial on the internet (but then, what isn’t) so I imagine people will have some fairly strong reactions to this.

In any case though, there are two main reasons why I think diversity is important in television

1) Diversity leading to greater storytelling opportunity

I’ve always thought of diversity as being a way to open up new potential; a starting point for something more interesting. With the hundredth white guy, it’s easier for a writer to lean into the same tired stereotypes; if the character is written to be of a different race or gender or sexuality or what have you, then it’s a springboard and a potential point of inspiration that would allow them to look at the matter from another perspective.

Take, for example, Deep Space Nine. Notable for many things, but one of those is the fact that this series saw the first black Star Trek captain; even in a show which had always been committed to a diverse worldview, this was a significant step. Because Captain Sisko was written as a black man, new opportunities were opened for the writing staff; for example, the episode Far Beyond the Stars, widely considered to be one of Deep Space Nine’s greatest, would not have been possible had a white man been cast in the role. It wasn’t, however, an episode that had been planned from the beginning – and I point that out to note the fact that casting a person of colour had allowed this story to exist.

Alternatively, look to Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show Master of None; on the surface, the story of a thirty something living in New York has been done many times before, but the fact that the cast of this show is diverse makes it different. We’ve seen Joey Tribbiani struggling to get acting jobs before – but we’ve never seen the same experience from this perspective, as Dev struggles to get acting jobs in the episode Indians on TV. While you might have differing opinions as to the quality of the show, it’s undeniable we see Dev dealing with problems that Joey never would have had to consider - and that makes for a new and compelling story.

Stories, and writing, are in many ways about perspective. New perspectives allow different takes on experiences, and allow us to understand them differently. This, in turn, keeps things original and innovative. In essence, then, diversity represents opportunity – the opportunity to do something new.

This is the same mentality that drives people to say of Doctor Who that they’d like to see a male companion, or an alien companion, or a companion who isn’t from 21st Century London – the most recent five main companions (Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, Clara) have been youngish women from modern day London. For the most part, people have liked them, but they’d also like to see something new. It’s because the stories would already, immediately, have a different slant on them; we’ve seen that already, after all, as Martha’s travels in time lead to very different questions and very different experiences than Rose’s.

Interesting stories are borne from diversity, but, as ever, are reliant on skilled writers to realise them.

2) Diversity resulting in greater representation

Another important facet of diversity is representation.

This is the part which is more often dismissed as “political correctness”, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Having a Muslim character, or a gay character, or a transgender character – those things aren’t political statements. All they do is acknowledge that these people exist. That is not inherently political, it’s not “cultural Marxism”, and it doesn’t mean the writers and producers are part of the Illuminati – it’s just being true to life.

Muslims exist. Gay people exist. Transgender people exist.

And they have just as much a right to be seen on television as straight white men do.

Again, I jump to Star Trek, because it’s just such an easy one to use as an example, because of how well known its impact is.

Nichelle Nichols’ character Uhura was hugely inspirational to black people across America in the 1960s; she was a really big deal. Martin Luther King himself told Nichols’ how important she was, as a positive role model for people of colour on television, and as I understand it, Mae Jemison (the first African-American woman in space, pictured above with Geordi) was in part inspired to do what she did because of Uhura.

Whoopi Goldberg actually has a great quote on the matter here:

“Well, when I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

There were quite a few other examples I wanted to include, but ultimately cut, simply because of the length of this piece. It’s a complicated issue, with a long and varied history of examples to draw upon, both in terms of failures and successes; “diversity in television” the beginning of a thesis statement, rather than a one off blog statement. To be honest though, I feel that what Whoopi Goldberg said gets to the heart of the matter pretty well.

Feeling you can be anything is not something a nine year old should be denied.

And when it’s a feeling that diverse television can bring, what possible argument is there against it?

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