Where’s The Representation In The TV Shows We Love?

Sofia VittoriaEntertainment Editor

You turn on your TV on Thursday, the hottest night of television.  You flip around the channels to see what shows are playing.  Click. Grey’s Anatomy.  Click. The Big Bang Theory.  Click.  The Vampire Diaries.  Click.  Scandal.  Click.  Louie.  Click.  The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. Out of these six shows, only one of them portrays a lead character who is African American, Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington on Scandal. Washington is the first black woman to star as the lead character in a network drama in nearly 40 years. Although these are only a select number of television shows, the fact that on the most popular night of television only one portrays a female of color in a lead role proves the lack of diversity in American television.  The fact is, television remains predominantly white. They do not accurately represent the almost 40% of minorities in our country, and when a show does depict a diverse cast, the dialogue is usually a stereotypical representation of how people of color talk and act.

Chances are, if you were to name your three favorite television shows, one would have an African American or Hispanic actor playing the lead character.  There is no question that television has improved during the past decade in promoting diversity. Minority lead roles in cable television shows have risen from 14.7% in 2011 to 19.3% in 2013.  Although this looks optimistic, the inequality and lack of representation runs deep. Darnell Hunt, author of the second annual Hollywood Diversity Report by UCLA for African American Studies expresses, “Hollywood is not progressing at the same rate as America is diversifying.” The problem is not the viewers.  According to 2012 and 2013 Nielsen ratings and box-office reports, audiences prefer shows with diversity in their casts.  The true obstacle rests in the agencies and broadcasting networks who value advertising dollars over viewer opinion. The reports show that television networks are “an industry that routinely devalues the talent of minorities and women.” Audience approval for diverse casts and their dedication for these shows does not matter if the show does not make money from advertising. All-American Girl, one of the first shows to feature an Asian woman in a lead role, only survived one season on ABC.  As a leader in diverse casting, (representing many minority groups in Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Black-ish, Cristela, Modern Family, Fresh off the Boat and more) ABC is now making a concerted effort to bring diversity to the screens of millions across the world.  Paul Lee, current President of the ABC Entertainment group shares, “We certainly felt from the beginning that we wanted to reflect America. If you think about it, the demographic changes are just as important to television as they are to the political landscape.”  Some networks have started to follow this trend, including Fox’s new release, Empire, whose cast is predominantly African American.  Empire’s number of viewers has escalated 15% each week, nearing 12 million viewers, proving fan approval for the show and ultimately more advertising revenue. Although these networks are beginning to represent America, these are just two of the dozens that present popular hits on television. Nevertheless, this spike in new diverse shows is definitely a step in the right direction of reflecting America’s culture.  

The other problem facing television today is how diverse characters are portrayed. Other than providing entertainment, television provides a chance for viewers to be educated by character portrayals.  Many viewers agree that they learn lessons from their favorite shows, and many shows use a diverse cast to portray characters that promote unjust stereotypes.  One example is Sofia Vergara, the actress who portrays Gloria Pritchett on the hit comedy, Modern Family.  Gloria, a Colombian woman, is constantly ridiculed for her heavy accent and misunderstanding of American idioms. Writer Maria Valdez explains, “She depicts the typical Latina stereotype, which has infuriated many who believe Hollywood needs to break away from the old stereotypes and give Latinos a different protagonism.” As Valdez shares, although this provides funny dialogue, it promotes dangerous stereotypes that could cloud the understanding of  South Americans.  The same goes for Jenna Ushkowitz and Harry Shum Jr. who both play Asian students in the musical comedy, Glee.  Every action of these characters is determined by their race. For example, when they receive an “A-” on a test it is considered an “Asian F”.  They are characterized on the show as studious and intellectual, a harmful stereotype to Asian-Americans. Although these TV series have diverse casts, the comic dialogue can be harmful to different races by promoting false stereotypes.

The 2015-2016 season for television has seen an improvement, but networks must continue to improve the diversity of their programs.  Interestingly, many people around the world have access to American television, often admiring American culture which makes it necessary to accurately represent our population.  Shows with greater than 20% minority casts make significantly more money around the world than shows with 10% or lower.  Shonda Rhimes, frontrunner in creating diversified television shows shares, “I think it’s said that [race in casting] is still a thing.  Somebody else needs to get their act together.  And by the way, it works.  Rating-wise, it works!” Perhaps the networks will understand that giving viewers what they want to see is more profitable.