Diversity is more than just a hot topic in entertainment right now – it’s an ongoing conversation about how movies and television can be more inclusive and capture a greater range of how different people experience life. Diversity is important for many reasons, but especially to show audiences that the human experience can’t be summed up by a dozen straight, white male leads. The world is bigger than that, and our screens should express that.
However, a trap too many television shows fall into is that there will be diversity on-screen – characters of color, women, non-straight and sometimes even non-cisgendered people, disabled bodies, others who don’t often see themselves on television – but their character won’t be the lead. They’re relegated to the sassy, gay BFF or the token black friend. The characters are almost always the comic relief.
Even more than that, their stories don’t necessarily have anything to do with how diverse bodies experience the world differently. Often, people of color getting on TV is a product of colorblind casting, not of roles specifically written for non-white people to play. When a character’s sexuality is explored, it’s nearly always through a same-sex love interest who helps someone discover that they’re not straight, not that queerness and homophobia play an integral role in this person’s entire life. Women who appear on screen are usually white, have less screen time than their male counterparts, and oftentimes can be replaced with a sexy lampshade without changing the plot of the story.
Some shows are starting to break down these formulas in new and exciting ways, however. A great example is Sterling K Brown’s character, Randall, on This Is Us.
Randall is a black man who was adopted as a baby by a white family. He has a white mother and two white siblings who he loves. They’re a family. Randall has always wanted to find his birth father because he’s spent his life missing a connection to people who look like him. Many of the various plots of This Is Us involve how Randall has always been perceived differently and how his white parents are loving but can’t always understand what he’s going through.
Randall couldn’t be played by a white man – his story centers on his blackness and how it sets him apart. He isn’t reduced to his blackness, but it can’t be erased from him.
In his Golden Globes acceptance speech – a historic win, as the first black man to win Lead Actor in a Drama Series, Brown said that “Throughout the majority of my career, I’ve benefited from colorblind casting. But Dan Fogleman, you wrote a role for a black man that can only be played by a black man, and so what I appreciate so much about this thing is that I’m being seen for who I am and I’m being appreciated for who I am. That makes it that much more difficult to dismiss me or dismiss anyone who looks like me.”
The show The Handmaid’s Tale also has embraced this specific style of storytelling. The persecution and oppression of the women in the story is very gendered. While that can be harrowing to watch, it’s powerful to show that there are ways in which women suffer that men cannot experience.
Though many of the men in this world, particularly the men of color, certainly suffer from the travesty of the world they live in, they are not systematically controlled and punished, particularly in a sexual nature, in the same way that women are.
Even though the lead character, June, is certainly the crux of the suffering the audience sees, there are also differences in the treatments and punishments of women of color and lesbians that make their punishments even worse.
Unfortunately, there still isn’t a great example of a lead character on mainstream television who isn’t straight and has a narrative that reflects that. One example that is heading in the right direction is Captain Holt on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a workplace comedy, so it doesn’t have the same narrative scope as a show like This Is Us or The Handmaid’s Tale. It still manages to make Holt’s sexuality and race integral to who he is. In the first episode, he’s given his first captainship, which he’s never been allowed to have before now as an openly gay police officer. The fact that he’s black didn’t help win him any favors with the department either.
It hardly comes up in every episode, as this is an ensemble comedy series that’s more concerned with gaffs than narrative arcs, but the episodes where Holt’s sexuality is talked about in detail are some of the show’s strongest. In one episode, his coworkers are invited to his birthday party despite his husband’s protests. Though the lead character Jake, played by Andy Samberg, is initially offended, he realizes that Holt has spent an entire career being ignored and mocked by his co-workers, most of whom looked just like Jake, a straight, white man.
Television has a long way to go to ever truly be diverse, but these characters show an example of what more television needs to look like going forward. Characters who don’t just hit a diversity quota, but who actually have stories and narratives that reflect their life experiences and how those are different than the characters we’re used to seeing on television.