Diversity in the media - Actual representation or mere marketing strategy?

Through advocacy and movements, racial diversity has been further pressed forward as a priority and standard for the media. Film and TV sectors are strongly encouraged to be more inclusive, given the long history of homogenous casts as well as the marginal roles given to people of color. Rather, the media is now expected to adopt diversity, as seen in the new BFI Diversity Standards set by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). As though carried by this wave of diversity, the entertainment industry is witnessing a gradual rise in works featuring non-white characters and topics. 

Similarly, the media giant Disney is seemingly on the move by having recently produced two socio-politically notable works, Coco (2017) and Black Panther (2018). The immense success the two films enjoyed was proof that this new take, showcasing non-white cultures, appealed to large audiences. With its warm, colorful tale revolving around the Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, Coco was significant for its international success and importantly, being a timely and soothing tonic for a community that has felt attacked and disrespected by President Trump. Likewise, Black Panther became a revolutionary work that resonated with the black community for its powerful political message and outstanding cinematography. 

Image: Public Radio International (PRI) 

While corporations such as Disney appear to be happy with taking such inclusive approaches, it is unclear whether they are simply piggybacking on diversity to garner more profit and praise. In other words, do they sincerely care about representing less-focused groups? Let us use Disney as a case study. It is true that the Mouse has lately been producing films that are centered on people of color and respectively, different cultures. Besides the aforementioned two works, others include the Polynesian princess film Moana, space opera Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and so forth. So far, the argument that the company is strongly for inclusivity seems convincing.

Coco, for example, is an exemplary case. As it has been mentioned earlier, the film was iconic for positively depicting a culture and gave the Latino community an opportunity to see themselves represented on a vast scale. But it is crucial to remember that the same company initially filed an application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to secure the phrase "Día de los Muertos," or "Day of the Dead," across multiple platforms. On top of the outrageous fact that they were attempting to trademark a traditional festival, this action provoked furious reactions from the very group that the film was addressed to. For any country or ethnic group, it is blatantly disrespectful to utilize their culture as a capitalistic item. It is rather ironic to see how Disney, despite focusing on a Mexican holiday and audience, made such a fatal, betraying decision. Scandals such as this one raise doubts on Disney’s stance towards diversity. Image: New York Times 

It is also vital to note that films such as Coco and Black Panther, regardless of their producers or directors, all belong to the same corporation: Disney. No matter how diverse the audiences and crew responsible for the films are, the profits flow to only one, massive host. In the end, it can be said that groundbreaking works such as Black Panther are no more than bait to gather money from diversity-craving audiences. As a study pointed out that films with the most racially homogenous casts were the poorest financial performers, the phrase “diversity sells” carries a more sinister connotation. The evidence that proves inclusivity is desired and thus increases profitability simultaneously implies a cloaked strategy for industries like Disney. 

Image: Capital Lifestyle

There is no doubt that the films allowed Disney to reap great benefits from multiple audiences and satisfied the groups that were targeted or featured. It is quite difficult to distinguish genuine devotion to diversity apart from mere utilization, but what would be desirable is to see smaller producers following suit and gaining the attention they deserve. Of course, having large-scale corporations such as Disney representing different cultures is significant, as such giants have high influential power and thus project content far and wide. But it would be more appropriate to describe the media as “diverse” if everyone had equal opportunities to be inclusive and have their works showcased. Disney and similar corporations should not be the only ones focused and praised for being inclusive. At the same time, ethical values should be considered and analyzed beforehand – it is necessary to take a step back before elevating an industry to a high pedestal just for their “contributions” of diversity.