GLAAD Chief on #OscarsSoWhite: "Images Matter" (Guest Column)

"Media has the responsibility to reflect the audiences it serves," writes Sarah Kate Ellis.
Sarah Kate Ellis

Sarah Kate Ellis is the president and CEO of GLAAD (formerly known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), a media monitoring organization founded by LGBT people in the media.

Since GLAAD’s inception, our goal as an organization has been simple: to rewrite the script on LGBT acceptance. Too often, when it came to LGBT representation in TV and film, the LGBT community was either the punch line — or worse, the punching bag. Thanks, in large part, to the work of GLAAD, television has made great strides in showcasing more LGBT characters, but the diversity and the depth of these characters are still lacking. As GLAAD’s research has documented, they are still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, a false representation of our culturally, racially and ethnically diverse community.

Since #OscarsSoWhite began trending again, borne out of frustration that all of those nominated in the major categories are white for the second year in a row, I’ve been thinking a lot about why these awards, and others like them, are so impactful.

What we know to be true at GLAAD is that images matter. 

Onscreen images of diverse characters and storylines are usually society’s first entrée into understanding a community that doesn’t look like them or act like them. Awards shows, which are viewed widely, are a part of bringing these characters into our living rooms and, in many ways, into our families. The celebration and nomination (or lack thereof) sends a message about the validity, relatability and overall worthiness of these stories and the lives they portray.   

Moreover, when directors, producers and actors are nominated for esteemed honors like the Academy Awards, it changes the trajectory of their careers.  So, what is the consequence when people of color, women, LGBT people and all those that live at the intersections are shut out year after year? What does that mean for their “green-lighting power” and ability to “call the shots” in Hollywood? This lack of recognition stifles investment in diverse storytelling and storytellers, which ultimately stalls cultural acceptance.

Television and film have the extraordinary ability to change hearts and minds, accelerate acceptance and, ultimately, shift culture. 

Groundbreaking shows like A Different World in the '80s and early '90s showed America what attending a historically black college and university was like for a range of black characters of varying geographical, economic and cultural backgrounds. All My Children’s storyline of Bianca Montgomery in the early 2000s — which the New York Times and The Advocate note was the first lead character on a major television daytime drama to come out as a lesbian — highlighted the fear and anxiety of coming out for Bianca and her family, a reality mirrored by so many but one that had never before been seen on the small screen. Films like Pariah and Blackbird, in recent years, brought audiences endearing LGBT coming-of-age stories that aren’t based around the middle-class, white gay male experience.

Our country’s greatest cultural exports to rest of the world are television and film. What does it say about America when the only stories that are elevated and celebrated through its most prestigious awards for film reflect only a small population of our country, and omit everyone else? Media has the responsibility to reflect the audiences it serves.

They will do better when we demand better.

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