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During this unique moment in history, one of the only things we know for sure about our changing world is that people are consuming entertainment and are likely to continue doing so. Video analytics company Conviva reports that daytime streaming is up 40 percent in recent weeks and the company says it expects streamers to retain new viewers long after the pandemic has ended. As long as people watch content, Hollywood will make it. Even during this time of crisis, shows are selling and writers rooms are cranking out scripts. Now, more than ever, entertainment industry leaders must be deliberate about the voices we amplify and the stories we tell.
The coronavirus crisis has thrown long-existent societal inequities into sharp relief. Speaking to a crowd of doctors in 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Of all the inequalities that exist, the injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman.” While that’s still indisputably true today, inequities in health care don’t spring up in a vacuum. They’re developed outside the hospital and carried in. Hollywood may not have created these societal divides, but those of us in the industry must bear some of the responsibility for ingraining them into the American psyche.
Studies show that as people watch television, their perceptions of the real world come to reflect the most commonly seen onscreen messages. If we in Hollywood want to take credit for Mary Tyler Moore paving the way for women in the workplace or for Will & Grace opening the door for marriage equality, we must also accept some of the blame for the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and recognize that they have created repercussions for real people in their daily lives.
During this time of social distancing, many Black and Latinx men hesitate to wear protective masks in public for fear of being seen as threatening. It’s no coincidence that the thug myth is a narrative with deep roots in Hollywood. Similarly, Muslim stories in Hollywood are nearly always portrayed relative to extremism and terrorism, yet less than 0.009 percent of Muslims are extremists. In fact, Islamic Centers and charities worldwide are serving as critical food banks during this crisis. It’s high time for Hollywood to recognize the power of the images we show, and to wield that power much more responsibly. We must depict American society more realistically for more people. Dangerous prejudices caused by decades of societal and pop culture conditioning must be undone or we will continue to see them reflected in public policy, elected leadership and daily life.
Employment figures reflect minimal progress in Hollywood hiring inclusivity. The recently released “Behind the Scenes” report from the Think Tank for Inclusion & Equity confirms this. But, if we are not vigilant, this progress will be fleeting. We, as TV writers, must commit to building on the gains we’ve made in recent years toward inclusive hiring in TV writers rooms — not just clustering writers from underrepresented communities on shows targeted to those communities, but also on mass market shows, so that nuanced, authentic portrayals of underrepresented communities receive wider distribution and acceptance in American society.
Inclusivity and equity go beyond hiring, however. Like many underrepresented writers, we have both been the token underrepresented writer in the room on numerous shows. We were employed at the lower level, forced to repeat lower-level titles multiple times and often allowed little or no voice in writers room discussions. In addition, most of our writers rooms and the vast majority of writers rooms throughout the industry are still led by cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied white men. The fact remains that they are the gatekeepers through whose lens the majority of TV stories are filtered.
In a recent essay in The Financial Times, The God of Small Things author Arundhati Roy wrote, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different.” Now is the time to reimagine the TV industry so that it may play a vital role in rebuilding our society after this crisis. As the industry restarts, the impulse will be to regress to what is “safe” and “known,” both in hiring and storytelling. In a recent Los Angeles Times interview of Hollywood professionals, director Gina Prince-Bythewood said, “I won’t blame the pandemic on the lack of inclusion and diversity. But Hollywood will find a way to.” We cannot allow this to happen.
We have an obligation to tell better stories to combat the rampant “othering” that has been heightened during this time. To achieve this, underrepresented writers need to be fully integrated into the storytelling process at all levels. No matter how creative the mind, there is no substitute for a lived experience to delve into the rich, nuanced stories of underrepresented communities and elevate them beyond the harmful stereotypes that have been pulling apart American society.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” goes the proverb initially popularized by Marvel’s Spider-Man comics. As the country and the world rebuild after this devastating pandemic, we, as TV industry professionals, must use this power to help heal the divisions in American society and move us toward being one community without prejudice — the America we know we can be.
Y. Shireen Razack and Angela Harvey are TV writers with over 20 years collective experience working across various shows. Additionally, they serve on the steering committee of the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity (TTIE), a consortium of working TV writers committed to advancing inclusion and equity in TV. TTIE recently released it second annual “Behind the Scenes: the State of Inclusion & Equity in TV Writing” report, which can be found here.
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