Studios Should Flag Scripts for Harmful Stereotypes With a "Bigotry Pass" (Guest Column)

ADOBE STOCK; Courtesy of Subject
Inset: Alan Jenkins, professor of practice at Harvard Law School.

Just as there are reviews for obscenity or intellectual property concerns while balancing free expression, an evaluation for damaging tropes should be standard practice in film and TV.

Years ago, I sold a script to Fox Animation that included a character wrongly accused of a traffic violation (believe me, it was more entertaining than it sounds). A few days later, I received a call from Fox's Standards and Practices department insisting that I change the wrongful accuser from a police officer to a private investigator. The reason: "We can't portray police officers in a negative light."

In other words, the studio was actively enforcing the harmful and inaccurate narrative that police officers can never do wrong. What if, instead, those execs had looked across their network's content and raised flags when communities of color were repeatedly the ones depicted as wrongdoers?

Those fictional depictions matter in the real world. A mountain of research shows that audiences' perceptions of people of color, as well as their behavior and decision-making, are profoundly influenced by film, television and other mass-media depictions of race and crime. That should hardly be surprising; the best storytelling is intended to influence how we feel, think and react.

So, what more is to be done? There can be industrywide responses, like divesting from discriminatory locales and companies, as well as individual responses, like supporting racial justice organizations led by people of color.

One idea that's gaining traction, among other suggestions, is a "Bigotry Pass." What if screenwriters and showrunners did a review or "pass" on their developing content to flag harmful stereotypes, narratives and tropes, just as they review scripts for comedy, character or theme? Turning a critical eye to stereotypical storylines and character types that are harmful (and, by the way, lazy writing) should be a standard practice for an industry that has so loudly declared its support for Black lives — yet so often denigrates them in its storytelling.

Applying a Bigotry Pass would require learning about prevalent stereotypes as well as why and how they are harmful — The Opportunity Agenda, Color of Change and Storyline Partners are reliable sources. It would require applying that knowledge to the writing, review and notes process. And it would require creativity and resolve to interrupt and re-envision problematic storytelling. In other words, it would require the kind of research, writing, editing and rewriting that networks and studios engage in every day.

What might this mean for creativity and free expression? First, consider that talented writers successfully navigate external land mines like obscenity and intellectual property protections every day while creating often excellent content. Perhaps more important, the unavailability of those harmful tropes could increase demand for fresh, nuanced characters and stories and more diverse writers and executives.

To be sure, there will be plenty of disagreement about what constitutes a harmful stereotype and which depictions, though arguably harmful, nonetheless advance a worthwhile story or perspective.

But for an industry with a long history of promoting harmful racial stereotypes; advancing a narrative of Black and brown people as dangerous threats; and endorsing the idea that police violence, and even torture, are normal and acceptable, change is long overdue.

The creative industry is already in the business of choosing which stories to tell. It's time to tell more that are part of the solution instead of part of the problem. It's time for a #BigotryPass.

Alan Jenkins is a professor of practice at Harvard Law School, a transmedia writer and the co-founder and former president of The Opportunity Agenda.