Diversity is not a dirty word

An opinion piece featured on the National Student about the #Oscarssowhite controversy and why diversity is important in media.

On episode 4 of Aziz Ansari’s critically acclaimed Netflix show ‘Master of None’, main character Dev has a conversation with a TV show executive about why he is reluctant to cast two Indian actors in his new show. The executive responds by saying “If I did a show with two Indian guys on the poster, everyone’s going to think it’s an Indian show, it wouldn’t be as relatable to a large mainstream audience.”

The response highlights one of the main issues with diversity in the entertainment industry: as much as we would like to think that all films and TV shows are created purely with artistic intention, the fact of the matter is they are just as profit oriented as any other industry.

The Academy Awards are coming under fire for what is been called the whitest Oscars ever – for a second year in a row. Criticisms have been leveled against the voters, who have seemingly snubbed minority actors and directors. It was no surprise to find that a 2012 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times showed that Oscar voters were nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male. The average age of the voters was 63.

Knee-jerk reactions on both sides have either decried the racism of the voters or insisted that the awards are based on merit so bringing race into the fray is unnecessary. To the people in the latter camp I would suggest they consider that their meritocracy does not exist in a vacuum. Racism alone is also not a good enough explanation because Hollywood is very proud of its liberal values.

The comments of individual voters show that they are all people who love film, with varying opinions of what constitutes a good one. But also, very critically, they are people who carry around implicit biases – just like all of us. One anonymous director tried to explain the lack of acting or directing nominations for Straight Outta Compton, telling EW: “I know many members who wouldn’t even see the film because it represented a culture that they detest or, more accurately, they assume they detest. Younger people, even those under 50, are not only fans of the music, but much more willing to try to empathize with the world depicted in the movie”.

The main reason the Oscars are white is the film industry is predominantly white and films that involve minorities are few and far between. Now, unless you believe the reason for the lack of minorities in the industry is that they are just not talented enough (it’s the logical conclusion to every argument that brings up merit) then I propose that the TV show executive from Master of None is emblematic of entertainment executives in general.  The profit tinted logic of ‘give the people what they want to see while I sit here and assume what they want’ must be rampant. We even have a real life example from Sony’s hacked emails where a producer suggested not casting Denzel Washington because he believed international movie audiences were racist and would not choose to see a film with a black lead.

In the same vein the Chinese poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens managed to shrink John Boyega while the Italian posters for Twelve Years a Slave featured Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender (whom I love) placed prominently for everyone to see while Chiwetel Ejoifor, the star of the film and titular slave, jogged unnoticeably in the foreground.

Now do we just lament our inherent racial biases and move on, or do we try and challenge the pervading consensus? No matter how much you shrink John Boyega, you cannot escape the fact that Finn is a prominent character in the film. A character that isn’t laced with stereotypes and presumptions (“droid please” moment excused). We can see the amount of good characters like that bring because they allow for multi-faceted representations of unrepresented groups. We should be complaining about the whitewashing of the film industry all the time, not just when the Oscar nominations are revealed. The enormous social good brought about by defeating the caricatured depictions of minorities is dependent on it.

The good news is that research is showing that diversity sells and audiences are demanding more projects with diverse themes and casts. Someone should probably mention that to the gatekeepers of the film industry.

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