On-Screen Representation Means More Than Just Identity. It’s About Context

Article In The Thread
May 19, 2023

When media decision-makers talk about diversity and inclusion, they’re usually talking about representing the identities of people and groups that are traditionally less visible both on screen and behind the scenes — including people reflecting a range of gender, race, ethnicity, queer, and disability identities.

There are many reasons that this idea of representation is a good start, including the fact that studios bring in higher ratings and larger audiences for productions with relatively diverse casts. For viewers, representation that steers clear of stereotypes can lead to empowerment and a sense of belonging, especially among underrepresented groups. Inclusive content also builds deeper understandings for viewers from majority backgrounds and identities.

Research over the past decade shows some improvement in diverse and inclusive representation in TV and film — but studios and creative teams are leaving a lot of unrealized potential on the table. Luminate’s 2023 Entertainment Diversity Progress Report, for example, found that women are fewer than half of main characters on screen, with representation of Black, Latine, Asian, queer, and disabled people lacking — and this data is trending in the wrong direction.

Behind the scenes, showrunners and directors who reflect a diversity of identities and lived experiences remain underrepresented as well, Luminate’s report finds. A separate recent study conducted by the Think Thank for Inclusion & Equity found diversity and inclusion in writers’ rooms also to be lacking. The diversity of creative teams will likely either be exacerbated or improved upon by the terms of an eventual resolution of the current writers’ strike and a potential director’s strike in Hollywood.

Furthermore, stories that “center” the experiences of people with a full range of identities, are few and far between — often, the lack of diversity in creative teams plays a role. And, as research from the Center for Scholars and Storytellers (CSS) at UCLA shows, the lack of authentic and inclusive representation in stories has costs at the box office.

Identity matters, but identity-based representation isn’t an end in itself. Its importance also lies in opening the door to more authentic storytelling, as organizations like CSS, Color of Change, Define American, and the National Research Group have recognized. And often, there are multiple, overlapping identities to consider. The Luminate report explains that when “each individual is defined by multiple identities across race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ability,” content “can better explore and reflect the nuances of the human experience.” And fortunately, Luminate’s research finds that intersectional depictions that lend themselves to more nuanced storytelling are becoming more common.

Content that marries diverse identities with realistic depictions of circumstances and experiences — including topics we focus on at the Better Life Lab, such as work-family challenges, caregiving, and harmful gender norms — also satisfies audiences, which is a win-win-win for creative teams, audiences, and studios.

Take, for example, the most-awarded movie of all time: Everything Everywhere All At Once. The film features a compelling Chinese immigrant mother-daughter-wife involved in a cosmic work-family struggle, precipitated in part by social and cultural expectations around work, caregiving, loyalty, and familial responsibilities. And the award-winning television show Abbott Elementary, a Black-led workplace mockumentary, integrates storylines about education, family relationships, and workplace norms. These two examples offer additional proof-points that diverse representation — and the authentic, nuanced, humorous, and poignant storytelling that comes with it — can attract audiences and result in commercial success.

“Identity matters, but identity-based representation isn’t an end in itself.”

What’s inspiring about these productions and others is that they represent the lived experiences of many people who grapple with managing work, family, and caregiving — disproportionately women and younger men, people of color, caregivers to older people or those with disabilities, people with disabilities themselves, LGBTQIA people, and more. At the Better Life Lab, we support creatives in “re-scripting” gender, work, and care, often in partnership with groups like Storyline Partners and Caring Across Generations, because we believe it can help shift narratives and culture, break stigmas, highlight systemic challenges (often disguised as individual failings), and point audiences toward solutions.

These are the lived realities of audiences today: In the United States, there are 52 million children under age 12, and most live in households where all adults work — yet only one-quarter of private-sector workers have paid family leave, with low-wage workers, single parents, and people of color being less likely to have leave. Most mothers are sole or key breadwinners for their families — yet many are paid less than their male counterparts and are subject to a pervasive gender- and race-based wage gap. And, of the country’s 53 million caregivers to older adults or disabled loved ones, 61 percent are women, and disproportionately women of color. Although men are doing more caregiving than ever before, they may face unique stigma because of it. Workers in service jobs — who also tend to be people of color and women — are less likely than other workers to have the ability to speak up in their workplaces or have access to workplace benefits like paid leave or child care assistance.

There are many wonderful examples of hit shows and films that bring these scenarios to life, and not coincidentally they tend to have creators, writers’ rooms, and casts that are more diverse than most. They use drama, suspense, and humor in relatable ways that allow viewers to see their own experiences reflected on screen, inspire them to question stereotypes, and perhaps even encourage them to see solutions to the challenges they face. Here are just a few:

  • The final season of ABC’s A Million Little Things depicted a pregnant character, Maggie, navigating a negotiation of parental leave with her misogynist boss, and a teacher, Rome, navigating elder care decisions with his father.
  • In Abbott Elementary’s most recent season, the school’s elegant grande dame of teaching, Barbara, admitted that her husband’s cancer scare distracted her and was interfering with her focus at work — something that people might be afraid to say out loud until they see a situation like their own modeled on screen.
  • Grey’s Anatomy regularly shows characters grappling with missing work due to care demands, or forgoing care needs for work. Last season, Jo, a single parent and surgeon-turned-OB resident, named child care as a catalyst for parents’ ability to work — something obvious but only recently widely acknowledged in the public sphere.
  • On Netflix’s highly-rated show, The Diplomat, the show’s main character, Ambassador Kate Wyler, referenced a potential vice presidential candidate ready to re-enter the political fray after leaving work for a year to care for her dying mother — signaling that women in particular often cycle out of work to provide care, and then want or need, and are highly qualified, to re-enter the workforce. The show spent even more time openly and creatively questioning gender norms in work and marriage as the complicated relationship between Kate and her former ambassador husband unfolds.
  • Finally, over five seasons, Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has used strong female characters as a gateway to satirizing, lamenting, and challenging perceptions of women in society and in workplaces. Although it is set in an earlier era, many of the challenges Midge Maisel faces breaking into comedy, working in a male-dominated writers’ room, securing credit in the wake of her divorce, and facing stigma as a working mother, are still relevant today.

Each of these plot points move the story forward while making visible audiences’ realities. But there’s room to go even further, to use sociological storytelling to show the forces that shape characters’ lives, decisions, and opportunities — for example, the cultural expectations and constraints that are put on immigrant women in family relationships like in Everything Everywhere; or barriers to caregiving or health forced by unforgiving work circumstances and lack of policy protections, like those faced by the characters in Grey’s Anatomy. Research shows this is something that on-screen storytelling about poverty, health, and caregiving can do better — and that it helps audiences to understand issues and challenges in more systemic ways.

Adding context — a fuller representation of circumstances shaping our lives — can help people know that they are not alone and not at fault. Context and nuance in storytelling can also help audiences of all kinds develop empathy and understanding that can mitigate today’s highly polarized environment. Broader context can even help viewers see the need and possibility for collective community and public policy solutions, like paid family and medical leave programs, which now exist in a dozen U.S. states, and child care innovations that boost parental employment and children’s healthy development.

We celebrate identity-based representation, and urge creators to use it to open the door for more stories that go beyond the “who” to acknowledge and explain the “what,” the “why.” This complexity makes for rich human drama, suspense, and comedy, adds to characters’ relatability, and reflects the realities of our real-life stories every day. As a result, we feel less alone and more empowered to help make and demand change.

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