But not so invisible
The crowd cheered when the speaker slammed the entertainment industry, charging that, when Americans tune into television, they see a “virtual whitewash in programming.”
The timing was perfect: lack of diversity in entertainment programs was high on the social agenda—too few people of color, scant women CEOs, almost no LGBT characters and an abundance of white, middle-aged professional men described films and television.
The speaker was the President of the NAACP, decrying entertainment programs “That make us invisible.”
But this isn’t today’s headlines.
The year is 1999 and the speaker is Kweisi Mfume, making headlines at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—17 years ago.
As Mfume was delivering his talk, the major US television networks were launching their fall schedules, and two researchers were ready to examine the new line-up, including the ethnicity of characters.
Katherine E. Heintz-Knowles and Perry Chen reported in Fall Colors: How Diverse Is the 1999-2000 TV Season’s Prime Time Lineup? that, while 60% of then-new programs had diverse casts, only 38% of minority characters had recurring roles.
Women represented about 38% of the characters (many of whom were professionals—about 25%).
When gay characters were portrayed—seldom—most were men (92%). As for people with disabilities, only 1% filled that niche.
Researchers analyzed 274 TV episodes, from, for example, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond and Moesha.
Heintz-Knowles and Chen found that prime-time shows fail to reflect real-world diversity: “Men out-number women almost two to one” and few Latinos, Asians and rarely—American Indians—ever land prominent roles. African-Americans are better represented than other minority groups, although most likely in all-Black shows, rather than “mixed” programs.
In 1999, Whites comprised about 72% of the US population, according to Heintz-Knowles and Chen’s report. African-Americans represented about 12% with Hispanics at 11%, and “others” at 5%.
Has the ethnic landscape changed since Mfume’s speech?
According to the US Census, there are fewer Whites and more Latino-Hispanics. About 62% of the population considers itself non-Hispanic White and 12% are African-American. Numbers of Hispanics rose to 17% (note the Census has changed definitions of Hispanic and Latino over the years).
How does the makeup of the US compare with entertainment roles?
Latino men have all but disappeared on your screen, according to a recent report from Columbia University called the Latino Media Gap. While Latino men occupy 3% of media roles, Latinas comprise nearly 10% of television characters and nearly 5% of film roles. Close—but not completely representative—of the population.
And women? We comprise half of the population but only one-third of characters on screen. About 2% of all “speaking” personalities are lesbian, gay or transgender, compared to the national estimate of 10%.
In contrast, Asians, Blacks and Whites on screen are roughly proportional to population ratios, according to a report released recently by the University of Southern California.
The USC researchers found that Latino, Latina and Hispanic people are under-represented, in addition to LBGT folk, and women. The rest (except for American Indians) reflect US statistics.
In other words, representation of people of color has gotten better since Mfume’s 1999 speech: women’s roles, Black characters, and Latina and Asian opportunities have increased.
But that’s only good news if you are comparing percentages of television and film characters with real-world percentages.
Using the metric of equal proportions—that the ratio of Whites to Blacks on TV and movies reflects actual ethnic proportions—seems a sideways answer to addressing the whitewashing (and male dominance) of characters.
One of the USC scholars said, “We’re seeing, across the landscape, an erasure of certain groups; women, people of color, the LGBT community” which she called an “epidemic of invisibility,” echoing Mfume’s remarks 17 years ago.
But this isn’t quite true. The report shows that Blacks, Asians and women have made in-roads (proportionally speaking) over the last decade and more—and are not invisible.
More important in the USC findings is that the structure of the entertainment industry as defined by those in power—those who create programs and control the purse-strings—are overwhelmingly White men.
Writers, producers and directors occupy a privileged space where decisions are determined by an elite cadre—what the USC scholar called, “a straight White boys club.”
By taking a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood machinations, activists shine a spotlight on more than the faces we see on the screen.
Although researchers who count the faces of color and the gendered hue, the studies recently highlighted in the press show numbers only—not the character of the individuals portrayed and the stories that are told.
For example, the Hollywood Indian continues to be framed as the stoic side-kick or the mystic warrior, and the Latina is often the maid.
The real power rests with the decisions made about what types of stories get told and by whom.
At this juncture, cable networks and streaming options are somewhat more inclusive than their mainstream TV and film counterparts, the USC report said.
And audiences who attend to the more inclusive media channels send a message to Hollywood that diversity is warranted.
Mfume encouraged his brethren to take action and “turn off the tube,” in 1999. “We’re not going to watch those shows that make us look invisible.”
Today we can take this a step farther: we can watch programs and films of quality and diversity.
Rather than turn off the tube, change the channel or platform, and send a message that you care about who gets to tell the story.