Monday, July 16, 2012

Representing: Diversity in Television and "White Entertainment Television"

I ended up in a long, long discussion on Facebook the other day. The topic wound its way through white privilege and "reverse racism," but it started out of the tried-and-not-so-true argument that the existence of things like Ebony magazine and BET is racist. The way to demonstrate this inherent racism, the proponents of this message say, is to consider the backlash that would appear if their logical counterparts Ivory magazine and WET (White Entertainment Television) were to be created.

Of course, my argument is that BET was created as an outlet to expand cultural expression, not to exclude from it. There can be (and are) white people involved in these "black" entertainment outlets. They are not race-exclusive. Furthermore, the creation of a "WET" might not be necessarily racist, but it is certainly redundant, as virtually all mainstream media outlets already have a majority white perspective. 

The intention behind the creation of such a network is key to understanding whether or not it's problematic. The purpose of BET was to provide avenues for artists who were excluded and silenced from the mainstream media outlets. The purpose of WET would be to double down on a privilege that already exists. The differences in those intentions cannot be overstated. 

What Does the Diversity of the Media Landscape Look Like?
I already know that there are a lot of problems with portrayals of diversity in mainstream media. I've read a lot of research that points to these problems, and they are not limited just to racial disparities of representation. Women are also less likely to get equal screen time.

I've seen reports like this one from Stacy Smith and Marc Choueiti that show that women receive less time as primary characters and are more likely to be sexualized. Their key findings demonstrate that women make up only 32.4% of speaking characters in G-rated films, 30% in PG films, and 27.7% in PG-13 films, despite making up 51% of the population.

This article from The Guardian shows similar gender disparities:
Only four in every 10 women on screen are aged over 40. In contrast, however, for every 10 men featured on television, six are aged 40 or older. 
. . . in light entertainment, comedy and drama they make up just four in every 10 participants. In the field of serious broadcasting, the research shows that women make up only one-third of participants in factual programming and even less in news, with only a 31% share of the limelight. When women do feature in news programmes, 69% of the time it's to discuss "softer" news topics, such as health, culture or cookery.
I've also seen reports on racial disparities in television. In particular, the Fall Colors report (the most recent one from 2003 (PDF) demonstrates that even though more characters of color are being introduced than in prior years, the amount of screen time given to these characters is still not equal, and characters of color are more likely to play secondary roles or be portrayed in negative ways.

Some Observations 

So I wondered. Maybe television today is getting better at showcasing racial diversity. After all, that Fall Colors report (the most thorough that I've seen on the subject, though I'd love to see others if you have them), was last published in 2003. Maybe things have improved. 

In my admittedly unscientific approach to thinking about this, I turned to IMDB where they have a list of their most popular TV shows as ranked by users. This list changes over time, but on the day that I looked at it (July 15, 2012), these were the top 10 shows:
1. Game of Thrones
2. True Blood
3. Breaking Bad
4. Big Bang Theory
5. Suits
6. Pretty Little Liars
7. Walking Dead
8. Anger Management
9. How I Met Your Mother
10. Newsroom
I haven't seen many of these shows, so I'm not attempting to make any comment on the way that the characters are portrayed. For the purposes of this post, I'm looking solely at the number of characters who are female, male, and representative of different racial groups. I know that this doesn't tell us that much about how racial and gender stereotypes might be (and probably are) being perpetuated. The mere presence of women and minority characters does not guarantee equitable representation, and I'm not arguing that it does. I was just curious to see how the demographic breakdowns would look.

Also, I was interested in looking at main characters. For the purposes of this post, I only looked at characters who are in 90% or more of the total episodes. (In the case of newer shows, like Anger Management, this is something of a flawed method. Charlie Sheen has only been in 3 of the 5 episodes, so he isn't even counted among the main characters. Still, I think it's overall an effective measure of primary characters.)

Some Problems (and My Solutions)

Classifying people's race is tricky. Race is a social construct, and people handle the way that they identify racially very differently. As this "Sorting People" activity plainly demonstrates, you can't classify someone's race just by looking at them. Racial identification is complex, and I am not capable of knowing the complexities that go into individual actor's identity choices. For the purposes of this experiment, I relied on actors' IMDB profiles and--in a few cases--other web sources that cited them self identifying in particular ways. Also, I only marked people as "multiracial" if I found evidence that they specifically identified that way.


Overall, Not Too Bad

Taking all of the shows together, there were 70 characters who were considered "main characters" by my 90% rule--that is, characters who appeared in at least 90% of the total episodes. I used the 2010 US Population Statistics to determine what representative parity would be for those numbers. Here's what I got:

So, maybe I'm just cynical, but that's actually better than I expected. White characters make up 80% of this sample and 75% of the population; it's not perfect, but it's closer than it used to be. 

For comparison's sake, I also took a look at the characters in TV Guide's list of the top 10 shows of all time. I had to exclude 60 Minutes and SNL because no characters were in 90% of the cast and The Simpsons because it's animated. That left me with Seinfeld, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, All in the Family, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Sopranos, and The Andy Griffith Show. In that lineup, white characters comprised 93% (all but one--Ricky Ricardo) of the main characters. At the same time, women comprised only 34%. So, you know, it's better. 

But Individual Shows Were Less Diverse
As far as racial diversity, three of the shows on the list did particularly poorly. How I Met Your Mother, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad all had 100% white main characters. Pretty Little Liars had 89%, True Blood had 82%, and The Big Bang Theory had 80%. 

The most racially diverse shows were The Walking Dead (75% white characters), Suits (67%), Anger Management (60%), and Newsroom (56%). 

As for gender diversity, most shows had a great imbalance between female and male main characters. The shows that showed many more men than women included The Big Bang Theory (80% men), True Blood (73% men), Breaking Bad and How I Met Your Mother (each with 67% men). 

Shows that had an overrepresentation of female characters included Game of Thrones (80%) and Pretty Little Liars (78%). 

The shows that came the closest to parity were The Walking Dead (63.5% men, 37.5% women), Newsroom (56% men, 44% women), and Suits (a 50/50 split). 

Things to Note

Hispanic representation was woefully low, with only one character out of 70. For a population that is over 16% of the American demographic (and growing), this is a disturbing trend (and one that has been noted for a long time). 

This also points to a problem where "racial diversity" gets boiled down to mean a ratio between "black and white," which oversimplifies the issue and erases many people's experiences.  

Some shows get criticized more than others. Again, I'm only looking at these shows from a purely numbers perspective for this post, so I'm not really looking at the way that these characters are portrayed (though I'm not denying that that's important; in fact, I think that the portrayal of stereotypes may be more damaging than no portrayal at all.) Just looking at the numbers, it's interesting that a show like The Walking Dead has gotten so much criticism for its lack of diversity. Trust me, I'm not trying to downplay that criticism, especially when critics are comparing the screen script to the source material. It's absolutely a problem to minimize and marginalize characters of color, and I'm not letting The Walking Dead off the hook. It's just that, at least for this list of the top 10 shows, it's actually the show that gets racial representation the closest to parity (It portrayed 75% white main characters (US pop: 75.1%), 12.5% black characters (US pop: 12.3%) and 12.5% Asian characters (US pop: 3.6%). 

Maybe we're reserving our judgment of racial representation for the shows most likely to listen? Perhaps it's when we see great writing and acting that we really want to fight for fair representation, allowing some less artistically--if still very popular--programming slide by with far worse numbers in terms of diversity? 

And of course, some shows lend themselves to more diverse casting because we live in racially segregated realities. Depending on a show's setting and focus (rural vs. urban, chronological setting, nuclear family vs. workplace), there are more or less opportunities for truly interracial interactions. 

How do people use this media? Finally, my main concern with media is that it is a representation of our world. We use media to form ideas about the world around us. If it were purely entertainment, I guess I wouldn't care as much about how people are represented, but it's not purely entertainment. Media matters. It informs our perspective and (implicitly or explicitly) impacts our decisions about how we interact with those around us. I have to wonder how people are using this media. Remember, when taken as a whole, this top-ten list had much better racial and gender diversity than the TV Guide list consisting of mostly older shows. But how many people are watching all ten of these shows? Are individual people getting a better representation of the world around them, or do the decisions we make about the media we consume further skew that world view?

Which Brings Me Back to BET and "WET"

We use media to inform the way that we look at the world around us. BET exists to address what was at its inception (and still is in many ways) a very real lack of avenues for equal representation in the mainstream media. In other words, BET exists to provide a representation that isn't available elsewhere. None of those top ten shows (even today's top ten shows) has 100% black main characters, but three (that's nearly a third of the shows) have 100% white main characters. In other words, white people aren't going to have any problem turning on the television and seeing themselves represented; this is not always the case for people of color (and it's very much so not the case for some people of color, such as people who identify as Hispanic or Native American). That's why those networks and magazines exist, to help provide avenues for representation when they are not present in the mainstream, not to create exclusionary clubs where separate cultures develop independently without ever intertwining. 

I highly suspect that there are very few people who watch only the shows on BET without also watching mainstream television programming. The mainstream programming is a part of our cultural tapestry. It's what we talk about around the water cooler. Those are the stars that we gossip about. The influence of those shows is pervasive. 

Perhaps the existence of BET is problematic, but only because the fact that it exists stands as a reminder that our mainstream media is not equally accessible to all members of society. The problem lies not with the network, but with the need for the network. 

The creation of a "WET," then, would be ludicrous. What would be the motivation? White artists do not need an avenue for accessible representation: they already have it. The only motive would be--at best--an ill-formed attempt to draw attention away from the fact that BET exists to address a real problem and--at worst--an attempt at racial exclusivity.


  1. I would argue that WET already exists, we simply call it TV.

  2. Brilliant. Wish I would have had the intellectual capacity to say this to the kids at my 90% white high school who said there should be a "White Student Union." Sharing this all over the place :)