How diverse are the heroes of our stories? Popular media and messages of inclusion

Ask anyone to recall their favourite childhood television character and they wouldn’t have too much trouble. The heroes and villains that play out on our screens, the fantasy worlds and stories of triumph are remembered fondly. They also help to shape our own personal ideals and views of what is ‘normal’, ‘right’ and ‘important’. The influence of media on our internal belief structures cannot be underplayed. So what role does the media have in addressing diversity and inclusion?

Recent events have highlighted ongoing bias in popular media and a lack of diversity in television, movies and popular fiction. Significant debate was ignited, when the latest film version of The Last Airbender cast a Caucasian actor in an Asian character role[1]. The latest Star Wars installment also drew criticism after a thinly veiled attempt at gender balance saw a female lead character cast, only to then send her to the background[2].

Hollywood has been criticised relentlessly over its tendency to cast very un-diverse actors, even in cases where a film has been adapted from literature originally portraying greater diversity[3]. Whilst there has been recent attention paid to the issue of equality in the film industry, this isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, research indicates that there has been no meaningful change in the prevalence of underrepresented minorities on the film screen in the past 10 years – whether in relation to gender, race, age or sexual orientation[4][5].

There is greater movement towards more inclusive environments that respect the value of individual contributions and provide an accurate representation of our collective makeup. It seems though, that Hollywood may be one of the last to get the memo.

Where disruption and diversity meet

New forms of media consumption are becoming increasingly popular. Netflix is credited as being one of the biggest disruptive innovations of our time and while Netflix originally appealed to the “movie buffs…early adopters…and online shoppers”[6], their rapid expansion globally has made on-demand media widely accessible. Netflix’s early success was attributed to the fulfilment of a clear need – our desire not to leave the couch and endure the long trip to the movie store. Television streaming services such as Netflix are however, proving to be far more than just a convenience.

Without the shackles of traditional Hollywood production teams and the requirement to stick with the Hollywood recipe for success (big names, safe choices) streaming services have the flexibility to deliver unique stories. Whilst streaming services began as curators, increasingly they are developing their own original content designed to appeal to wide-ranging tastes and demographics.

Netflix originals such as Grace and Frankie, Please Like Me, Orange is the New Black, Sense8, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Orphan Black, and Transparent provide unique stories that demonstrate diversity across sexuality, gender and ethnic and cultural boundaries.

Diversity breeds diversity

If you want to understand why Netflix has greater diversity on-screen, then take a look at what happens off-screen. Creator of Master of None (a Netflix original), Aziz Ansari recently commented that their writing team had potentially some of the most diverse representation of any show with “black people, Indian people and only one white guy. Which is probably the least amount of white guys in any major TV writing room”[7]. Consequently, Master of None is credited with having some of the most diverse on-screen portrayal of characters of any series. Sense8 was written by two transgender women and depicts a story of diverse multinational characters in storylines that tackle the politics of topics such as; sexuality and sexual identity, gender and religion.

Evidence indicates that streaming services, cable networks and broadcast television in general are doing better at diversity both on and off screen than film. Television has been bucking the Hollywood trend for some time (think of such 90s classics as Will and Grace or Xena Warrior Princess) streaming services now provide a convenient avenue for more conscious consumption. When compared to film, streaming services provide far greater diversity in storyline, character representation and directors.

The Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg[8] analysed major film and distribution companies according to five inclusion criteria that incorporate both on- and off-screen elements (e.g., percentage of female or LGBT characters). According to their analysis, television distributors far exceeded the performance of film distributors on almost all inclusivity metrics. There is still significant room to move, however, there is also much to celebrate.

In particular, on screen portrayal of females and underrepresented minorities was higher in in television and streaming services across all but two companies. Importantly though – behind the camera – women are becoming increasingly present too, with companies such as Hulu, The CW, Amazon and Walt Disney proving to be front-runners in the inclusion of women as writers, creators and directors.

An opportunity to change the storyline

There is clear rejection of the traditional stereotypes and forms of ‘old’ media. Audiences are demanding greater representation of diversity – whether that is in advertising, film, television or the workplace. Closer to home, workplaces are utilising storytelling and film to enhance their inclusion activities.

Recognising their mission to achieve an accessible workplace, where everyone understands the value of an inclusive environment meant inspiring and engaging all 37,000 employees, Australia Post embarked on a project to capture the uniqueness of their workforce through short film. Using characters inspired by real Australia Post employees, the ‘Real Stories Project’ provides a snapshot of the diverse nature of their workforce. At the same time, the short films manage to engage, entertain and educate by sharing the Australia Post Diversity and Inclusion strategy and helping everyone to understand their role in promoting inclusion at Australia Post (to watch the episodes visit http://www.realstoriesproject.com.au).

As a powerful form of storytelling, film and other forms of popular media have the potential to vastly change dialogue, challenging our inherent belief structures and presenting us with the opportunity to revisit our assumed knowledge with respect to individual and group capabilities. There is good evidence that integrating diverse populations into popular media and advertising can shift the public perception and have positive effects on inclusion efforts (E.g., disability in advertising and film: http://www.dsq-sds.org/article/view/279/307).

How can we use this knowledge to shift the dial on inclusion?

To use the old cliché, ‘every business is a media business whether they like it or not’. Public perception has a direct effect on the success or otherwise of business. With a growing consciousness amongst consumers and on-demand access to media, many corporations may find that their buyer base is more attuned to messages of diversity and inclusion than ever before. Australia Post is an example of a business that found a voice for their employees and in doing so, their own brand. Understanding and seeking to genuinely connect with stakeholders (whether employees, buyers, or even voters) and using stories and messages that demonstrate inclusivity is an essential element of any effective media strategy.

As the origin of media, organisations are also in the position to influence commonly held attitudes and beliefs. Norms that have been ingrained through years of media portrayals can be challenged and new role models demonstrating the capabilities of diverse individuals and groups can be offered.

[1] https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2017/kumiko-mendl-print-room-casting-row-proves-theatre-property-white-privilege/

[2] http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/news-and-views/opinion/why-its-not-enough-for-feminist-films-to-have-a-great-female-lead-20170118-gtu244.html

[3] http://variety.com/2015/film/news/the-martian-white-washing-asian-american-ridley-scott-1201614155/

[4] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/3aca/dad86cec42995a71ce3f23ca1a1bb427d5b2.pdf

[5] http://www.qwocmap.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/dr-stacy-l-smith-inequality-in-800-films-final.pdf

[6] Christensen, Raynor & McDonald https://hbr.org/2015/12/what-is-disruptive-innovation

[7] http://www.scpr.org/programs/the-frame/2016/05/27/49231/aziz-ansari-brings-genuine-diversity-to-master-of/

[8] http://annenberg.usc.edu/pages/~/media/MDSCI/CARDReport%20FINAL%2022216.ashx


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