Diversity is finally here, but why does it feel so performative?
We have seen much more diversity on our screens in the past few years, yet it sometimes misses the mark. Representation is important because everyone deserves to feel seen in the media. Growing up as a Black British child, I didn’t feel like I mattered as no one looked at me, and I didn’t realise until I was older how much the lack of misrepresentation affected me mentally.
POC characters have been sidelined for years in the media due to racism, and finally, after years of people demanding more representation, we should be happy with it, right?
Diversity and misrepresentations
The 2021 reboot of Gossip Girl is a recent example of performative activism. While the reboot reassessed the lack of diversity in its original show—which consisted of a majority white cast—and relaunched with more actors from ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ+ community, the dialogue about diversity between the characters feel surface-level and never explained why such issues were important in the first place. Diversity came across as mere jargon to appeal to Gen Z and fell flat, which may be one of the main reasons the show was cancelled whilst season 2 was still airing.
Sex and the City is also another old show that recently got a spin-off in 2022. Set in New York, a deeply multicultural city, we rarely saw non-white characters, and when we did, there were stereotypically written as maids or the help or aggressive, highlighting that POC is only seen as the help and nothing more. 18 years after the show ended, Sex and the City had a remake called “And Just like that”. It promised to make the show much more diverse.
However, when you watch the show, it feels as though they just added LGBTQ+ communities and ethnic minorities to ease the criticism they faced. She is Mexican and non-binary, which is an amazing representation. I am happy they added them to the show, and that becomes a love interest for one of the main characters in the show; however, in the original, they only hint at lesbianism as just for fun and nothing serious, and in SATC, people assume Miranda is a lesbian. She firmly denies this. I understand that people can be closeted and have internalised homophobia, yet the show never mentioned that but glossed over it and made Miranda cheat.
Forced diversity is prevalent in these shows, as most writers are white and have no clue about these issues. instead of hiring a diverse team of writers, they assume what issues effects BIPOC and LGBTQ+ instead of getting people who experience it to tell honest, raw stories.
A good example of forced diversity is The Bold Type (2017-2021) tried to make a diverse show that felt like they were pandering to certain communities as well as being pretentious as none of the writers was a woman of colour; how can you make a show about diversity if you don’t have any women of colour to make sure the storylines feel authentic?
Kat played by Aisha Dee had a strong storyline in Season 1, which explored her identity as a mixed bisexual woman navigating her life, then in Season 2, educating her friend on internal racism; however, the show just glossed over the issue rather than digging deep into what Jane said and how it affected Kat the show did that throughout the show.
Even the Actress Aisha Dee called out the show during the Black Lives Matter protest after George Floyd was murdered. Dee stated, “It took two seasons to get a single BIPOC in the writers’ room for The Bold Type. And even then, the responsibility to speak for the entire Black experience cannot and should not fall on one person. We got to tell a story about a queer Black woman and a lesbian Muslim woman falling in love. However, there have never been any queer Black or Muslim writers in the room problematic it was; this continued throughout the seasons. ”
Not too long after that statement, the show announced it would just air one more season and got cancelled, I wonder why? Aisha’s open letter on Instagram in 2020 highlighted the big issue that many people of colour have spoken out is that shows are only adding diversity as it is not seen as cool any longer not to have POC in your shows.
I am glad that diversity is improving, which is very important; however, we still need to have these conversations until we see proper real change that doesn’t feel performative.
Another example of tokenism is Good Luck Charlie (2010-2014), a Disney show with a character called Ivy, played by Raven Goodwin, who had no important role other than being the loud-mouthy African American best friend of the white character (a stereotype I see often).
So many movies of this trope are getting old Honey (2003) starring Jessica Alba, Clueless Stacey Dash and Alicia Silverstone (1995), and Scary Movie (2000). There are many more of that stereotype in Hollywood, and it is not surprising at all to see these stereotypes being played to death/
Most TV shows historically have a lack of diversity. Popular 90s shows Friends and Seinfeld, set in New York, rarely had any POC characters. Friends has been called out for the lack of diversity, and the actor who played Ross begged the show to have a black love interest in 2003, 9 years after Friends debuted in 1994. Then David Schwimmer, who played Ross, spoke about the lack of diversity in the show, saying there should have been an all-black or Asian friend forgetting that Living in Colour, which ran from 1990-1994, was the black version of Friends – is kind of similar friends living together in New York. However, Living In Colour is not as nearly as well-known as Friends.
Riverdale (2017) has horrible diversity; it’s very embarrassing at this point there have been accusations about the show’s lack of diversity. Vanessa Morgan, who plays Cheryl Blossom’s girlfriend, spoke up during Black Lives Matter after the death of unarmed African-American Geroge Floyd in 2020; she tweeted:
“Tired of how black people are portrayed in media, tired of us being portrayed as thugs, dangerous or angry scary people. Tired of us also being used as sidekicks, non-dimensional characters to our white leads. Or only used in the ads for diversity but not in the show. It starts with the media. I am not being quiet anymore.”Vanessa Morgan
Vanessa isn’t the only cast member to speak out about diversity issues; actress Asha Bromfield spoke about how her character was a sidekick to Betty.
Asha spoke up about her experience on the show “I’m so much more, and Black people are so much more than support systems. It becomes toxic messaging when we perpetuate this idea that there’s any less validity to my own life than yours, that my sole purpose in this world is to support someone who looks like you.”
The lack of diversity isn’t just in fiction. It also happens in reality tv, which is also very problematic. Love Island (2015) is notoriously known for the lack of diversity in the show without having a range of races and LGBQ+, which in the year 2023, we shouldn’t have to be still discussing.
Fast Forward to the 2020s— while there is better representation in the media, colourism and homophobia are still prevalent issues.
I hope that shows get better with diversity by having a diverse team of writers to make an inclusive, beautiful story which can be done; look at Bridgerton. It’s big, just about adding POC and LGBTQ+ characters with no substance but with real honest stories.