Dear People who still ask why diversity is important,
I admire Shona Rhimes.
Let me qualify that statement. I revere Shonda Rhimes. She is everything I want to be when I finally grow up, and more.
After twelve years of Grey’s Anatomy, five of Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder’s extraordinary success, the creation of TGIT, after countless awards, a brilliant commencement at Dartmouth in 2014, and the publication of her Year of Yes, it is safe to say that Shonda Rhimes is the Empress of Network TV, and we love her for it. As we should.
She has given us Olivia Pope’s “Bitchbaby” speech to Cyrus Beene in season 4 of Scandal. Hell, she has given us Olivia Pope. Period. And Cristina Yang. And Annalise Keating. This is in a world post-Betty Suarez and Wilhelmina Slater. A world where Jane the Virgin reigns supreme on the airwaves and at the Emmys. This is important.
I will say this again. This is important.
It is important for people to look at their TV screens (and their cinema screens and their bookshelves) and see/read about/experience being in the orbit of people whose lives and loves are like theirs, and not like theirs. This is important because seeing the similarities and differences between people of different ages, races, socioeconomic groups, sexualities, political viewpoints, etc. helps us to look at people in our lives and outside as being as complex in their humanity as we are.
We like to do this. We like to say that we can do this. But we are narcissistic creatures; we recognise ourselves and a small spectrum of people who may be a little bit different from us. Honestly, we do not do much else other than socialise with people who share our tastes, senses of style, who we see regularly, or who are at least a part of our lives. So TV, movies, and books are really the best way to us to be confronted with something different, something spectacular.
And it may seem incredulous, and to some it may seem redundant. To those people, I say “Take off your blinkers,” because the people who can say that diversity in TV and other media is unnecessary are those who are having their need to see themselves met. Did you know that before Kerry Washington in Scandal, there had not been a black woman as the main character of a primetime TV for 37 years? THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS. That is an entire generation.
“But what about the prevalence of extras, and sidekicks? The customary GBF, or the Sassy or Streetwise Black Friend who exists solely to be a source of comic relief in a show and mitigate the privilege of the white main characters?”
It is not enough. It was never enough.
“But why can’t (insert non-dominant group here) make things for themselves, why does everything have to be politically correct?”
Because – and here is the truly insidious nature of hegemonic power structures – when a TV show or a movie of a book is created that does not adhere to the standards of what is artistically valued by the mainstream (i.e. heterosexual and white) or does not fit into the niche of what is considered to be of value from the culture of a marginalised group (i.e. movies about black suffering, or Latin TV characters who do not conform to stereotypes etc.) it is automatically assumed to be of lesser value, or for a niche market. In TV-land, in movie-land, and in literature too, White Makes Right.
This fact is so ubiquitous and so unquestioned, it is intimately tied up into the economics of the arts – from what gets awarded to what gets produced to who gets casted to what gets published to what we expect to see when we watch and read.
Diversity is important because the stories that make up people’s lives are important, whether they are like your own or not, and the books we read and the TV shows and movies we watch should reflect the world we live in. The CEO of the world’s most powerful company is a gay man. The outgoing President of the United States is a black man. The Nobel Peace Prize winner most people our age could name is a young middle-eastern woman. These things matter because they are part of our world. And TV, and movies, and books matter because they reflect our world and teach us to see ourselves in ourselves and ourselves in others.
THAT is why diversity is important. It matters to everyone everywhere.