Kerushun Pillay
Kerushun Pillay

Emmys give hope, but TV still suffers lack of diversity

It was unfortunate that the excellent Mad Men was not awarded outstanding drama series at last night’s Emmy Awards. An opportunity missed to give the series, which aired its last episode in May this year after seven seasons, a fine sending off, much like Breaking Bad had last year.

Mad Men’s depiction of American life mid-20th century was its strength; unabashed and direct in its addressing of relations between people, the work environment, race, women, and, of course, men. Mad Men’s universe and characters serving as a deliciously authentic look into the era.

As Mad Men’s conservative 1950s leaves our screens, its portrayal of life still bears relevance in 2015.

Last night for the first time ever a black woman, Viola Davis, won outstanding lead actress in a drama series. Davis plays Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder.

Viola Davis in the press room during the 67th Emmy Awards, September 20, 2015 at the Microsoft Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. (AFP)

Viola Davis in the press room during the 67th Emmy Awards, September 20, 2015 at the Microsoft Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. (AFP)

While Davis’s place in a traditionally white-dominated list of awardees over the years provides a lovely highlight of the ceremony, it does invite inquiry into whether we’ve really come far since the days portrayed in the world of Mad Men.

Much like that time, it still appears a tough task for most demographics — be it racial or otherwise — to star in TV series due to a lack of diversity of characters.

It seems that, while groups do break through, TV is still dominated by certain groups. Sometimes, when portrayed, it can be to the detriment of the subordinated group because of stereotypes and lazy cliches. They really seem only interested in portraying one specific kind of lifestyle or personality.

A prime example to illustrate this point is the outrageously popular and (somehow) critically acclaimed Modern Family, which missed out on best outstanding comedy series for the first time in five years.

Modern Family. A series where each character lives up to pathetic cliches and tedious, unfunny stereotypes. Where the gay couple prance around worrying about frivolous things. Where the old white man is wealthy and therefore has a trophy wife who is the only real non-white character, and is a whiny South American woman who is clearly there to be leered at. The father is a lovable fool — because we haven’t seen that before. The young girls go as popular and stupid, and unpopular and intelligent. Oh, and the women are housewives. Seriously, if the show, as the title suggests, is in any way indicative of real life, then we’re all in trouble.

It is also unfortunate that shows like Modern Family are the most watched. It topped the ratings in 2011-2012. Sharing the top 10 were Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, and New Girl. All white-dominated; all use shoddy stereotypes.

Sure, there are some new types of characters creeping through — Jeffrey Tambor took home the Emmy for his role as a transgender person in Transparent, and Peter Dinklage won outstanding supporting actor. They sit alongside four other black recipients apart from Davis.

However these awards merely sweep the problem under the rug. There is, it appears, reluctance from creators and producers of shows to portray a variety of characters.

A 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report states “minorities and women are woefully underrepresented”, this in spite of “[women being] slightly more than half the US population, and more than one third of the population is currently [made up by minorities]”.

It is also a problem behind the scenes as “important gatekeepers of the [television] production process [tend to] load their rosters with white show creators, directors, writers, and leads, largely to the exclusion of minority and female talent”.

Hopefully this year’s Emmys serve as the opening of the floodgates. However, different races and genders are just the tip of a subordinated mountain: there is also a need to begin to include a variety of body types, disabilities, and cultures, and to portray them in a way that counters patronising or stereotyping.

Lack of overall diversity is, sadly, something that dominates all media: for instance, videogames out late 2015 to early 2016 are really the first where there is a volume of playable female characters. There is still a lack of ethnic groups and, well, all else. Ditto films and advertising.

The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity,” said Davis in her acceptance speech, where she acknowledged black female struggle icons who historically carved out opportunities for women.

The fight continues.

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    • Makate Rapulana

      Why don’t those groups that feel excluded create their own shows and awards..

    • Pierre Aycard

      Mr Pillay, you need to start by contextualising your analysis, by stating that you are focusing on US television. It has changed over the last 20 years, to include people an shows from all backgrounds, but in a racialised society like the US, the majority is still White, middle-class, and conservative. Therefore US Television reflects mostly their way of life. That is only natural.

      Now the problem is not the state of US television. The problem is that people like you act as if everybody should take US television as reflecting the state of every society, and as if it should be an example for the world.

      It is not. I don’t care obout the Emmys. I care about good shows. I know some from many countries, with many different people pictured in it. If the lack of minorities on US television disturbs you, why don’t you watch Nigerian, Brasilian, or Indian shows ?

    • Voldemort Rupert

      What really irks me is the constant stereotype of women as the sexual predator, desperate for someone to give a blow-job to at vthe ery least. Thinking that maybe its just my generations viewpoint I asked a much younger women – “Do you and your girlfriends spend most of your time desperately searching for someone to screw or are you mostly fending off the unwanted advances of men?” She assured me it was the latter. So what gives?

    • Michelle Avenant

      Rad column, Kerushun :)

      Have you watched Orange is the New Black? I love its representation of mostly women, of different body types, socio-economic backgrounds and race groups, many of whom are lesbian, bisexual or even, like Piper, confused about their sexual identity. Although, as you point out, one show or win doesn’t change the whole background.

    • David

      If you don’t like it don’t watch or play it, simple. The entertainment industry is there to make money therefore they will produce shows that sell.

    • kerushun pillay

      Michelle! I have not seen that show. Actually struggling these days without the DC. Sounds like something I should have a look at. It is good that the first black woman won that award but there is much work to do still. Tough to see the day when you do see certain demographics and don’t bat an eye lid.

      I know this is not the place, but how is IT Web? I read some of your articles through twitter.

    • kerushun pillay

      Good points, Pierre – American shows, I feel, are the dominant ones. That is what i took when writing this. Fair points none the less. Thanks for reading.

    • kerushun pillay

      Yeah. Seems like that is the new ‘option’ for a female character. If not a flowery housewife, it’s some kind of predator. We need to see more depictions.