Let’s Be Realistic — Diverse Characters in TV and Film

Screenwriters are writing characters for modern times, and people aren’t happy.

The Weaker Sex — II by Charles Dana Gibson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Anyone with an internet connection will know about the deep-seated insecurities of cis white men expressed as an uncontrollable rage over the appearance of women, POCs and other minorities in “their” media. From GamerGate to Sad Puppies to sexist anger over the 13th Doctor, the representation of anyone who isn’t a cisgender white man is viewed as a threat to white male dominance over all areas of public life. And it’s meant to be.

And so we have seen many interesting and imaginative castings, improving not just diversity, but also the storylines. Increased visibility is a good thing — it’s great to see people like oneself in the stories we love, and it brings something new to old fictional universes. Including characters that have been left out for centuries is just redressing the balance, and if you’re that bothered by it, the original all-male recordings still exist for your enjoyment and obsession.

As a result of the audience’s demands for more representative casting, we are seeing many more women in leading roles and playing complex characters. That’s great — I particularly like that we’re seeing female characters that are flawed and sometimes downright evil, rather than as part of the two-dimensional backdrop. But there is a problem with this, and it’s actually a valid criticism of women’s representation in the media, for once.

Screenwriter and producer Daisy Goodwin has expressed concerns that portraying so many women in strong leading roles actually doesn’t reflect reality because we still have a long way to go before we achieve racial and gender equality. This over-representation could even be harmful as it is “soothing us into thinking that all the battles have been won”. But if we were to depict accurate gender ratios in high-powered dramas, we’d simply be echoing the casting of much of the 20th Century.

So what is the answer? I’m conflicted on this one. I do think that Goodwin is correct — in real-life, women are still massively under-represented in positions of power, and non-white women are virtually non-existent. Goodwin goes on to ask, “Where are the dramas that are reflecting the world of Me Too? Surely somewhere in the drama universe we should reflect the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.”

I also agree with this. There should be documentaries and dramas based on the #MeToo movement, and these would show representations of strong women that were accurate and reflective of their involvement. It ticks all the boxes! I’m sure that there is something in the making on this important historical event, but I am sadly not in that particular loop, so I could not say for sure.

But that would be looking back, whereas in most series with leading female characters we are looking forward. Who can say whether the media leads the change or the change leads the media? We know that representation is important for both those who aspire to be their best, and for those who they will meet along the way to accept and respect them, but is there a danger in masking structural inequalities by over-compensating in media representation?

Bodyguard not only featured several power-wielding main characters played by women, but also secondary roles such as the female snipers and police officers. This meant that women were a constant, and noticeable, presence in the show — something that I’ve never seen before in a crime drama. This is viewed as unusual, and yet we would not think anything of it were the cast almost entirely male. And that is kind of the point. It’s a deliberate move to make us pay attention, and one step towards making it the norm to see such a large number of women in roles that we once coded “masculine”.

The fact that it’s not just unusual, but also threatening to some people, shows the extent of, and reason for, this problem. Angry white men who want women to know their place aren’t just complaining about TV and film. They’re running our businesses, hiring and promoting in their own image, and blocking the routes to power in real life. But how do the two worlds interact?

While we might believe that a disproportionately high number of powerful female characters does not reflect reality, does it really undermine gender equality? There is the perception among some that feminism has already resolved all the issues for women and that we live in a perfect meritocracy — which is obviously untrue, but seeing representation like this could bolster these vested assertions that we don’t need to engage with diversity and inclusion measures.

Coming from an engineering background, I have worried that efforts to attract more girls and young women to the profession are horribly misguided and ineffective. Campaigns highlighting the amazing and rewarding careers of a handful of superstar women engineers, who go out of their way to insist that there’s definitely no sexism in the industry, honest, are painting a wildly inaccurate picture of what it is like to be a woman working in the industry, and completely ignores the reason why so many women leave the profession: because they are driven out by sexist working conditions and lack of career fulfilment.

And yet, Bodyguard, Killing Eve, Gone Girl and Broadchurch are not part of a recruitment drive. Their role in society is more to do with our general perceptions. Yes, our ideas about gender, race and equality are shaped by everything we absorb from our culture, but these productions are not explicitly there to educate, they are there to entertain foremost. Arguably that makes them better educational materials by engaging the viewer and making it an enjoyable experience.

Depictions of women in fantasy worlds do not bear this responsibility. There are very few openings in our universe for Time Lords or Vampire Slayers of any gender. But in the minds of some who willingly accept the plausibility of time-travelling aliens and shape-shifting mutants, a strong female lead is out of the question, Political Correctness Gone Mad, and the end of civilisation as we know it. Representation isn’t just for those being represented, it’s also for those that don’t want to see it.

It seems that we’re looking for a balance between accuracy and diversity, when there may not be one. We haven’t yet created that genuinely equal utopia in which there is no representation on screen that would seem like an anomaly, and we never will if anti-diversity campaigners and passive enablers aren’t challenged. I suppose the effectiveness of diverse casting depends on the context in which it is presented. In dramas based on the real world, the argument that good representation “airbrushes reality” is a fair point, but I’m not sure we can quantify the harm that this actually does.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that we are talking about how unusual it is to see decent representation on TV and in film. The opponents saying that it’s a gimmick, or offensive to cis white men, or unrepresentative of reality are performing one stage of a process that reflects and affects the direction society is heading in. We can criticise the media from a number of angles, and analyse their role in shaping attitudes, but their ultimate role is to entertain. A good programme or film doesn’t need to be representative to do that, but modern audiences are looking for something more relevant than the stale, pale and male model of old.

Audiences that want to see diverse casting are likely to hold progressive values in their actual lives, and audiences that don’t probably aren’t as enlightened in their day-to-day either. Whether the media hinders or helps achieve a more equal and fair society is the subject of many debates, but what we can say with reasonable certainty is that our entertainment media reflects our culture in ways that we may not see while we are actually living it. The fact that we are talking about it means that something is working. Whether we like it or not, we are all becoming experts on diversity and inclusion, and with the proliferation of social media, we’re all getting a grounding in media studies too. It seems that everyone’s a critic.