Our Chief Article Writer, Daisy Leigh-Phippard, discusses diversity on the big screen. Illustrations by Lorna Jameson
What would it be like if we woke up one day, and the people on the television screens and magazine covers matched the diversity we see on around us every day? Art tends to draw a diverse range of people, a variety of genders, ethnicities, sexualities, languages and disability. It is an incredibly inclusive form of expression- perhaps one of the more accessible subject areas, not least because it is malleable to every individual that engages in it. You don’t have to be schooled in a certain way of thinking – on the contrary, artistic mediums encourage unique perspectives. Which is why I think we artists are often surprised when the art forms we love and practice don’t come across as diverse as we are. Even our university is not as diverse as maybe it should be.
Diversity and representation in the media (and elsewhere) is something we hear about all the time these days. Perhaps more so from the moving image than other art forms, though the contention exists in just about every corner you can find. Where are the characters played by people of colour on TV? Where are the female nominations at the Academy Awards? Why is something considered ‘indie’ or ‘arty’ if it shows a sexuality other than straight? I’m trying hard to think of the last openly gay character I saw on the mainstream screen that actually got to play out a romantic relationship. Moonlight is probably the closest, but regardless of its now famous story, the film originated as a small independent project. No one thought it was going to blow up as big as it did.
Instead, Moonlight serves as a brilliant example that audiences are looking for more representation and stories that aren’t as prominent. Take Get Out, a film I still have yet to see so can’t comment on personally, definitely made a stir in the industry with its satirical look at some American attitudes towards people of colour. Arguably, its genre made it more appealing to the mainstream audience, but nevertheless the positive response to such a project goes to show just how much audiences want to move forward. Can you imagine that coming out and being met with such support before Trump’s America?
The reason these films and shows are seen as the ‘exception’ amongst the big screen – and even the little ones in our houses, whether it be the TV or Netflix – is that they’re risky. I debated using air quotes for that because it goes against everything I just pointed out. There are clearly big audiences for films whose protagonists tick the non-conventional boxes. Non-white main character? Moonlight. Tick. Female heroine that drives her own story? Wonder Woman. Tick. Sexualities past straight? You might have to look harder for that, but again I refer back to Moonlight. Tick.
Yet the harsh reality is that they are considered risky in the industry. And the people with the power to start making changes are the people taking on the most risk for themselves. Film and television producers and production companies call the shots when it gets down to it – the director might have creative control, but it’s the producers who put forward the contracts. And they’re also the people that present contracts for funding and marketing; if things don’t go well and investors don’t get paid back, they’re the ones who are going to be blamed. So, on the one hand, you can understand why they can be wary of taking risks. But should we be seeing diversity as a risk anymore?
Some people may be happy to stick to the heroic and antagonistic archetypes we’re used to, but there’s a lot of us out there who are interested in more. Thanks to social media and, I have to reluctantly admit, the political unrest we’ve been experiencing in the last year we’re already making our desires for diversity heard. Non-normative gender, race and sexuality are becoming selling points (whether it should be used for business is another discussion entirely, but it means we’re taking steps in the right direction). But the moving image industry hasn’t quite caught up yet – or at least the mainstream hasn’t.
The independent industry has always been a few steps ahead of the game. Smaller companies and artists in the industry, while disadvantaged in funds and automatic backing are often the most willing to experiment and take risks. Netflix, for example, has a brilliant host of indie films. Streaming services are a much more viable distribution method for movies that aren’t necessarily hoping to sell out cinemas. But television, it seems, wants to jump on the diversity train before it leaves the station. Top of the Lake, Jane the Virgin, Sense 8, and even to a degree Marvel’s Defenders and Jessica Jones are some shows that are trying to take steps towards a more diverse small screen through varied casting and tackling diversity in their plot lines. And I’m not ready to give up on film just yet either.
I think a lot of us would agree that there’s still a long way to go, both in front and behind the camera, canvas, computer and executive desk. We have to show that we want to see the more ‘risky’ projects, and support them when they do arise – both in film and other artistic areas. Moonlight won’t go down in history as the only Academy Award-winning film with a black, gay, economically challenged protagonist. I like to think that eventually we’ll wake up and see that same diversity on our digital screens that is true to real life. And maybe, one day, be a part of making it ourselves. I know I hope to.
Words by Daisy Leigh-Phippard, Illustrations by Lorna Jameson