CN: Discussion of erasure of queer/trans POC in media, erasure of TWOC in Stonewall film, tokenism
The other day, I was watching the first episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None with a friend, and the first thing he pointed out was the in-your-face diversity – “Oh look, a Jew, a Pakistani and a black lesbian! They seem to be ticking all the boxes!”
This seems to be a fairly widespread view; that cultural output in the 21st century has become a political correctness machine, churning out diversity quotas at the BFI, targets at Channel 4, and pesky Lenny Henrys demanding minority representation.
But the fact remains that for far too long, British film and television has been telling the stories of a strikingly narrow subsection of society. My friend’s comment got me thinking about my own family, which is South Asian and white, and my friends, who are white, black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and atheist, and have a wide variety of gender identities and sexualities.
Diversity on TV is not about constructing a vision of a politically correct multicultural utopia — it is about reflecting the everyday reality of a great number of us.
As acclaimed producer Shonda Rhimes puts it: “I really hate the word ‘diversity,’” […] It is just something other. Something special, like it’s rare. ‘It’s diversity!’ As if there is something unusual about telling stories about women or people of color or LGBT characters on TV. I have a different word. I call it ‘normalizing.’ I make TV look like the world looks.”
Many of us, especially millennials, have been reaping the benefits of this mindset. ‘90s and ‘00s children’s TV featured more varied and prominent minority and female characters than ever before. Not only did this provide role models for its diverse audiences; it also affirmed the existence and recognition of our communities. By confronting racist and sexist stereotypes, it helped to form open and critical attitudes.
Yet this privilege has never been expanded to everyone, especially those who belong to more than one underrepresented group. As a queer person of colour, do I exist in the public or cultural realm? Is there a space for me in literature, TV, film or theatre?
I’m not talking about being the main character here; I’m just talking about existing.
The truth is that we are everywhere, and have always been everywhere. Mainstream culture just hasn’t caught up yet. We exist, and no matter what the few TV depictions would have you think, we exist beyond the facts of our race, gender identity or sexuality. It may be true that we face queerphobia and racism, often simultaneously, but we are more than just oppressed people.
Although EastEnders’ Syed Masood, a gay Muslim who battled with his sexuality, was groundbreaking, especially considering his national reach, he only represented one facet of our story. We’re not all caught up in a constant conflict of identity. And we’re not the product of a clash of civilizations. Our queerness is neither a Western creation, nor at odds with our cultural backgrounds.
We are students, teachers, doctors, social workers, unemployed people, immigrants, asylum seekers, parents, shopkeepers, nurses, lawyers and CEOs. Slowly but surely, these complex and varied representations of us are starting to appear.
Without downplaying the very real setbacks, such as the erasure of trans women of colour from the recent Stonewall film, there is cause for cautious optimism. The second series of Shonda Rhimes’ How to Get Away with Murder saw its multidimensional, charismatic and anti-heroic law professor lead Annalise Keating, a black woman (played by Emmy-winning Viola Davis), rekindle a relationship with an ex-girlfriend from university. Her bisexuality was naturally woven into the script, with no added focus or fanfare. Similarly, the character development of gay Asian American hacker Oliver in the same series had little to do with his identity.
Laverne Cox, a black trans woman, stunned audiences with her performance as inmate Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black. Russell T. Davies’ Banana and Cucumber featured Dean, Lance and Scotty, black queer characters from diverse class backgrounds and walks of life.
There have also been positive developments in terms of public figures. Remona Aly recently wrote about how hijabi women are entering and reshaping mainstream British culture, with reference to Great British Bake Off’s Nadiya Hussain. Nadiya’s openly gay Asian co-contestant Tamal Ray exemplifies a similar breakthrough for queer people of colour.
Representing queer people of colour properly is an assertion of our humanity. Rather than a matter of simply existing on screen, it is about occupying a space in the public consciousness. It’s important not only in terms of reflecting our reality, but also in breaking down stereotypes and creating new attitudes.
There’s a long way to go, especially on children’s TV, and certainly when it comes to trans and non-binary people of colour. But finally, we’re exiting the realm of invisibility and entering the mainstream.
Phelan Chatterjee (Get Real. Contributor)