These excerpts are reprinted, with permission, from #PopJustice, a series of reports produced by Liz Manne Strategy with support from Unbound Philanthropy and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. They are from Volume 5: Creative Voices and Professional Perspectives.
What role do you think TV shows can, and should, play in improving public opinion of (and behavior toward) people of color, immigrants, and others historically marginalized?
I believe TV shows can and should play an important role in humanizing communities of concern to social justice advocates. Many would argue that TV did play a critical part in moving this country towards marriage equality, and I agree. Though that stands as an example of success, TV has a long way to go to achieve equal opportunity, behind the camera, and in front of it. With some notable and welcome exceptions in recent years (e.g., Orange is the New Black, Jane the Virgin, Fresh Off the Boat, Shonda Rhimes' shows), our current "golden age" of quality television has not yet yielded a creative world that "looks like America." The good news is that the television industry recognizes the need for more diverse programming, motivated not by social justice concerns, but by commercial demographics, as America transforms to a majority-POC nation. ABC set out consciously in the 2014-2015 season to schedule more ethnically-diverse shows, and the results, while mixed, were arguably positive. Every Scandal or Empire or Jane which becomes a hit encourages the networks to take more risks, since Hollywood decision-makers are motivated largely by fear.
It's important to stress that increasing diversity overlaps, but is not the same, as "improving public opinion." The latter can too easily fall into an imperative to create characters who are "positive" role models, whereas the former involves putting characters from diverse perspectives and communities into mainstream media stories, then writing them as well as possible. POC, immigrants, women, LGBT characters, etc., do not need to be "good," they merely need to be human. There's no such thing as a "positive stereotype." Stereotypes are simply bad writing; good writing leads to characters who feel three-dimensional and to whom audience members can relate, whether they be gangsters, computer scientists, professors, prisoners, cooks, White House officials, etc.
How could social justice advocates most productively engage with writers, producers, and/or studio executives that would be both positively influential and genuinely useful to industry professionals?
What will ultimately bring change to TV is greater diversity in all aspects of the industry—actors, writers, executives, producers, crew, etc. I'm currently creating a TV show of my own, and in the meantime, working as a writer/producer on a Showtime series. The staffs, creative teams, and crews with whom I work are overwhelmingly white. So when I notice something that feels to me like a stereotypical representation of a POC, I end up being the person who brings that up. I happen to be in an incredibly privileged position, with my colleagues respecting me, yet it still feels a little uncomfortable. I can only imagine what a young writer of color, with few credits to her name, would feel in a similar situation. What justice advocates can do is pressure the industry to hire and train more diverse artists in all areas of creation and production. We need people who understand both what it means to belong to these diverse communities and have the craft and experience to create great TV. In addition, justice advocates need to support those shows that do move the needle, even a little. The condemnation of Margaret Cho's sitcom All-American Girl in the late-90s stands as an object lesson about how social justice advocates should NOT behave. True, that show included many objectionable aspects, but also much that was revolutionary. By focusing on the former and protesting the show, advocates only succeeded in disempowering Margaret, sending it to an early death, and ultimately scaring Hollywood away from making another Asian-American sitcom for 20 years.
David Henry Hwang is a Tony Award-winning playwright and screenwriter (M. Butterfly, Golden Child, Yellow Face)