Publishing diverse children’s books for more than two decades has given us a unique perspective when it comes to diversity. While our mission is to bring more diverse books to children, we hope our efforts as activists keep the wider conversation on race and inequality in the spotlight. Our other Diversity Gap studies on the Tony Awards, the children’s book industry, US politics, The New York Times Top 10 Bestseller list, and the Academy Awards revealed a disturbing trend in ethnic and gender representation. We decided to focus on the television industry next.
Our Diversity Gap study on the Emmy Awards was the logical choice for objectively looking at the small screen. Since the Emmys will be presented on September 22, 2013, we collected data to see if a diversity gap exists in television. See our infographic above for Emmy related facts like:
- No woman of color has ever won an Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series
- In the last twenty years, winners in the Best Director of a Comedy Series were 100% white and 95% male
- An African American woman has not been nominated for lead actress in a Comedy Series since The Cosby Show (1986)
We implemented the methodology we have used previously, with the help of the Writer’s Guild of America West, and we were fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with two talented writer/actors. Their combined insights into the mechanism behind making television illuminate why the lack of diversity in casting and writing remains a very real, very complex problem.
Luisa Leschin definitely believes in the richness of diversity. She has enjoyed four very successful careers: ballet dancer, actress, voice-over artist and television script writer. Her writing credits include The George Lopez Show and Everybody Hates Chris. She is currently developing a children‘s sitcom pilot with EOne Entertainment with a theme of healthy living and is writing a pilot about Latino millennials called Homies.
Kelvin Yu is a Taiwanese-American writer currently working on the Fox animated series Bob’s Burgers. A Los Angeles native, Yu studied theater and communications at UCLA. His acting credits include Milk, Star Trek, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, and The Shield. He also has a small white dog named Yuki who used to live in New York. Neither of them are fixed.
Luisa, what types of roles were you being cast for when you were an actress?
LL: I was lucky enough to be a working actress during the 1980s and early 1990s. I started my career in New York, where I studied with Uta Hagen, a legendary actress and teacher. I speak un-accented English, but judging from my auditions, I soon realized that I better work on my Mexican, Cuban, Guatemalan, Colombian, and Puerto Rican spitfire accents because those were the only roles for which I was being considered. I remember walking onto the set of Hill Street Blues, where I was playing the pregnant girlfriend of a gang member. We had just been arrested. My fellow “actor” introduced himself to me and asked me how many times I had been arrested, because he’d been arrested twice! Toward the end of my on-camera career, I did a “role-count” and discovered that I had played a pregnant woman (in various stages of delivery) no less than six times, hookers, maids, gang-girlfriends, and as I got older, gang-girlfriend’s mothers . . . and not much else.
Kelvin, in our initial conversation you said you felt that as an actor you have resigned yourself to always playing second banana—that you would never appear as a main character in a TV show. You attributed this to a standard of beauty. Could you elaborate on this for us?
KY: I may have used the word “resigned” but I think, more accurately, as an Asian American actor you just come to understand the market place as it is. That’s not to say that you don’t hope it could someday change, but you understand that American audiences are not generally even ready for a female lead most of the time, so it is unlikely they will mass-consume a television show or a studio feature with an Asian American carrying the story. That said, this year we’ve seen Mindy Kaling and Ken Jeong take on huge projects that are viewed by millions of people. But these are, of course, the exception rather than the rule.
As I said before, it’s not entirely an issue of race either. I don’t think Dan Devito had any illusions in Romancing the Stone that he was gonna get to kiss Kathleen Turner. The paradigm of the American hero is, in the main, a handsome white dude, say, six feet tall—and that’s just how it is. I truly feel though, at the end of the day, audiences are going to connect with the best storytelling. We’ve seen that movie goers will champion protagonists in every shape, color, or form (even a talking pig!) if the storytelling is honest and resonant. So in some ways, I just challenge Asian American writers, producers, and directors to introduce great stories that feature different types of protagonists. It wouldn’t be fair or realistic to charge other people to tell your stories. People are just “writing what they know,” which can be a virtue while simultaneously a tragedy.
Luisa, you founded the comedy troupe Latins Anonymous. Tell us the goal of Latins Anonymous and how this led to you become a writer.
LL: The resulting frustration of having a demo reel that was a hit parade of stereotypes led me to join forces with three other Latino actors who were in the same boat. We knew that as actors we were powerless to effect change from the stage. We just didn’t have the voice to do it. The real power came from higher up—the writers and producers. So that’s why I embarked on a writing career, to help change how Latino roles were written and perceived, and also just to get more Latino actors in front of the camera. Ironically, this move pretty much killed my acting career because casting directors who came to see our show skewering stereotypes were too embarrassed to offer us those same stereotypical roles.
Kelvin, you attended college at UCLA, where the number of Asians make up 49% of the student population. Yet you mentioned that you are the only person of color in a thirteen person writing team. Why doesn’t the density of Asians living and working in Southern California amount to a larger representation of Asians in decision-making roles in TV?
KY: Don’t know. I know for a FACT that Asian Americans love to consume media—movies, television, video games, social media, all of it—so their lack of representation over the past several years is probably a combination of factors including cultural emphasis in different fields, a lack of avenues within the industry, and some level of systemic prejudice (particularly in the past).
However, I do think this is about to change big time. I think in the next few years you will see a flood of Asian content creators. Some of that is simply the rapidly closing cultural gap that social media and the internet are facilitating. Young Asian writers and actors and directors are growing up seeing Ang Lee and Justin Lin and Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou win Oscars and BAFTAs. The world, for better or for worse, is remarkably smaller than it was a decade ago and audiences are more open, even hungry, for unique voices. I also think new media renders many of those past obstacles powerless against the thousands of outlets for Asian American creativity. For instance, even if your stern Korean father wants you to become a doctor, he can’t really stop you anymore from making small movies with your iPhone and cutting them with some app. People can write, shoot, edit, and even distribute content from a $300 laptop. How was an Asian American teenager supposed to do that in 1990? Not to make Asian parents seem like the only barrier, and also not to make them seem all like Kim Jong Eun. I just think we’re about to see an influx of new voices and, thus, new stories. Which is very exciting.
Luisa, during our conversation you mentioned “that there is a system” in place to break into writing for television. Describe for us what that system is and what are some of the hurdles involved with addressing the problem of the diversity gap in TV programs.
LL: We all know the famous quote by William Goldman: “In Hollywood, no one knows anything.” And we also know that many roads lead to Rome. . . . So, having stipulated that, I’m talking about the established network system. If you manage to get in on the ground level as a staff writer or story editor and then move up the ladder to senior story editor, producer, co-producer, and ultimately co-executive producer you will then become a known entity to the networks. At this point the powers that be feel confident that you have experienced firsthand about how TV shows are written and run. The network is willing to listen to show ideas from you, willing to consider ordering a pilot from you, because they know you have put in your time working under showrunners they trust and that you have experience on how things are done. This is the path that most showrunners have taken to rise to the position where a network trusts them to run a multi-million dollar show.
Which brings us to the biggest problem facing us in trying to narrow the diversity gap. There are very few diverse writers because there are few diverse showrunners/creators because there are few diverse executives who think that people of color and/or women tell stories that ”their” audience wants to hear. Certainly there are other ways of breaking into television writing, especially with all the new media platforms, but ultimately there are no shortcuts for putting in the time and learning the workings of television from the bottom up.
Kelvin, what are some of the factors that may keep white writers and producers from taking a chance on casting or writing more characters who are people of color into TV shows?
KY: I honestly think most writers just write what they know. Particularly in TV, which is by definition on a deadline, it’s just not going to be your instinct to pitch a story about a Pakistani family if you have never had any experiences with Pakistani families. Nor do I blame writers and producers for remaining within a personal wheelhouse of stories that reflect their particular vantage point on the world. Every once in a while, you get an Ang Lee or a Coen Brothers—storytellers who find a way to turn something quite foreign to them into something deeply personal. But I think most of us, when given that rare chance to tell a story, want to tell the stories we dreamed of sharing with the world. Our own stories. And that’s okay. That’s not just okay; that’s good. So the issue is, how do we get more eclectic people into the room? How does the face of TV writing start to look more like the face of America?
Luisa, you worked on The George Lopez Show, which aired for five seasons. From your description of the system, how did a show like this get made in the first place?
LL: It took a movie star, an established showrunner of multiple hit shows and an exceptional talent. At the time, Sandra Bullock had a development deal at Warner Brothers. Someone told her about stand-up comedian George Lopez and she and showrunner Bruce Helford (Creator of Norm, The Drew Carey Show, and Anger Management) went to see his show. Sandy fell in love with George’s talent and told Warner Brothers this was the show she wanted to develop. It took a lot of pull and star power to get the show on the air.
Everyone always has that one great idea for a pilot. But it’s seldom about the idea. All you have to do is look at most hits on TV. Cosby, a show about a family; Seinfeld, a show about nothing; Friends, six friends sitting on a couch. The salability of a pilot really rides on the team behind it. Who is the talent big enough to carry a show that has broad appeal for middle America? And who will be writing and running the show? This is why the same dozen showrunners get pilot after pilot every season. (Can you say Chuck Lorre? Bill Lawrence?) It’s because they have a track record in the network system and executives know they can deliver a show.
Luisa, you have done considerable work on some successful sitcoms over the years. Are there shows that you have worked on, or actors and actresses, who have been overlooked by the Emmy Awards?
LL: Yes! Every show I have worked on had brilliant actors who should have been at least nominated to receive an Emmy: George Lopez, Constance Marie, Belita Moreno from The George Lopez Show; Terry Cruise, Tichina Arnold, both from Everybody Hates Chris. Too often shows that feature diversity are overlooked by voters of the Academy. I don’t believe it’s any kind of conscious bias. Having been a judge for a few award shows myself, I discovered that I was more favorably inclined to a show if I had already watched the show, if I was familiar with the characters or if I might have already seen the nominated performer or episode. In short, I was already a fan. The sad fact is that most judges in the Academy are not diverse and may not be watching shows that feature diversity and/or diverse characters.
One thing worth noting about the 2013 Emmy Awards: Kerry Washington is nominated for best actress in a drama for Scandal. If she wins, she will be the first actress of color to win an Emmy Award for a drama in the sixty-five year history of the award! The fact that she is nominated at all is a testament to Shonda Rhimes’s style of ethnically inclusive casting and writing. Ms. Rhimes is essentially the embodiment of what Luisa Leschin describes as the television system for breaking into writing. Ms. Rhimes worked her way up the ranks, paid her dues, and became a showrunner. Her version of television presents a real world example of what TV shows could look like: ethnically and gender inclusive, entertaining, and . . . successful.
This is not an isolated incident, but a wide reaching societal problem.
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