"Acceptable" Media Diversity

How Praising "Diverse" Shows May Be Buying into a Larger Fallacy About What Equality Really Means

Modern "still very white" family

In a world rife with division and controversy over what is right, what is politically correct, and what is offensive, there has been an interesting phenomenon which has taken over most media, and especially tv and movie, sources, which I like to call “acceptable” diversity.

It's generally accepted at this point that an all white, all male, all cis, all heterosexual, all able-bodied character cast is unrealistic and not relatable to much of the population. Plus television and movie producers love getting praised for diverse and inclusive work. But while television shows and movies are starting to get applause for their progressive and diverse casts and stories, there's a lot of underlying intricacies within diversity that are being largely ignored by mainstream media. Instead of true, dynamic and realistic diversity, media outlets are relying on what I'm calling "acceptable” diversity.

So what am I talking about? Viewers don't want to see a show that "is racist" or "is all white," so television puts in one or two characters that are "diverse." The harmful nature of tokenism is a highly researched and talked about issue, but it's not the point here. What I want to talk about is that while media has decided to be "diverse" they don't want to cross too many traditional lines, and thus largely refuse to portray stories that show multiple layers of oppression or the complexity of diversity. "Acceptable" diversity includes characters that have one aspect of their identity which is marginalized, but not multiple: white women, black men, gay white men, etc. But put in too much distance from "normal" (black trans women, an indigenous woman with a disability) and you've apparently gone too far.

It's known that when there are an equal number of men and women in a room, there is a perception that there is a woman majority. The same is true of racialized people. This false perception is a key part of "acceptable" diversity. In a show with 5 characters, 3 men and 2 women are acceptable, 3 women and 2 men are not. 3 people of color (POC) and 2 white people are not. And let's not forget that by categorizing all POC as "diversity inclusions" it washes over the fact that the POC community is just as diverse. Why does a diverse show have to have 2 white characters and a black character? Why can't it have a black character and 2 Asian characters? Why is there a default that there still has to be a white majority, or that there even has to be white main characters at all? We don’t even question the default of there being white characters, while the “other” category can be filled by any POC, and it still counts the same on the diversity checklist.

This contributes to larger systems that continue to marginalize groups by creating a false equality. If we falsely believe that 3 white men, a black man, and a white woman is equality on the screen, we’ll also falsely believe it’s equality in the boardroom or in the government. We need to question all of our perceptions about diversity, and recognize the work that still needs to be done.

I recognize that there are some shows and movies, not to mention directors and producers of color, that do an incredible job about reducing tokenism and creating more authentic diverse representation, but they are few and far between compared to the rest. So next time you watch a television show, or a movie, take a minute to question whether they have really done the work to diversify and create representation.

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"Acceptable" Media Diversity