×

TV’s War on Poverty: Showrunners Talk Changing Portrayals of Class

Gentefied Netflix
Kevin Estrada/Netflix

When Linda Yvette Chavez, the showrunner of Netflix’s “Gentefied,” took her mom and brothers to New York during a press tour, she knew her show was a success.

“This is the first time I’ve seen something where I see working-class communities where it looks like us and it feels like us,” Chavez recalled her mother saying. “I could tell whoever made it wasn’t afraid or ashamed of being poor, they weren’t ashamed of who they were, they weren’t ashamed of being Mexican, really Mexican.

“That filled my whole heart,” Chavez said. “That was exactly what we were trying to do.”

Along with Chavez, showrunners Steven Canals (“Pose”), Marvin Lemus (“Gentefied”), Anthony Sparks (“Queen Sugar”) and Erika Green Swafford (“New Amsterdam”) sat down virtually on Thursday to discuss how their shows are part of changing the narrative around poverty. The writer-producers gathered for a panel hosted by the Media Impact Project at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center.

The Lear Center is conducting a “cultural audit” of such narratives. So far, it has found that entertainment is dominated by narratives of meritocracy, which pushes the bootstrap notion that wealth accumulation comes from hard work. There are some exceptions that showcase on-screen characters who do everything “right” and are still unable to escape poverty, offering a closer glimpse of reality. Some even highlight the systemic barriers that keep economic inequity in place. However, there are creators completely omit the topic of race altogether, ignoring the role of racial discrimination in perpetuating poverty.

The new breed of TV series represented by the panelists present a more dynamic view of what it means to live on the margins.

“We need to stop using cis-hetero-white males as the default,” Swafford explained. “Our stories are just as universal as anyone else’s stories.”

Even with more inclusive storytelling proliferating across film and television, Canals asserted, to which the other panelists agreed, what we see on screen does not yet reflect the world we live in. He noted that the panel lineup didn’t reflect the standard industry gatekeeper, as described by Swafford.

“There’s all this labor that we all have to do when we get into a room to convince folks that our stories have value, especially when those stories that we’re pitching are also centering narratives of people who look just like us,” Canals said. “It’s critically important for young people to turn on the television and see their story reflected.”

In addition to necessary systemic changes within the industry, the panelists hoped their shows served not just as mirrors, but agents of change.

“Even if you are from a low-income community, we’re not questioning how we participate sometimes and how it affects our neighbors and our community,” Lemus said about gentrification. “Our biggest hope is that we plant a few seeds and we plant a few questions in people’s heads.”