No More ‘Fake Diversity’ on Screen. It’s About Quality, as Well as Quantity

Courtesy of AMC

In an exclusive guest column for Variety, writer and academic Marcus Ryder, co-author of the book “Access All Areas – The Diversity Manifesto for TV and Beyond,” reflects on a recent diversity test introduced in the U.K. and interrogates what’s considered an “authentic” representation. 

I worked at the BBC for 24 years, eight years as a senior executive in Scotland. One of the most “W1A” moments (a popular sitcom that poked fun at the corporation’s PC bureaucracy) of my time there was when a task force from London came to have a meeting with staff in Scotland. The meeting was to discuss what “authentic” Scottish portrayal in our programs should look like.

After discussions about the fact that it had nothing to do with how many people are wearing kilts on camera or how much bagpipe music is played in the program, the meeting came to an end. I don’t think we came to any conclusion except simply that putting a Scottish person on screen was not enough.

In the book I recently wrote with actor Lenny Henry, “Access All Areas – The Diversity Manifesto for TV and Beyond,” we talked about this very issue, drawing attention to “fake diversity”, or what Lenny terms “Milli Vanilli diversity” in which the diversity is only cosmetic.

As the U.K. media industry seeks to improve its diversity, the question of what is “authentic” representation still remains. What does “authentic” portrayal of under-represented look like and how can we judge it?

Recently, BEATS (British East Asians in Theater and on Screen), a media advocacy group for increased diversity, attempted to answer that very question with regards to the portrayal of British Southeast Asians in drama (BESEA). They proposed a simple checklist:

(1) Are there two or more BESEA characters? (2) Do at least two BESEA characters speak fluent English with a British accent? (3) Does at least one BESEA character pursue their own goal separate to the white characters?

If the program can answer “yes” to all three questions then it has passed the test.

Over the last ten years, there is no doubt that the number of non-white actors on our screens has increased — although less so for BESEA representation. What the BEATS test indicates, however, is that it’s not just about quantity: quality is equally important.

Interestingly, there has been push-back by some members of the British East Asian community about the exact specifics of the checklist, most notably whether the requirement regarding British accents champions second- and third-generation immigrants over more recent arrivals. I personally think there will be room for improvement and ways to address this concern. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the core principles and what the checklist identifies are three important criteria vital for authentic representation:

1. People of color are not isolated individuals.
2. Do not “exoticize” people of color; and finally
3. People of color must have agency over our lives.

Or to sum it up in three words: Community, Respect and Power.

The fact that BEATS have published this checklist now is particularly important.

Last June, the BBC committed £100 million ($137 million) of its content spend over three years on “diverse productions and talent,” stipulating that “diverse stories and portrayal on-screen” would be one criteria that productions would be judged by without detailing how.

The fear among many people of color working in TV that I have spoken to is that the BBC will repeat the same mistakes they did when trying to figure out what “authentic” Scottish portrayal is. Asking whether a Black character eating “jerk chicken” is more authentic than having them dine in a French restaurant. Or leaving it up to the discretion of a single executive as to what “authenticity” looks like.

What BEATS’ criteria demonstrates is that authenticity is not about specific cultural signifiers but about how you approach your characters. The BBC would do well to heed this when it finally publishes its guidelines as to what “diverse stories and portrayal on-screen” really means.

Of course, there is one final, fourth, criteria Lenny and I identify in our book as being essential to achieve real authentic portrayal: making sure there is diversity in key positions behind the camera.

I slightly lied when I said the meeting in BBC Scotland didn’t come to any further conclusion. There was one more. If you want authentic Scottish representation on screen you need authentic Scottish representation behind it.

Marcus Ryder and Lenny Henry’s “Access all Areas – The Diversity Manifesto for TV and Beyond,” published by Faber & Faber, is now widely available.