Television creators, actors, directors, executives and diversity and inclusion experts joined Variety on Tuesday for the Changemakers Virtual Summit, dedicated to profiling people making positive social impact in the entertainment industry. Over the course of the day, Variety writers and editors spoke with prominent industry figures about mental health in television storytelling, improving representation both on-screen and off-screen, challenges that diversity and inclusion initiatives can face today and much more.
Here are the eight biggest takeaways from this year’s Variety Changemakers Summit.
‘Normalizing the Marginalized’ Is the Way Forward for Representation
While it’s no individual creator’s job to change the landscape of representation in media, it’s crucial to accept that changing the culture is an aspect of the job, said actor-producer David Oyelowo during the Stereotypes in Storytelling panel with senior awards editor Clayton Davis. Oyelowo specifically elaborated on his experience of being touted as a bastion of “diversity and inclusion,” even though he dislikes that term and thinks of his cultural responsibility as tangential to making great art.
“The thing that keeps me going is I pray that beyond my time on this earth what will have been achieved is normalizing the marginalized,” Oyelowo said. “To get to the point where we are normalized in a way where that conversation is eroded and my kids don’t have to deal with it in the same way, that’s the win… For all of us on this panel, we’ve just had to come to an acceptance that that’s part of what we are tasked with. We love telling stories, we love our jobs, we love the people we get to interact with, we love the cultural impact it gets to have, but a tangential part of our job is normalizing the marginalized. Everyone has already spoken to that and that’s a byproduct of what we are doing.”
Mental Health Representation Can Have Unexpectedly Positive Results
For a roundtable discussion on mental health and entertainment, features editor Jenelle Riley asked panelist Kendrick Sampson, best known for playing Nathan on HBO’s “Insecure,” what it was like representing a character who is open about his struggle with bipolar disorder. Sampson said he first became aware of his character’s impact near the end of Season 3, after his character ghosted Issa.
“I thought everybody was just going to hate me because of the relationship drama… I was so anxious because people had already been yelling at me in the airports. Kelly Rowland, the first time I met her she turned around and she was like, ‘Why did you ghost Issa?’ And I was like, ‘This is Kelly Rowland,'” Sampson said. “What ended up happening was I got all of these love letters of people being seen and feeling that that vulnerable portrayal and he doesn’t even say he has any sort of mental health issue, he’s just struggling to get it out. And so many people related to that… That is what I want to do this work for.”
One Door Closed Is Another One Opened
During the Visionaries in Production — Artisans Making History panel, senior artisans editor Jazz Tangcay moderated a conversation with a group that included a hairstylist, an animator, a composer, a cinematographer and more artists from underrepresented groups in the behind-the-scenes world of television and film. Tangcay asked the group to share a moment where a door was closed on them and how they recovered in their career. Frederic Aspiras, hairstylist on “House of Gucci,” shared his own experiences of struggling early in his career and how he moved forward.
“For me there was really no other option,” Aspiras said. “That was something I set out to do to the point where I was living in a hotel homeless downtown. Because I came out here with my dream and a plan… We survive and we figure out a way we’re going to do it. There was no other way… I continuously did stuff for free and did so many different things and put other dreams I had or things I wanted to do on the back burner or got rid of them and focused on something that was really what I was destined to do, which was this God-given talent that we all have that when we get told, ‘No,’ it hurts.”
Network Television Is Hungry for Diverse Voices
When Miranda Kwok was developing her series “The Cleaning Lady,” about an undocumented Fillipina immigrant who becomes a cleaner for the mob to support her son, she initially saw it as a show for cable or streaming. But Warner Bros. convinced her to move the show to pitch to networks, telling her audiences on broadcast have developed an appetite for diverse stories. The show ended up on Fox, where it became a ratings success and has reached audiences that don’t have access to more expensive platforms.
“The fact that we’ve had 12 million people watch the pilot has been extraordinary and instances like that has been worth it,” Kwok said during a Changemakers panel with Variety senior artisans editor Jazz Tangcay. “There are people who normally are anti-undocumented immigrants who are now saying, ‘I don’t want to see them get deported’ or ‘I was in tears.’ On the flip side of that, about representation. There’s also been people reaching out to me to say, “Thank you. Thank you for creating this show because I finally feel seen. This is something that happened to me or to my parents. We felt like we could never talk about it. We felt silenced for so long.’ So I think we’ve been really, really fortunate to have such an amazing platform on Fox and I’m just so grateful that so many people have embraced the show.”
Self-Awareness Is the First Step Towards Improving Inclusion
As chief storytelling and marketing officer for Color of Change, Kelle Rozell partners with companies in the entertainment industry for initiatives to improve inclusion and diversity in the companies. On a Changemakers panel about AMC’s diversity initiatives with Variety senior film and entertainment reporter Angelique Jackson, Rozell said the first step that people who run companies need to take to improve their culture is to be aware of their own limitations and ask for help.
“I think self-awareness is the first step. Like, understanding, you know what you know and you don’t know what you don’t know and starting to ask questions and if you wanna go big, there are resources like equity audits that you can ask your company to do, or you can implement yourself if you have that, that power,” Rozell said. “But I think people really need to be aware of the privilege they have and start to understand where they might be unknowingly inserting some of these problematic things from hiring practices to content narrative. So I would say it’s kind of a personal reality check around just being open to going really deep.”
Resources for Mental Health Storytelling Have Significantly Improved
Variety co-editor in chief Cynthia Littleton led a panel with execs from MTV to discuss the inclusion of mental health related storylines in television. During the panel, MTV SVP of animation Grant Gish discussed the tricky task of incorporating storylines about mental health struggles into animation and comedy, while also pointing to the Mental Health Media Guide as a resource that has significantly improved his and his team’s approach to the sensitive topic.
“We have the Mental Health Media Guide to show them so they understand what we’re talking about. We have examples from other shows that have tackled this to show them. We have mental health workshops that they can engage in. So they really understand what we’re talking about,” Gish said. “It should feel organic. We don’t want a viewer to think, ‘Oh, they’ve got an agenda. They’re trying to jam this down our throats.’ It has to be as organic as the humor that you’re getting in our shows, in our adult animation. It has to seem fully faithful to the show. And fortunately, we have a lot of resources at our fingertips now, thanks to this Mental Health Media Guide. So our shows have really responded well. I think there is that opportunity there because, historically, you haven’t seen much mental health talk in adult animation.”
The Modern Superhero Can Evolve the Cultural Perception of Underrepresented Identities
Superheroes dominate today’s culture and a handful of superhero creatives sat down with Variety senior entertainment writer Angelique Jackson for the evolution of superhero identity in modern society panel. Whether it be from a whimsical coming-of-age story like “Ms. Marvel” or a dark, over-the-top bloody tale of revenge like “The Boys,” the representation of superheroes in popular culture is evolving to bring in more underrepresented voices. For David Callaham, writer for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings” and the upcoming “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” being able to make stories resembling his own identity is something completely new to him.
“It was so normalized for the first 17 years that, sure, I’m just going to write this story about this handsome white guy,” he explained. “And I’m going to try to imagine what it would be like to be this handsome white guy or whoever the story was about. It was when I was writing ‘Shang-Chi’ that I had a real emotional breakdown five days into the writing process. Because I suddenly realized, ‘Holy shit. I’m being asked to express something of myself that I’ve not only never expressed, but I’ve been hiding from actively for a long time, both as a citizen and as a writer.’ So it’s been really amazing to be able to be a part of this moment and to see all these faces.”
Diversity Pipelines Are Helpful, But They’re Not Everything
In the Reality Checking Industry Diversity Pledges panel, senior artisans editor Jazz Tangcay asked diversity and inclusion executives from many corners of their industry to share their progress and what still needs to be done. Verna Myers, VP of inclusion strategy at Netflix, shared her perspective on the importance of diversifying the field behind the camera, as well as the actors in front of it.
“If everyone is asking themself every day through an inclusion lens, no matter what their job is, what they can do to amplify representation and to expand representation, we are starting to see real difference in front of the camera,” Myers said. “But also what we’ve discovered from doing a lot of work with the Annenberg Foundation is that when you have diversity behind the camera — guess what? It shows up in front of the camera. It’s a lot about access and if you can expand the access points, all sorts of things are possible. So, I think pipelines are extremely important, but people have to pay attention to who’s coming through and who’s not.”