“Good” Representation: The Difference Between Hollywood and Streaming
John Boyega, a 28-year-old Black actor, likely didn’t intend to capitalize on his success through Netflix when he began his career nearly 10 years ago. Disillusionment, though, can be a powerful guiding force. After launching into stardom with a lead role in Disney’s 2015 blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Boyega felt as though racism was a defining factor in his experience from fans and the studio alike for the four years he spent in a galaxy far, far away. He described his experience as breaking through into “an industry that wasn’t even ready for [him]” in a 2020 interview for British GQ. Frustrated by the Hollywood machine, Boyega turned his talents elsewhere, signing a deal with Netflix to produce non-English, African films that he likely couldn’t have done otherwise.
Hollywood has historically lacked support and representation for creatives of color. There has been outcry against it for years, with actors, writers, and consumers alike clamoring for more diversity and representation on movie and tv screens. However, little seems to change in any meaningful way when it comes to conventional Hollywood. Maybe, then, a newer, less conventional branch of entertainment is where quality representation must be established. Enter streaming services.
Streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu, are spearheading the campaign for good representation in film and TV since Hollywood won’t. To evaluate the successes and failures of streaming and Hollywood, though, “good representation” must be understood. Good representation is more than just including non-white characters. The existence of a non-white character does only so much good if that character is “stereotypical” and “one-dimensional” rather than “multi-dimensional” and “multi-faceted,” according to Maryann Erigha’s article “Race, Gender, Hollywood: Representation in Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change.” Characters of color need to exist outside of a white lens. They need to hold their own narrative significance. They need to be main characters. As Rashad Robinson, executive director of racial representation organization Color of Change, stated in a Vox interview, the writing for non-white characters has to be “authentic, fair, and have humanity” for it to be good representation. Non-white characters are often written as comic relief or support for a more important white character, pushed to the sidelines without depth of their own. These common practices perpetuate harmful stereotypes and enforce the idea that people of color are less important than white people.
Another aspect of good diversity is what Maryann Erigha refers to as “centrality.” People of color should be “located in institutions that are in the core…of cultural production” in order for the industry to be truly diverse. If people of color don’t have access to core talent agencies or the inner circle of production companies, their stories remain on the periphery. When there isn’t diversity at the center of the industry and white actors and creators are given a disproportionate amount of opportunity, diversity doesn’t reach a general audience.
These factors that work against meaningful diversity are all too prevalent in Hollywood. Ashley Nicole Black, a writer for “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” put it succinctly when telling Variety that “the system is racist.” Hollywood was built on white supremacy. White men controlled the business at its inception. White men dictated the structures and the unwritten rules within the business. White men did it all in such a way that allowed themselves to remain in power. The concept of centrality is key to true diversity. Agencies don’t adequately support people of color, which essentially locks them out of the business. Entertainment giants continue to have the majority of their highest executive levels occupied by white people.
Attempts at giving centrality to creatives of color often contribute to mere tokenism. A television show will hire one writer of color and one director of color and think that’s good enough. When creators of color do get hired, companies often don’t care “how quickly they’re promoted and elevated,” according to Black, which leaves them struggling to rise past low-level positions. Hollywood checks boxes for doing the bare minimum and pretends tokenism is sufficient diversity without making any real change. It’s a struggle for people of color to even tell their own stories, as director Matthew Cherry explained to Variety. It’s common that a story centering on characters of color will be told by a white director or writer because companies want a recognizable name or impressive resumé behind the camera. The problem with that is “you can’t get credits if you don’t get opportunities,” and white people have historically been the ones getting opportunities, says Cherry. Since the current status quo benefits the white Hollywood executives in power, they won’t try to change the system in meaningful ways. It might not be worth hoping for. A structure with rot running that deep cannot be salvaged. A new structure, though, could be the solution.
Netflix changed the entertainment game when it launched a video streaming function in 2007. Streaming evolved from being merely a convenient way to access pre-existing content to being on the cutting edge of original content. Streaming has changed the face of the entertainment industry with services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ offering scores of original TV shows and movies that garner audience and critical approval alike. Streaming is an entirely new branch of the entertainment industry, which means its structure is more malleable as far as diversity and inclusion. The system isn’t mired in a century of white supremacy.
Already, the difference between streaming and the more conventional side of Hollywood is clear. Streaming services have more characters of color in their shows, largely in part because it’s easier for creators of color to tell their stories. The people behind streaming platforms seem to better understand that diversity isn’t just about quantity, but quality as well. Their effort is reflected in audience responses, where as much as 65% of consumers of color feel that streaming shows are “more reflective of America’s diversity” than their network cable counterparts according to a recent Horowitz Research survey quoted by Multichannel News. Streaming services can deliver the diversity that Hollywood is too far gone to incorporate.
Erigha, M. (2015). Race, Gender, Hollywood: Representation in Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change. Sociology Compass, 9(1), 78–89. https://doi.org/10.1111/soc4.12237
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