The film and television landscape play an influential role when it comes to depicting, shaping, and framing reality. Since topics like inclusion and diversity have gained more public attention, the representation of marginalized groups in the global film and television industry[i] has increased[ii]. At first glance, this gives hope.
The audiovisual industry moves in a better direction but it also raises questions about the representation behind the numbers. Authenticity plays an essential role in fair representation but there are still biased and stereotyped representation of marginalized groups in the audiovisual media[iii] that must be addressed.
Among biases and stereotypes are for example the phenomenon of Colourism[iv] that is very visible in Hollywood. It is noticeable that for dark-skinned roles, predominantly light-skinned actors are casted[v] as they are perceived more attractive in a Eurocentric beauty standards’ sense, which causes dark-skinned individuals to barely be visible in audiovisual media. That of course contributes to perpetuating colourism and its many consequences like disadvantages in the labour market (WEF, 2020) or poorer health (ASA, 2021). Other examples of biased storytelling are when non-white people are portrayed more often than white people in financially difficult positions and women are less likely to be heroes of stories (EAO, 2021). Another example is Tokenism[vi]. Those roles lack individuality, are highly stereotypical and mostly secondary roles that have little relevant influence on the story (such as the "black buddy" or "gay best friend"). These representations therefore do not contribute to reducing stereotypical thinking but reinforce it.
One of the most helpful tools is to reduce the underrepresentation of marginalized groups behind the camera. Above all, the power to decide how the groups are presented should rest with the respective groups themselves, otherwise the mentioned misrepresentation and the reproduction of toxic stereotypes could be greatly increased. It is a widely accepted assumption emphasized by several studies (see e.g. EAO, 2021, Netflix, 2021 and UCLA, 2021 part 1), that more minorities in creation (screenwriting, directing, producing) goes hand in hand with increased number of roles occupied by minorities and less biased or stereotyped representation. There are two other takes on these issues. One is – by some considered controversial – the practice of so called ’colour-blind/non-traditional casting’. It is about casting without considering the actor’s ethnicity, skin colour, body shape, sex and/or gender. The opposite, the so-called ’colour-conscious casting’, is used as an alternative, taking into consideration the actor’s skin colour, body shape, etc. The first approach ignores the implications of characteristics, and the latter takes them into account, which I prefer. Both deserves to be discussed.
To better understand how to come to term with these issues, more data is urgently needed. Only a precise analysis can identify the exact problems and which measures could be most effective. It would be helpful to have EU-wide data that not only provide the raw numbers, but also identify how widespread biased and stereotyped representations are in European TV and film and why. Global video on demand platforms that also produce content have a huge amount of data and could improve the collection of data and research capacities. If these big players really want to change something in a positive way, it would be an important and effective step if they would use their power to commission research on the topic.
In addition to data analysis, other measures such as supporting minorities financially, can also make a change. During the SAA’s latest working group meeting on equality and diversity, I was happy to learn about the new international inclusion fund “New Dawn”, that Bero Beyer, CEO of the Netherlands Film Fund, presented. Launched by the Swedish Film Institute together with the Netherlands Film Fund, it provides groups of filmmakers who are discriminated, with production funding and networks for their projects. Funding of this kind is helpful because it not only provides opportunities for creators in the audiovisual sector who have less access to resources and chances due to discrimination, but also because its ensures that authentic stories can be told.
Apart from discrimination, creators in the audiovisual industry are generally exploited and not fairly rewarded for the success of their films. Both points, especially the combination of them, may put off some screenwriters and directors from wanting to work in the industry. And for many, who are already in it, it is difficult to stay afloat, which also means that they cannot always do the work they want. Royalties buy authors time to develop their own authentic projects. So, with fair remuneration and working conditions, the film and television landscape would become more representative, inclusive, diverse, and qualitative. Therefore, the SAA advocates for fair remuneration and better protection of audiovisual authors’ rights.
L. Kerschensteiner, intern at the SAA
[iv] Colorism means ‚the practice of favoring lighter skin over darker skin. The preference for lighter skin can be seen within any racial or ethnic background.’ (Source: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-colorism-5077380).
[vi] Tokenism means ‘essentially the symbolic inclusion of people from minority or discriminated groups in order to create the appearance of an inclusive and fair workforce or environment‘ (Source: https://medium.com/verve-up/lets-talk-tokenism-a15cad464f9f).