When diversity is only screen deep

This article is available in French here: https://culturexchange.fr/2021/04/11/netflix-et-la-question-de-linclusivite/  

This article is available in audio form, read and audiodescribed by the authors:

Recently, the Netflix series Bridgerton became one of the biggest successes of the streaming platform. Other titles such as Lupin and Grand Army stood out for their inclusive casting. Indeed the streaming platform’s original creations are known and celebrated for their diversity. But how sincere are they about this commitment?

Scene from the first episode of Grand Army © Telerama

Racist controversies around Netflix series 

In September 2020, the Netflix show Grand Army stirred quite the controversy when it was revealed that three writers of colors quit their job due to ”racist exploitation and abuse”.

Tweet posted by screenwriter Ming Peiffer © Twitter

On September 2nd 2020, the screenwriter Ming Peiffer quoted the tweet of the official trailer of the series. She claimed that one of the Black writers was being harassed by the creator of the show Katie Capiello. The writer also commented that her and the two Black screenwriters were not being listened to regarding the storyline. This questions what diversity really achieves both on and off screen. Just like many Netflix shows Grand Army is celebrated for its racially diverse cast. But having different ethnicities and sexualities on screen does not guarantee that the production is the most progressive. Representation is not always enough, it has to be well done. This is why hiring minorities in the creative process is necessary. But even when they are hired it does not fix all the issues. 

Bridgerton, a show produced by Shonda Rhimes was a worldwide success. Yet, the historical romance series created much debate mostly because some people were angry that many protagonists are black when the story takes place during the regency era. Numerous viewers also criticized the colorism in the show. Indeed, the black actors in leading roles are all light-skinned. Critics argued that most dark-skinned characters are used as sidelines or are wicked. The only dark-skinned main character is Lady Danbury played by Adjoa Andoh whose role is accused of carrying “The Mammy” stereotype. According to American scholar Laura Green, a mammy was “a large, independent woman with pitch-black skin and shining white teeth”. Most of her existence is dedicated to help and please others. She is never perceived as attractive and  does not have a love life: “Her tendency to give advice to her mistress was seen as harmless and humorous”. In the show, Lady Danbury does not have a love-life unlike the other characters. Some commentators believe that apart from her mother-like care for Simon (the main protagonist), her character has little to no significance.

The hidden motives behind Netflix’s production 

The movie and TV industry has faced a reckoning in recent years over its lack of diversity, with some top executives resigning due to allegations of discrimination. In 2016, Netflix was at an inflection point and needed renewal in the proposition of content on their platform. The company also needed to respond to what other streaming platforms like Amazon Prime or Hulu were producing. In 2020, Netflix started an initiative called « Strong Black Lead » to support projects with African-Americans in key roles. It also promoted its diversity efforts with a commercial during the BET Awards on June 24, 2020. The spot featured the stars and creators of Luke Cage, Dear White People and She’s Gotta Have It, series standing for more minorities’ representation. However, even if Netflix’s efforts to represent ethnic minorities are remarkable, it is far from perfect. According to a study released by the Directors Guild of America, Netflix ranks last among 10 studios for the diversity of its film and TV directors. “Just 29 percent of the episodes on its service were directed by women or people of color, compared with an average of 38 percent across the industry”, the Director added. Furthermore, according to a study released by Netflix on the diversity of its movies and TV shows, LGBTQ+ characters only represent 4% of leads in film and 1% in TV series. Fewer than 1% of Netflix’s series leads, and just 5% of series main cast were characters with disabilities, whereas according to the study, 27% of the U.S. population identifies as having a disability.

Daphne and Simon from Bridgerton © Netflix

Slight gap between Netflix’s motivations and reality 

While Netflix might have increased its diversity in its shows, most of their employees and leaders are White men. According to the article “First Netflix Diversity Report Shows Gains for Women, Minorities” written by Lucas Shaw and Emily Chang, at the end of 2020, only 8% of Netflix employees were Black and 8.1% Hispanic. Moreover, women  account for under 35% of Netflix’s technical jobs. These numbers show a real lack of diversity inside Netflix walls, even if it is already higher than in other big technological corporations. It contrasts a lot with Netflix’s commitment regarding diversity and inclusivity. While they advocate for as much representation as possible on their platform and productions, the same statement is not really applied inside their walls. It reminds us that Netflix is a child of capitalism and their first purpose is to make money. By choosing to take position on diversity on screen, Netflix lures new subscribers that are looking for programs they can identify with. Since the creation of their first original program in 2013, House of Cards, a very white centered TV show, the number of subscribers went from 34.24 millions to 204 millions in January 2021, according to  a report made by Mansour Iqbal on the article “Netflix Revenue and Usage Statistics” published in March, 9, 2021. In 2018, Netflix had produced 572 original programs and they added even more representation since then. Because it matters to their audience, the company is surfing on the wave of inclusivity to reach even more potential customers while the debate on representation is at its apogee. 

Written by Lola Pihan, Luna Perruchi and Kamissa Ba

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