If there’s one word that defined the conversation about American media in 2015, it’s “diversity.” While the discussion around who gets represented on screen has been going on for decades, this year marked a tipping point. From outright indignation at Hollywood’s continued preference for white male protagonists to eloquent culture writing that moved beyond bemoaning the status quo and worked to change it, 2015 may emerge as the year diversity stopped being a buzzword and became a rallying cry for all of us who want American mainstream media to better reflect the changing demographics of the United States.
From #OscarsSoWhite to the subversive brilliance of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None, here are 15 moments that kept the conversation about diversity in media going both on social media and in mainstream outlets. Together, they give us hope that we won’t be merely repeating ourselves come 2016.
Gina Rodriguez Wins a Golden Globe
Let’s forget the fact that Ms. Villanueva herself was seated all the way at the back of the room at the Golden Globes ceremony, and focus instead on the fact that America got to see the charm machine that is Gina Rodriguez in full force. In January, after getting teary-eyed upon receiving her statuette and thanking her peers and family, she delivered the type of line Rita Moreno has often remarked she wishes she’d uttered when she earned her Oscar back in 1962: “This award is so much more than myself; it represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.” It was a bellwether for the blunt but hopeful tone that would define pop culture conversations about what roles are offered to minority performers this year.
Days after the Golden Globes were handed out, nominations for the 87th Academy Awards were released. And boy was everyone upset. Selma, Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King Jr. film, had gotten rave reviews and seemed primed to give DuVernay the distinction of being the first African-American female ever nominated for the Best Director award. But when the nominations were announced, Selma was all but ignored. That all four acting categories were chock full of white performers only helped kindle the outrage. And thus a hashtag was born: #OscarsSoWhite. As we remarked back in February, the black vs. white dichotomy that increasingly monopolizes discussions about diversity all but obscured the fact that Birdman, the big winner of the February 22 ceremony, was written, directed, and shot by a group of talented Latinos. Then again, Sean Penn thought it’d be funny to make a green card joke upon handing Alejandro González Iñárritu the Oscar for Best Picture, proving that even when you win, tone-deaf humor will remind you that you’re never quite as welcome as you’d like.
'Deadline’s Disastrous “Year of Ethnic Castings” Story
If the Golden Globes and Oscars (not to mention a string of spring TV hits) showed a media industry realizing (yet again!) that casting people of color can be as savvy a marketing move as anything else, here came Deadline with what might rank as the most offensive media-focused article of the year: “Pilots 2015: The Year Of Ethnic Castings.” Even more offensive was the original subtitle of the story, which asked, “About Time or Too Much of a Good Thing?” The gist? The “ethnics” are taking over our jobs! The level of discourse was so appalling, we couldn’t even deal. This was white people anxiety at its most destructive. Thankfully, the backlash was swift and unforgiving. That the post was written, vetted, edited, and posted, though, and it shows how much of a clickbaity angle white tears still hold in 2015.
Gina Rodriguez on 'The Hollywood Reporter's TV Roundtable
In the run-up to Emmy season, The Hollywood Reporter put a throng of funny ladies on its cover, including Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-ish) and Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin). In the accompanying feature — a roundtable discussion between six actresses working in successful comedies — we learned that Girls’ Lena Dunham is infatuated with Gina. The most fascinating tidbits of their conversation came when these actresses addressed the inherent racism in the industry. As Ross put it, “I think racism trumps everything. [It all] happens behind the scenes.” It was a candid discussion that showed the insidiousness of these issues. Not one to merely wallow in the bleakness of this reality, the ever sunny Rodriguez argued that shows like Fresh off the Boat and Jane the Virgin continue to pave the way: “Show them it’s all a good investment,” she noted, “And it’s not about race. When you vilify it, people shut down.”
UCLA and USC Release Reports on Diversity in Media
Let’s be blunt. Hollywood has a diversity problem. And should you really be second-guessing us, UCLA and USC released separate reports this year that back up that claim. In February, UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies published their second annual Hollywood Diversity Report, which revealed the utterly unsurprising conclusion that 94 percent of film studio executives are white, 93.5 percent of lead actors on broadcast TV are white, and 82 percent of motion picture directors are, you guessed it, white! More depressing is the finding that “Latinos barely registered on broadcast or cable.” Yes, we come dead last. This was backed up by USC’s “Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014” report, released in the fall. The report states that despite making up 17 percent of the U.S. population, only 4.9 percent of speaking parts in 2014 went to Latino characters. They are horrible numbers by any standard, but merely representative of systemic issues in the industry.
Viola Davis Wins an Emmy
There was no doubt that Viola Davis would deliver a stunner of a speech if she won the Emmy for Best Drama Actress at the Emmys in September. Not one to shy away from speaking openly about her own career struggles, she nevertheless stole the night with a speech that began with a Harriet Tubman quote and only got better from there: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” she said. Coming from the first-ever African-American actress to win in her category, and for a role in How to Get Away with Murder that prompted a New York Times review that called her “less classically beautiful” than her peers, made the speech all the more impactful and urgently necessary.
Dylan Marron’s “Every Single Word Spoken by a Person Of Color” Videos
Have you ever caught a mainstream Hollywood film and been appalled at the sheer invisibility of people of color? That’s a question artist Dylan Marron had, whose Every Single Word Spoken Tumblr became a viral sensation earlier this fall, and which was named by the social media network Most Viral Tumblr of the year. There, Marron edits white people out of mainstream movies and shows you what’s left. Spoiler alert: not very much. Marron was later part of a conversation with Julio Salgado (see no. 8), where they discussed the current conversation surrounding the lack of visibility for minorities in mainstream U.S. productions. As he put it in that talk, “If we’re choosing one person to blame and one person to target in these things, then we’re missing the point. We’re saying that audiences don’t want to see universal stories told by people of color. That needs to be changed, but we’re not going to change that by criticizing just one person. Then people get defensive; then people get silent.”
Julio Salgado Reimagines His Favorite Sitcoms With People of Color
For many of us who grew up consuming mainstream American media, we have shows that we cherished as kids and teens (and even now as adults), even though they don’t represent us at all. From Friends to Gilmore Girls, there are various TV shows that are hits with Latino audiences, even though they are wholly centered on white people. Julio Salgado, artist and project coordinator at CultureStrike, decided to take matters into his own hands, producing a series of illustrations that, in his own words, “include us POC into some of [his] favorite shows and sitcoms.” Widely shared on the interwebs, the images furthered the conversation about what inclusivity in media can look like. As he put it in his conversation with Dylan Marron (see no. 7), “the whole point of this project is to show that white people are given the chance, the resources, and the means to fail.”
Matt Damon Whitesplains Diversity on 'Project Greenlight'
If nothing else, the return of HBO’s Project Greenlight, a docuseries focused on chronicling first-time filmmakers’ attempts at getting their projects greenlit, gave us Effie Brown. The sole woman and person of color in the panel of filmmakers tasked with choosing and later mentoring the director of the season’s fall HBO project, Brown was at the center of the most viral moment of the fourth season of the show. During a discussion about the importance of finding a director who’d be able to critically think through the fact that the sole person of color in the project was a black sex worker named Harmony, the successful actor all but shut down the conversation, cutting Brown off. “When we’re talking about diversity,” Damon told her, “you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.” It was as perfect an example of the problem of diversity in the industry as Damon could have come up with, leaving Brown totally speechless. Coming from an A-lister on a premium cable network show that prides itself in depicting the way Hollywood filmmaking gets done, the comments showed a lack of awareness and just confirmed the oft-repeated assertion that representation for people of color is a systemic issue, not one easily resolved (though one easily pandered to) in “the casting” of films and TV shows.
'Empire' and Its Latino Factor
The most successful new TV of the 2014-2015 season was Lee Daniels’ Empire. Starring Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, the show became a ratings hit unlike anything else on network television. How could the show keep its ratings streak once it came back in fall 2015? The answer seemed to lie in its “Latino factor,” with high-profile roles in Season 2 going to Adam Rodriguez, Becky G, and Andre Royo. Add to that the heated romance between Jussie Smollett and Venezuelan actor and singer Rafael de la Fuente, and you have an already groundbreaking show unafraid to embrace storylines and characters that didn’t even seem interested in a white demographic and instead focused on amping the drama in the Lyons’ den.
LaTina Fey on 'Billy on the Street'
Oh Tina Fey. Could it really be possible that you couldn’t name 20 Latino performers for your segment on Billy on the Street? (To be fair, Rachel Dratch failed the same game when asked to name 20 white celebrities back in 2012). Perhaps more troubling was Eichner’s own inability to offer accurate answers — last we checked, Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem aren’t really Latinos.
Trust Ugly Betty herself, America Ferrera, to use this opportunity to a) plug her new show on NBC, Superstore, and b) point out that finding Fey’s inability to succeed at an easy enough game endearing (in itself the premise of Eichner’s ploy), only served to underscore how often Latinos are the butt of jokes. Then again, she was also upset Fey didn’t manage to think of her, which is arguably more infuriating. At least Fey gave a shout out to one Latino who had an amazing 2015: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Aziz Ansari Drops 'Master of None,' Takes On Hollywood
Ansari, who became a household name by starring in NBC’s Parks & Recreation after years of being a stand-up comic in New York, spent the last two months of 2015 becoming one of the most vocal advocates for cultural diversity on American media. With his razor-sharp wit on Netflix’s Master of None, Ansari laid his own struggles as an Indian-American working actor bare. Deeply autobiographical, the show is equally smart about the experience of being second-generation American; indeed one of our favorite episodes is titled “Parents,” which features the actor’s own mom and dad, as well as fictionalized flashbacks that tell the story of how they came into this country. In addition to that, he wrote a New York Times editorial piece “On Acting, Race and Hollywood,” which functioned as a companion piece to the “Indians on TV” episode of his show. As in the episode, the focus of the piece is Ansari’s long-running fascination and indignation at the fact that the Indian guy from Short Circuit 2 was played by a white guy. As he writes, “Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40 percent of the American population, when Hollywood wants an ‘everyman,’ what it really wants is a straight white guy. But a straight white guy is not every man. The ‘everyman’ is everybody.”
Donald Trump Hosts 'Saturday Night Live'
One of the biggest stories of the year is the improbable political rise of business mogul Donald Trump. What first seemed like a “yuge” joke on the American electorate (the guy from The Apprentice as president?!) has become an all too terrifying possibility, as Trump continues to dominate GOP poll numbers. In the summer, Trump offered what should have been the last (but of course was only the first) of his outbursts that showed what a callous leader of the free world he’d make: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” This led to NBC cutting ties with the presidential hopeful, until Lorne Michaels, in a media savvy coup, booked Trump on SNL for its November 7 episode. The move earned well-deserved protests, and prompted a boycott led by none other than John Leguizamo.
Even Congressman Luis Gutierrez joined in, taking time on the house floor with a #RacismIsntFunny sign to call on Michaels and NBC to explain where they draw the line on inciting hatred. (It also spawned perhaps the funniest response to Trump’s hate-mongering with the Deport Racism 2016 video). In many ways, it drew visibility to NBC and SNL‘s total indifference towards Hispanic viewers, two media powerhouses that ultimately gave Trump uninterrupted airtime and inadvertently made his dangerous rhetoric seem like something to be laughed off.
'The Hollywood Reporter’s All-White Actress Roundtable
The Hollywood Reporter’s roundtables have become a staple of award season. Its TV edition back in May showed how this PR stunt could actually be a perfect platform to discuss industry biases (see no. 4), so it was disappointing, to say the least, to see an all-white film actress roundtable when the outlet released its latest issue in early November. To add insult to injury, the magazine printed an explanatory story where they argued that “the awful truth is that there are no minority actresses in genuine contention for an Oscar this year.” It’s a defensible position, but one which only makes sense under the very rubric The Hollywood Reporter sets for itself, and one which made the entire exercise a failure to find a token actress of color to participate. Needless to say, it’s an unfortunate moment to close out the year with, though one which shows how much more work there is to be done.
'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' Features First Filipino Family On TV
We have to admit, the CW’s latest musical show has a rather unfortunate title; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend doesn’t quite exemplify the very sweet and off-kilter tone that characterizes the show. But it more than makes up for it with its adorable lead, Golden Globe-nominated Rachel Bloom, and with its groundbreaking depiction of what is the first Filipino family seen on a regular series on network television. The show has gone out of its way to accurately depict Filipino culture (which we here see as akin to our Latino roots), most explicitly in its Thanksgiving episode. The episode sees Rebecca (Bloom) trying to impress the family of her high school boyfriend, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), for whom she’s left everything behind. It was a watershed moment from a network whose current banner series (Jane the Virgin) is showing everyone else the creative value in telling stories about families we’re not used to seeing on screen.