Recently I watched the first episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None with a friend. The first thing he pointed out was the seemingly in your face diversity; “Oh look, a Jew, a Pakistani and a black lesbian! They seem to be ticking all the boxes…”
This seems to be a fairly widespread view; that cultural output in the 21st century has become a “political correctness” machine, churning out diversity quotas at the BFI, targets at Channel 4 and pesky Lenny Henry and now Idris Elba demanding minority representation.
But the fact remains that for far too long British film and television has been telling the stories of a strikingly narrow subsection of society. My friend’s comment got me thinking about my own family, which is South Asian and white, and my friends, who are white, black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and atheist. They have various genders, gender identities and sexualities.
Diversity on TV is not about constructing a vision of a “politically correct” multicultural utopia – it is about reflecting the everyday reality of a great number of us.
As acclaimed producer Shonda Rhimes puts it: “I really hate the word ‘diversity,’” […] It is just something other. Something special, like it’s rare. ‘It’s diversity!’ As if there is something unusual about telling stories about women or people of color or LGBT characters on TV. I have a different word. I call it ‘normalizing.’ I make TV look like the world looks.”
Many of us, especially millenials, have been reaping the benefits of this mindset. Children’s TV from the 90s onwards featured more varied and prominent minority and female characters than ever before. Not only did this provide role models for its diverse audiences; it also affirmed the existence and recognition of our communities. By confronting racist and sexist stereotypes, it served to form open and critical attitudes.
Yet this privilege has never been expanded to everyone, especially those who belong to more than one underrepresented group. As a queer person of colour, do I exist in the public or cultural realm? Is there a space for me in literature, TV, film or theatre?
I’m not talking about being the main character here; I’m just talking about existing.
The truth is that we are everywhere, and have always been everywhere. Mainstream culture just hasn’t caught up yet. We exist, and no matter what the few TV depictions would have you think, we exist beyond the facts of our race, gender identity or sexuality. Although it is true that we face queerphobia and racism, often simultaneously, we are more than just oppressed people.
Although EastEnders’ Syed Masood, a gay Muslim who battled with his sexuality, was groundbreaking, especially considering his national reach, he only represented one facet of our story. We’re not all caught up in a constant conflict of identity. And we’re not the product of a clash of civilisations. Our queerness is neither a Western creation, nor at odds with our cultural backgrounds.
We are students, teachers, doctors, social workers, unemployed people, immigrants, asylum seekers, parents, shopkeepers, nurses, lawyers and CEOs. Slowly but surely, these complex and varied representations of us are starting to appear.
Without downplaying the very real setbacks, such as the erasure of trans women of colour from the recent Stonewall film, there is cause for cautious optimism. The second series of Shonda Rhimes’ How to Get Away with Murder saw its charismatic and anti-heroic law professor lead Annalise Keating, a black woman (played by Emmy-winning Viola Davis), rekindle a relationship with an ex-girlfriend from university. Her bisexuality was naturally woven into the script, with no added focus or fanfare. Similarly, the race and sexuality of gay Asian American hacker Oliver, in the same series, were incidental to his character.
Laverne Cox, a black trans woman, stunned audiences with her performance as inmate Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black. Russell T Davies’ Banana and Cucumber featured Dean, Lance and Scotty, black queer characters from diverse class backgrounds and walks of life. One of the main characters of Brighton police drama Cuffs was Donna, a queer Asian mixed race police officer.
There have also been positive developments in terms of public figures. Remona Aly recently wrote about how hijabi women are entering and reshaping mainstream British culture, with reference to Bake Off’s Nadiya Hussain. Nadiya’s openly gay Asian co-contestant Tamal Ray exemplifies a similar breakthrough for queer people of colour.
Representing queer people of colour properly is an assertion of our humanity. Rather than a matter of simply existing on screen. It is about occupying a space in the public consciousness. It’s important not only in terms of reflecting our reality, but also in breaking down stereotypes and creating new attitudes.
There’s a long way to go, especially on children’s TV, and certainly when it comes to trans and non-binary people of colour. But finally, we’re exiting the realm of invisibility and entering the mainstream.
This article was originally published at Get Real
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Phelan Chatterjee is a student of politics and sociology at the University of Cambridge. He is active in the Students’ Union BME Campaign and Decolonise Cambridge, a group seeking to address institutional racism and shine a light on colonial legacies at the university. He is also the founder of FUSE, a Cambridge network for queer students of colour. Find him on Twitter @LiftsGoingDown and check out his writing here.
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