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Diversity on TV Down but Not Out

Diversity may appear to be down, but it's definitely not out. According to Angel Rivera, national director of affirmative action and diversity for SAG, there are still plenty of opportunities for inclusion. "In the last three years, we've seen the highest percentage of minority representation in TV and film, according to our Casting Data Report. This year is not over. There will be a number of guest stars and support roles that will come through those projects in the fall season, and we judge it at the end of the year, not necessarily how it begins," Rivera said. "We hope to see that there will be a continuing increase in minority representation."

However, diversity is about more than putting black, brown, or yellow faces on prime-time TV, according to actor Felipe Alejandro, first vice president of Nosotros, a group dedicated to improving the image of Hispanics and Latinos in the entertainment industry: "You don't want to call it tokenism, but sometimes it's window dressing. Yeah, you did put a brown face or an Asian face here and there. But the real test is: Are you fleshing it out? Is this a real character that's substantial, or just a stereotype that's going to fit the purpose for that particular piece?"

Jeff Mio, vice president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, emphasized that although race, ethnicity, and culture are important, those attributes don't have to be a character's entire identity. Mio offered Indian-American writer-actor Mindy Kaling, of NBC's The Office, as an example of inclusion without tokenism. "[Kaling] writes her character on the program as kind of a Valley-girl character. She has said on talk shows that the fact that she is Asian might appear sixth or seventh on your list of trying to describe her character. This is an example of how a diverse writing staff can write for Asian characters in an entirely different manner and still have the show be successful," Mio explained.

Of the seven advocacy groups Back Stage spoke with, each listed stereotypes as multicultural programming's enemy No. 1. According to Judy Bell, director of the Native American Film Commission, the entertainment industry still has a problem with identifying minority characters as real people. "Writers have to start thinking of Native Americans as not just the image of long braids and very traditional-looking," she said. "Why can't someone be cast as the pharmacist? Why isn't someone the lawyer? I think that's going to open doors for the Native actors to be recognized, not just hovering in the background waiting for another chance to ride bareback in a historical depiction that's not even truthful."

But according to Damon Romine, entertainment media director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, there has been a lot of progress toward the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters, particularly on Disney-owned ABC. "ABC has raised the bar for inclusive storytelling and sets an example for other networks to follow," he said. "We've seen some tremendous advances in the past season when it comes to the quality of LGBT depictions. Ugly Betty is the first TV comedy to feature a transgender character, and this is [a] series where the Latino family is accepting of a 12-year-old boy who is likely gay, which sends an incredibly important message. Brothers & Sisters is historic for network TV for giving its gay male character a romantic love life just like all the other characters. And, it should be noted, with the character of Saul, Brothers & Sisters is telling a story rarely seen in the media: that of a gay person over the age of 60."

This season advocacy groups are hoping the entertainment industry will be more open to creating diverse characters and story lines with diverse themes. But, Jensen emphasizes, advocacy groups are meant to inform the industry, not police it. "Nobody is here to legislate," Jensen said. "All we want to do is expose writers across the board of the possibilities of the humanity that's out there. Then it's their creative decision about who they write about and what they write about. Nobody can legislate that."

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