Ava DuVernay Never Saw Herself Reflected On Screen. Is Today's TV Diversity Any Better?

The campaign #FirstTimeISawMe shows that when it comes to on-screen diversity, yep, Hollywood is still really white.

Photo by Peabody Awards/Flickr.

When I was a kid, there were so few black people on television that Jet, a weekly news and culture magazine that was a staple in African-American homes, could list them on one page. As Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch described it in 2015, that “Television” section “was a no-frills rundown of nearly every black person who would be appearing on prime-time TV over the coming week, just their names, which show and what time.” Jet didn’t just list folks starring in a weekly sitcom, either. Explained Demby: “If Ben Vereen was going to pop up for three minutes on CBS on Tuesday night, ‘Television’ was going to let you know.”

Remembering that section of Jet makes #FirstTimeISawMe, a hashtag that debuted on Twitter on Tuesday, a poignant reminder of both how far we’ve come in regard to diversity on television and in movies and how far we still have to go.

The hashtag is part of a broader campaign launched by Netflix to spark conversation and action around diversity in media. For the campaign, Netflix teamed up with people of color working in Hollywood, such as directors Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay, and it hosted a roundtable with the founders of the website Black Girl Nerds. Along with asking participants in the campaign to speak about the first time they saw themselves reflected on screen, the campaign also asks them to share their thoughts on representation in 2017. It’s heartbreaking and real to watch DuVernay in the clip below say that when she was a child, there were no shows on television that reflected her or her family.

The campaign is also asking the public to share their experiences on social media using the #FirstTimeISawMe hashtag. DuVernay says in the video that she couldn’t relate to the Huxtable family, but several folks on Twitter referenced the impact of “The Cosby Show,” which aired 1984-1992. Educator Treva Bibbs-Bugg tweeted that no one would believe she had two black professional parents before Clair and Heathcliff Huxtable appeared on television every week.

Journalist Matthew Rodiguez tweeted that the first time he saw himself on screen was the 1995 film “To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar” and saw John Leguizamo’s character, Chi-Chi Rodriguez, “A Nuyorican femme queen!”

Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist at Biola University and the author of the book “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism,” tweeted that she never saw an Asian American family on screen before the 1993 film “The Joy Luck Club.”

Singer and actor Brandy also made an impact with her show “Moesha,” which aired 1996-2001, and her television movie “Cinderella,” which aired in 1997.

The power of Oprah Winfrey also shows up, with Washington, D.C.-based entrepreneur Charlynda Jean tweeting that seeing Oprah every day at 4 p.m. mattered to her.

Why does it matter that people from diverse backgrounds don’t see themselves on screen, and that white people aren’t seeing their experiences? Back in 1990, Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor at Ohio State University, wrote about the concept that diverse books are both mirrors and windows — they allow children to see themselves and step into the experiences of folks from other backgrounds. That’s equally true regarding the characters that both children and adults see on television and movie screens.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Only 26.6% of series regulars are from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.[/quote]

And the most recent research from the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California shows there’s still plenty of work to do. Their 2016 analysis of broadcast and streaming shows reveals that “only 26.6% of series regulars were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.” In other words, even though there’s a ShondaLand slate of shows and folks live-tweet programs like “Being Mary Jane,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” and “Awkward Black Girl,” we’re still missing out on the full depth and breadth of diverse experience.

As DuVernay points out, though, “the traditional walls have collapsed” because everyone who has a phone that can shoot video can make a webisode. Today, we all have the power to make mini-movies and drive our own diverse narratives — which means Hollywood will either have to catch up or be left behind.

Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

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