Monday, 13 July 2020

The Value of Diversity and Why TV isn't a Meritocracy - A Response to Tabasam Begum

Increasing diversity in media has become more and more of a hot topic in recent years. As the demographics of the population shift and change, what we see in print and on our screens should, in some way, reflect that. People of all walks of life want to tell stories or just have fun and make their dream project. One of the immediate solutions to tapping this new talent vein was for the industry to put up schemes targeting said groups, providing training and resources. All well and good, or so it seems.


Film critic Tabasam Begum wrote about being on one of these. In the piece, Begum recounts her experiences on an (unnamed) major soap's diversity scheme and how condescending her treatment was by the staff, highlighting how her race was viewed as trivial or a nuisance and-

STOP! 
STOP, STOP, STOP! 

You, YES YOU! YOU, reading this and reaching for the keyboard, about to type in the comments of here or Facebook, or somewhere else, a version of 'meritocracy', 'I don't see race', 'best writer for the job' or the myriad of other miss-the-point-lines - sit down and wait. Or better, actually read first, then try and offer an opinion (something that has proven rather hard in the digital age we live in).

Anyway, Begum's piece follows on, not long after The Guardian ran another piece, where TV director Christiana Ebohon-Green (Grantchester, Holby) and actress Wunmi Mosaku (Lovecraft Country, Luther). recount the barriers they've faced in their careers: the lack of similar peers and how isolating it can feel, and how systemic racism has left them both stuck at particular levels that only recently started to shift. And well, if that's too subjective and 'appealing-to-emotion' for you, here's some hard data from London School of Economics, but let's bring it back a bit and ask: how did it come to this? Surely, the industry gets on top of problems and only chooses the best, right?

I've spoken before about the need for much, much stronger pipelines in this business so as to stop screenwriting being treated as the lottery: if someone can write well, they should get a turn at the wheel and background shouldn't be holding them back because of the homogeneity of the industry. Systemic racism, a word I'm sure many have become more familiar with in recent months, isn't always about active or deliberate malice: I and I don't think Begum or Green are saying that there's some hidden KKK cell at the one of the big four.

Rather, this tends to happen when you surround yourself with one type of person for so long: you end up only going to that type and thus, you're not incentivized to go out the comfort zone and find different talent. We as humans can be an incredibly complacent lot and not feel the need to go outside our comfort zones - and somehow this is meant to be a 'meritocracy'? A word misused by online commenters who don't work in the industry and have no idea how people get gigs? 'Meritocracy' is a nice abstract ideal, but if that was the case, why is this a business so dependent on referrals and networking i.e. the opposite of being chosen solely on 'merit' if you already have prior relationships?


And this doesn't apply solely to race - disability enters the equation too (and here's where I come in). Pablo gave me my break - there, the mission statement was letting creators on the autistic spectrum tell their stories. They put time and effort to either train or simply enhance our writing ability. One of the big joys was being at the premiere for Series 2 (now on iPlayer, plug plug) and seeing all the autistic kids there, who did little voice roles in the cartoons. They did something no one would expect of them and got to just be themselves. It was wonderful.


But then, it comes with a flip side: if we hadn't given them the chance to show they could do it, who else would've? Would any other show hire them, or just brush them aside in favour of a 'less demanding' child? Would I, as a then-green writer with several years worth of non-starters behind me, have gotten the same shot to tell my story? And if you think I'm being hyperbolic, superstar writer Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials, The Aeronauts, This is England) has spoken of his battles in trying to get disabled performers parts in his shows, only to be told no for no justifiable reason. If he's struggling, what does that say about how parts of the industry currently engage with the topic?

And if you still want to cling to the idiocy of 'b-b-but meritocracy', how can you create a truly equal, merit driven system where race and gender and everything else are irrelevant IF PEOPLE CAN'T GET THE EXPERIENCE TO HAVE MERIT BECAUSE YOU DISMISSED THEM OUT OF HAND OR IGNORED THEM? Nobody is saying 'hire a random black guy' - the people talking about lack of opportunities have worked hard, have the skill and talent, and yet still don't crack it and are given some rather uncomfortable reasons why. Yes, not everyone will get a job, such is the arts and real life - but after a while, even the most skeptical has to notice something's rotten in Denmark.



Is there a clean, one-size-fits-all answer to this? No - obviously this is a great task, and requires changing decades worth of practice to achieve. These schemes and initiatives are a step in the right direction, but clearly need more fine tuning: They need consultations and boning, as well as, in my opinion, a great expansion of winning places and something for runner-ups. As said, the sooner we start treating screenwriting as a proper job, rather than mere artistic whimsy, the sooner serious solutions can be made for everyone, especially those with the deck stacked against them. The search for diverse talent, should be treated as a long-term investment in the talent, not a short term pat-on-the-back - these are communities with stories worth telling, not people randomly demanding preferential treatment.

Need proof of the good of embracing diverse creators? Try these: Black Panther, Creed, Empire, Murdered by My Father, She-Ra: The Princesses of Power, Citizen Khan, Get Out, Us, Dear White People, Black-ish, Sense-8, Pose, The Farewell, Moonlight, The Owl House, Gentleman Jack, I May Destroy You and so many more. More great stories come when we see talent and background/heritage as complimentary to their creation, not contradictory.

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