It's not tv. it's hbo. and it's not very diverse.
By Hannah Hildebrandt
Saalika Khan, a 27-year-old Pakistani-American actress, recalls being shut out of leading roles in plays (sometimes without a chance to audition) because she is not white. When she moved from theater to film in 2009, she said the situation improved. She acted in her first student film in a role meant for a white actress. She has since played multiple lead and supporting roles in short and feature films.
“I have been trying to understand myself, the formula of seeing my racial category on screen compared to up on a stage," Khan said. "Is it friendlier? Is it more aesthetically pleasing? It is more relatable to real life? Believable?”
Khan said that when she is acting, she doesn't think about the race of her fellow actors on set. In 2016, she played a young woman married to a white man and was congratulated by a colleague on playing an interracial couple – a comment that threw her for a loop.
“I nearly forgot that my race is something others notice because my focus was solely character driven,” she said. “I want a good character."
Many critics have noticed the lack of diversity in Hollywood in recent years. While the focus has often been on film (see the #OscarsSoWhite controversy), some television writers have noted lack of diversity in mainstream programming. Premium cable stations such as HBO have also come under the microscope, in part because it has historically had critically acclaimed programming such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Girls and Sex in the City that lack racial diversity.
“HBO is like a private school -- it can do whatever it wants," said LaShay Harvey Jones, a sexologist, researcher and professor at Towson University.
The question is, what does HBO want -- and are actresses of color such as Khan represented on its signature original shows?
It's tough to measure intent, but the results speak for themselves: HBO lacks diversity. An analysis of HBO’s top 24 most recent original series found that out of 196 actors, 81 percent are white, 16 percent are black, 2 percent are Asian, and less than 1 percent are Hispanic and Middle Eastern.
The show Girls, in particular, has received criticism for lack of diversity. Its main characters are all white, yet the series takes place in New York City, a city known for its melting pot.
Michael Duffy, a lecturer at Towson University, said of his years attending school in New York City: “I would spend all the rest of my time that I wasn’t in that classroom walking around Manhattan or Brooklyn and you’d encounter all kinds of people and maybe you’d meet people through friends of friends of friends that wouldn’t all be white."
It’s possible to make the argument that HBO’s actors are primarily white because of historically-based shows like Game of Thrones. Yet, only four of the 24 shows chosen for this study are based off of historical influence (Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, The Young Pope and Vinyl).
“There were people of color around -- they didn’t just sprout up out of the flowers in 1960 here in America," Duffy said. "There were people around and there are ways – to be very civil about it – 'good writers' can and have, I think, come up with very nuanced ways to interpret history, whether it’s realistic history or fantastical history."
HBO’s representation problem does not end with its lack of racial diversity. It's also missing out on half of the human population – women. Out of the 196 actors analyzed, only 77 of them were female.
However, some of HBO’s most prominent shows have a majority-female cast or have strong female leads. For example, shows like Veep, Girls and Big Little Lies are centered around majority or all-female casts.
“There’s a cap,” Harvey Jones said, adding that there is a system that allows for a few female-focused shows but not many. “Men can be gross and disgusting and be redeemed. And women cannot be any of those things and they definitely cannot be redeemed. At least not in this life."
Out of the 77 women cast in these 24 HBO shows, only 15 of them are minorities – another not-so-positive statistic for minority actresses. Twelve of those 15 are black actresses, 2 are Asian and 1 is Hispanic. Age diversity is also a problem for HBO.
An analysis found that 60 percent of HBO’s female cast is under 40 years old where as 60 percent of HBO’s male cast is over 40 years old. For example, in Boardwalk Empire, Kelly Macdonald, 41, plays the love interest turned wife of Steve Buscemi, 59. Although the show takes place in the 1920’s, where it was common for women to marry younger, the age difference is still apparent in HBO shows set in modern-day. The Newsroom, for example, stars Emily Mortimer, 45, as the love interest for Jeff Daniels, 62.
The network's less-diverse shows regularly are nominated and win awards such as the Golden Globes.
“A lot of the academies seem to be made up of older white men and they’re judging on what they’re familiar with in certain ways," Duffy said.
showtime's Top series have a diversity problem
By Alicia Jones
Laura Hetherington, a senior at Fordham College Lincoln Center, has acted in countless productions and recently traveled to London to study acting for six months. But despite her early-career success, the setbacks stick with her -- largely because they are often out of her hands.
When she was 16, Hetherington auditioned for a part in the musical Hairspray. A woman who helped with the production told her that while her audition "went great," because she was Asian there wasn't a spot for her in the cast.
This type of rejection -- while often not as overt as what Hetherington experienced -- is all too common for minority actors. And it's not just in theater. Premium television stations such as Showtime, which prides itself on diverse programming, has yet to become part of the solution, an analysis of data shows.
Of the 20 Showtime original series analyzed, 60 percent of the lead characters are men -- a statistic that holds true for competitors such as HBO, Netflix and Amazon.
This comes as no surprise to Elsa Lankford, an associate professor at Towson University's Department of Electronic Media & Film and head of the Women and Minorities Media Festival for the past 10 years. She started this program upon realizing that students in her electronic media and film classes and production classes were mainly heterosexual, white men.
Lankford said many of the writers and producers -- and others making casting decisions -- are white men. People write what they know and experience, so if more women or minorities were in charge, their experiences would more often be represented on screen, Lankford said.
Hetherington has noticed the same pattern. She has also noticed that even though diversity may be increasing slightly, the roles are not always ideal or beneficial. She explains that it is good that different faces are being shown, but their roles often center around the fact that they are a minority and that can be demeaning.
“Actors and actresses can end up being defined by their race,” Hetherington said. “When an actor is a minority even if they are a main character their plot lines or jokes may be centered around their ethnicity instead of getting their own story line like white actors tend to get.”
Showtime's original series are not very racially diverse. After analyzing casts in three of the most critically acclaimed Showtime original series -- Shameless, Weeds and Dexter -- it was found that there is more racial diversity in the background characters than in the lead characters.
Amazon trying to deliver on its diversity promise
By Olivia D'Ovidio
Victoria Wolfgang, 21, a recent Towson University graduate, has gone through the experience of being turned down for a theater role because she didn't quite look the part. When she was 14, she auditioned for a small-town production of Rent -- specifically the part of Mimi Marquez, traditionally played by a Hispanic actress.
Wolfgang, who is white, didn't get the part. She said the show's producer told her it was because or her race. She now knows what it feels like to face a career setback due to something outside of her control -- a familiar experience for many minority actresses.
In musical theater -- as well as in Hollywood -- there simply aren't enough roles for non-white actors. Women also can face career limitations based on casting biases.
“It is obviously not just race but an issue of men being cast more, specifically older white men, more than women who are not white,” Wolfgang said.
This problem dates back decades, and some of the newer companies to get into the original content business have vowed to pay more attention than their peers to having diverse casts. Amazon is one of those.
Compared to its peers, Amazon isn't the most or least diverse
An analysis of streaming and premium cable services found that Amazon is somewhere in the middle in terms of diversity of the casts of its original series. Casts are overwhelmingly white.
They are majority male, although not to the same level of disparity as the racial makeup.
And they are largely made up of young actors.
The lack of racial diversity is a fixable problem, said Mark Sullivan, an adjunct professor at Towson University.
“Internet shows can survive on much smaller audiences than network shows, so they can cater to different, niche audiences,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan believes that streaming networks can afford to cast more diverse actors in shows as an appeal to audiences who have historically not been targeted. For example, HBO has two programs, “Ballers” and “Insecure.” which feature a black character in a leading role.
“The issue with catering to audiences is that if there is a random person of a different race on a series, then they are thought of as a ‘token’,” Sullivan said.
Many of Amazon’s original shows do feature one or two minority actors -- but few have more than that.
“I know Amazon is not very popular yet but the fact that they are already more diverse compared to HBO and Showtime says a lot about what they will accomplish for their casts in the future,” Wolfgang said.
diversity streaming: Netflix lives up to its billing
By Alicia Reynolds
Netflix, relatively new to world of original programming, has made a name for itself in the crowded television landscape with high-profile shows with diverse casts -- most notably Orange is the New Black.
The streaming network has attracted devoted viewers such as Elsa Lankford, an associate professor in Towson University's Department of Electronic Media & Film and the festival director of WAMMFest (Women and Minorities in Media Festival).
“I watch Netflix a lot more than Showtime, HBO and Amazon,” Lankford said. “Netflix was the first streaming entity and has been a real leader in quality and inclusion in original programming... From OITB, Jessica Jones, Kimmie Schmidt, Luke Cage, Grace and Frankie, Master of None to the recent redo of One Day at a Time. They have shows with female show creators, strong female characters, racial diversity, age diversity -- showing older women in strong roles.”
Lankford's take is shared by many. According to a recent article: “Original Netflix TV content like Narcos, Marco Polo, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, and the critically acclaimed Orange Is the New Black have been rightly lauded as great TV, and for featuring some of the most diverse casting in recent memory.”
But are these narratives true? What do the data show?
An analysis of 13 Netflix original series (133 actors total) shows that 45.1 percent are men and 54.9 percent are women. And, of these shows, seven have females as the lead role.
Women play more than just a love interest on these shows. On Orange is the New Black, the main characters are female and all prisoners while the men are the wardens and police officers. On Degrassi: Next Class, the female leads are teenagers struggling with friendships and drama. On Dear White People, there is a black female leading a protest against her school faculty and that is documented throughout the season.
There is less racial diversity than gender diversity on Netflix shows -- although a greater share of non-white actors than other streaming networks and premium cable stations.
One of the reasons Netflix has more diverse casts is that it is reaching out to audiences that networks have long ignored.
“Because of its business model, Netflix can afford to cater to smaller audiences, and it does,” said Mark Sullivan, an adjunct professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Towson. “So there is programming targeting specific races like Dear White People which, ironic title aside, is clearly targeted at black viewers. So it features a more diverse catalog of content, but I am not sure what percentage of their overall content is diverse.”
Both Sullivan and Lankford agree that Netflix is competing against shows such as Atlanta (FX), Queen Sugar (OWN) and anything Shonda Rhimes does on TV (ABC).