A white cis heterosexual male is running in the streets. Some nasty looking creatures from out of space are chasing him while sirens go off in the background. The situation looks very dangerous, but fear not, despite being in trouble, we’re sure our hero will manage to use his amazing skills to save the day and rescue the white heterosexual cis female.
This is a very common scenario in TV and we’ve seen it over and over again. We’ve seen it so many times, that when we imagine new scenarios in our head, we imagine those kind of people just by default. But what happens to the rest of people who don’t fall in those categories? What about women who rescue other people? What about people of colour? And queer people? And non-binary gender people? Sadly, they’re nowhere to be seen. And if we’re lucky to get to see one of them, they’re always side characters who are not relevant to the plot and whose entire story revolves around their different identity, and not about who they are as a person.This is GenreTVforall‘s description on their blog:
“Aiming to be a comprehensive listing of Sci Fi/High Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Horror/Superhero live action television shows featuring women, people of color, LGBQA+ characters, and/or trans/nonbinary characters as leads or part of the main ensemble cast”.
Genretvforall is a blog composed by Jessi and Emma. Jessi is pansexual and identifies as genderqueer and doesn’t have a pronoun preference, but tends to default to female pronouns. Emma is female and bisexual. They’re both in their 30’s and they decided to join forces to collect a series of TV shows that include this underrepresented group of people in main roles. Apart from that, they also spread news and articles on the matter and they even have a hashtag (#genretvrep) to gather all these conversations.
Getting to see those groups as lead characters wouldn’t only be great but also very important and helpful for those people who want to see themselves on television as well. Why? We asked Emma and Jessi to answer some questions about their work and the importance of plural representation in media culture.
How did the idea of GenreTVForAll originate?
JESSI: We had met because we were very active in the Supernatural fandom. And for me, being a fan of that show was always very much an exercise along the lines of that Onion article “Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy TV Show” where I had to do this constant emotional cost-benefit analysis in order to keep watching. And eventually it got to the point where, well, they killed the longest running character of color (Kevin Tran, who depressingly was only in 15 episodes out of nearly 200 as it was) yet they didn’t kill the ongoing Busty Asian Beauties joke. They killed off the female Big Bad but left the two white male ones alive. Meanwhile, the longest running female character on a show with nearly 200 episodes was Lisa Braeden, who was only on 13 episodes. The closest we’ve gotten to a trans character on the show was an offensive throwaway joke from Castiel in the S8 finale about an offscreen woman he thought wasn’t actually a woman, and in 6.15 the angel Raphael taking a female vessel to which Dean quipped “Dude looks like a lady.” After JIBcon in May it seemed pretty apparent that the subtext pointing to a queer reading of Dean Winchester was going to likely forever remain subtext (which puts Charlie Bradbury as the shows longest running gay character with 4 episodes), and frankly that was the last straw, the main thing I was still watching for, and just not good enough in 2014. And so, I decided to walk away.
And I kind of drifted for a few days, trying to figure out what I was going to do, because I had gone from running, and co-running, and helping create some pretty massive fan campaigns in the fandom, to having all this pent up organizer energy without an outlet, and a desire to do something with my anger and frustration other than just making snarky tweets. So I’m sitting on twitter and it hit me, I want to compile a list of genre shows with better representation. I tweeted to see if anyone wanted to help with the list, and Emma, who had left the fandom as well, replied immediately, and had a google spreadsheet ready to go within minutes. The idea evolved from there, mostly thanks to Emma, who has really done a great job of taking the reins on this project.
EMMA: As Jessi said, we had become friends and worked on projects together in the Supernatural fandom. Specifically, I had been a vocal advocate for the textual outing of lead character and macho guy Dean Winchester on Supernatural as bisexual, by means of a canon relationship with Castiel. When it became clear that the show was not going to elevate the subtext to text, I was very disappointed and regretted the support I’d given the show. I was determined to take a negative and turn it into a positive by supporting the shows in the genres I love that do value representation of queer characters, as well as women, persons of color, and other underrepresented groups. When Jessi came up with the idea for a new blog, I knew it was perfect. I already had been keeping a spreadsheet (I love charts and spreadsheets) as a preliminary database. We were on the same page with values and knew we worked well together, so we went for it.
JESSI: That all said, I don’t think the people creating Supernatural are deliberate in their exclusion. I don’t think they’re nefariously plotting or anything like that. I think they’ve fallen into this mindset where cis het white male is the neutral default, which is a systemic problem, across television, across all media, and across our culture. There’s this idea that the cis het white male is a character everyone can relate to, and that’s really very much patently untrue. And it’s broader than one show. Right now the most active fandoms, at least on the internet, are the Superwholock triumvirate. Those shows dominate geekdom social media. And all three center around cis het white men. Meanwhile geek culture is getting more diverse, women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, they’re all getting more and more active in fandoms and in shaping these conversations, but currently they’re largely having conversations about the problems with these shows about cis het white dudes. Which, those are great, important conversations to have, but at the same time, we’re sort of waving our hands going “Hey, look! Over here! Check out these other options where the characters, some of them look like you/live like you!”
What is the goal of the blog?
I’d say it’s a two pronged approach. The initial goal is to act as a database. We’re crowdsourcing submissions to create the most comprehensive listing of genre shows featuring members of underrepresented groups as leads or as main members of an ensemble cast. Then recently we’ve also started posting links to articles talking about genre shows from a social justice perspective, or highlighting show’s inclusiveness, because this is all part of a much broader conversation we want to encourage and support.
EMMA: It’s important to us to both support the genre shows that value representation, and to bring awareness of those shows to the fans who are looking for portrayals of persons like themselves. Plus, we lovee to talk – as I’m sure you can tell. We had spent a lot of time on twitter discussing Supernatural, and now we want to keep the conversations going with old friends and new, but on different topics.
JESSI: Along those lines, last week we went ahead adn set up a twitter account for the blog so we could share even broader social justice based media criticism and discussion we come across around the web, but going beyond just television or speculative fiction.
How does your selection process work?
EMMA: We look for live action television shows in “speculative fiction”, that is, science fiction, fantasy, superhero, and horror genres. The show must have a lead character who is either a woman, person of color, lgbqa+, or trans/nonbinary gender. To qualify as a lead character must be in the main ensemble, not just supporting cast. They typically appear in most episodes and have their own storylines independent of relating to the main character of the show.
JESSI: It’s actually pretty lenient in what we count as inclusive. If a genre TV show has, as a lead, or as a member of the main ensemble cast, characters from any of the underrepresented groups, it can be submitted and posted to the blog. We have a star system too, where for each underrepresented group that’s included, the show gets a star. So you don’t have to hit on all four groups to be included, just one, though for representation purposes, obviously the more groups included in a series the better.
EMMA: Jessi and I are familiar with a lot of genre shows between the two of us – she knows urban fantasy and teen shows; I’ve watached a lot of science fiction and high fantasy. But we rely on our followers to introduce us to shows we’re not away of through submitting them to the blog. We’ve gotten a lot of great submissions of shows we might never have come across, especially of older, short lived, or basic cable shows.
Based on what you’ve seeen, which are the most easy and most difficult minorities to find on TV?
JESSI: I think it’s important to get away from the term “minorities.” First off, because it leads us back to a place where we have cis het white male as default, and everyone else as “other” but also because it’s linguistically inaccurate. While in the west white people might be the majority, worldwide they aren’t. Women make up 51% of the population, so if anything they’re a very slight majority. For the blog we use the term “underrepresented groups” which linguistically tells you these groups are not being shown on our televisions in accurate percentages to reflect the actual population of the viewership. In my own conversations I veer toward the term “marginalized groups” which is more politicized, in that it tells you these groups are being systemically pushed aside, which is also true, but was more confrontational than the sort of language we wanted for the blog.
EMMA: These days most shows have a woman among the lead characters, thankfully. There is also usually a person of color, most often black or multiracial. The hardest to find are transgender and nonbinary lead characters. We don’t have a single one! The closest we’ve come are genderless alien species in science fiction, which are not ideal, and new character Tony on Orphan Black, but he’s only been in one episode. We’ve also had a hard time finding textually asexual characters. The only one we’re sure about so far is Varys on Game of Thrones. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters are somewhere in the middle for representation, but we’ve found that even if there are characters on the show who identify is as lgbq+, there are few long term same sex relationships that don’t end in tragedy or suffer from other problematic content like harmful stereotypes or consent issues.
JESSI: Easily the largest underrepresented group you’ll see on TV is cis het white women, by a pretty wide margin. But we’ve had over 100 shows written up for the blog, and not a single one of them features a trans or nonbinary character as a lead or as part of the main ensemble. Which is ridiculous. We’re really hopeful for The Switch to reach their Kickstarter goal, and to go to air, so we can include them on the blog. We’re also hopeful that Tony becomes a main character next season on Orphan Black, though obviously trans characters played by trans actors are preferable, we understand that Orphan Black because of the concept of the show, can’t really do that with Tony since he is one of the clones. If we’re just looking at race and/or ethnicity, the most underrepresented groups are people from the Middle East and First Nations people.
Do you think representation on TV shows is getting better in the last few years because of the Internet?
EMMA: Yes, I do think representation is getting better. I don’t know how much of it is the internet versus other factors. I think streaming options like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have made it easier for people to find and binge tv shows, which has been good for the industry, but more importantly has made it possible for shows to be successful while appealing to niche audiences. The changes in society at large are really important too. It’s amazing to me how much the attitudes toward lgbtq+ persons has changed since I was a teen and Ellen coming out made the cover of Time Magazine, to now when a majority of Americans support same sex marriage and celebrities routinely come out to no more fanfare than a note in the backpages of the New York Times. That’s not to say that we don’t have a long way to go, of course. But we’ve gone from almost nothing to something, at least in terms of lgbq+ representation. In doing the blog I’ve noticed that women leads are more common now than they were twenty or more years ago. But there are very few nonwhite lead characters in genre television. We had Ben Sisko as commander of Deep Space Nine in the 90s, and now we’ve got Abbie Mills on Sleepy Hollow, but who else? Too often we have a heterosexual white male main character with a more diverse supporting ensemble around him.
JESSI: Yes and no. I think we’re on an upswing right now certainly, but I also came of age in the 90’s when LGB characters were popping up with a lot more regularity than they did in the aughts, and the 80’s and 90’s had, at least it seems like, more characters of color than the aughts did as well. Like I said, we’re on an upswing again, but the years between the turn of the millennium and now had slid backwards a fair amount. I’m glad to see that changing, but we should really be further along than we are, and I think that backslide in the first part of the century set us back on our progress. When it comes to network and cable TV, I’m not sure how much of a role the internet is playing in changing that landscape, BUT I do think the internet has a pretty important place in moving us forward, because first off, you have original series being created for streaming platforms that aren’t constrained by the need to please advertisers, but even more than that, the internet has helped democratize content creation and sharing. I could make a TV show right now if I felt like it, and share it with the world. It might not be very good because I lack access to fancy editing equipment and filming equipment, but it could exist. And that’s a recent development, and an important one.
If you had to convince writers who don’t think much about the representation of those groups, what would you tell them?
EMMA: I have tried! That’s a frustrating thing about social media – being able to tweet writers and showrunners gives one a perhaps false sense of access. Some are more receptive than others. But to answer the question: Firstly, I’d mail them all a copy of “Beyond the Stars” from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, an episode that goes back in time to show a 1950s science fiction writer who is told that they can’t publish his story about a black commander of a space station. Secondly, I’d refer them to Nichelle Nichols talking about how Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged her to stay on the original Star Trek as Nyota Uhura because of how important it was to show a black woman as an equal on television. And then I’d want them to hear Whoopi Goldberg’s talking about how seeing Uhura as a kid inspired her to believe that she could do anything. Thirdly, I’d tell them my own story – how watching Dana Scully on The X-Files meant so much to me growing up. I identified with her strongly and now I’m a skeptical redheaded scientist myself! But finally, and most importantly, I’d ask them to consider what it means to youth today.
I live in a semi-rural area of Louisiana, a very conservative state in the Deep South, and I know how hard it is for lgbtqa+ kids to accept themselves even today. The great thing about speculative fiction is that it takes you to worlds where anything is possible. It allows us to imagine that life doesn’t have to be the way that it is now, that people are capable of more. It tells kids that “it gets better”. Odds are that if there’s an lgbtqa+ teen living down the street from me, they’re scared. Their parents don’t accept them, their religion tells them they’re a sinner, their state gives them no rights. It’d be easy to think that they are the one who is broken. I want that kid to be able to turn on the television, even with just an antenna and no cable subscription, and see a character like them in their favorite show, as the hero. I want them to have that hope. Dealing in metaphors and subtext is not enough. There should be no shame. Everything should be out in the open. It can be easy for even those of us who are queer ourselves to forget how hard it is for others who aren’t as old as us, as comfortably independent, or as accepted by ourselves, our friends, and our families. To the writers of television who are so good at imagining other worlds, I ask them to imagine the world of that young queer person in a repressive community, and to do right by them.
JESSI: Representation matters. We’ve all heard the story about Whoopi Goldberg seeing Uhura on TV for the first time and shouting to her family “I just saw a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” and then more recently we had Lupita Nyong’o saying “When I was a little girl, the first time I thought I could be an actor was when I watched The Color Purple”. Seeing people who look like you, and who live like you on TV, it changes your perspective on the world, it allows you to be part of something bigger. And that’s really how television is meant to be, it should be existing as a mirror, and we should all be seeing ourselves on screen. I’d also tell them that they have an opportunity to change the world, which sounds really far fetched when I’m talking about something like television, but it’s so, so true. The best way to counter systemic oppression, be it racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on, is to change people’s hearts and minds, the best way to do that is to normalize these groups people view as “other” and the quickest way to do that is through familiarity. When you see an Asian person on your favorite TV show every week, or a bisexual person, or a trans person, you start to see that they’re a lot like you, and you start to realize in the end, we’re all more alike than we are different. That’s important, and powerful.