Aisha Harris on covering diversity in Hollywood.

How Writing About Diversity in Hollywood Changed My Relationship to Pop Culture

How Writing About Diversity in Hollywood Changed My Relationship to Pop Culture

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Dec. 14 2015 3:27 PM
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Why I Made “Diversity in Hollywood” My Beat

And how covering it has changed my relationship to pop culture.

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Image by Slate. Illustration by Charlie Powell.

When I tell people what I do for a living, they tend to think I’ve got a pretty sweet gig. “So you get paid to watch movies and TV all the time, huh? That must be so hard.” It’s a playful ribbing I’m cool with indulging; after all, in the grand scheme of things, I do have a pretty sweet gig, one that allows me to combine two of the things I love most—consuming pop culture and writing—while living in the trendy borough of Brooklyn in my glorious 20s.

But believe it or not, my job can be hard—and not just because sitting through 18 movies over the course of six days, as I did at the Toronto film festival this fall, is exhausting mentally and spiritually. (Foreign filmmakers make really depressing movies.) It’s hard because to be black and a woman means that pop culture can rarely exist for you as merely “entertainment.” It often means having to wrestle with a lot of things that go against your principles and reality, to decide which artifacts are worth being frustrated by, which are doing OK considering the alternatives, and which deserve to be praised. When you’re used to mass media doling out stereotypes about your ethnicity and/or gender—or avoiding you altogether—you become sensitive to any and all representations you see on screen.

I didn’t set out to turn diversity in pop culture into my news beat—I just wanted to put my film studies major and general nerdiness to good use. But in hindsight, it was more or less the path I laid out for myself. The first piece I pitched as a Slate intern nearly four years ago was one in which I admitted guilt for not wanting to see George Lucas’ cinematic ode to the Tuskegee Airmen, even though I wanted to support the production of more minority-led action flicks that aren’t The Fast and the Furious. (Brief update, nearly four years later: While I convinced myself at the end of that piece that I would suck it up, I have still never seen Red Tails. I guess the force of my black person’s guilt wasn’t that strong after all.) That piece set the template for how I viewed myself, and how my editors and colleagues have viewed me, as a writer: I have a lot to say when it comes to Hollywood’s (and society’s) treatment of anyone who is not a straight white male, and am comfortable expressing those thoughts.

I’ve done this in a variety of different ways over the years—shrugging at the inherent whiteness of Girls back when that show was the one to get riled up about; baffling Fox News reporters about the origins of Santa Claus; shading guys who perform creepy “pranks on young women”—but it wasn’t until recently that I started considering my coverage of these issues to be my own actual beat. The past year has turned out to be a fascinating one in the entertainment world—one in which a ton has changed, and yet so little has changed. The biggest show in 2015 is a predominantly black soap opera that has no time for niceties; an aging testosterone-laden franchise was successfully rebooted as a feminist parable; trans issues were front and center in both film and TV. At the same time, there’s still a shortage of writers of color in Hollywood, female filmmakers still face misogyny and sexism, and trans actors are rarely chosen to play the roles that make them visible to America.

Basically, we’ve come a long way, but a few great strides do not mean we’re finished pushing for greater representation. I’ve seen that assumption made—most notably, perhaps, in the infamous Deadline piece from earlier this year in which a reporter lamented the lack of TV roles for white actors during pilot season. When I first read it, I was at once flabbergasted and not at all surprised—whenever the “norm” is deviated from, people freak out and mourn the loss of the world as they once knew it. I couldn’t not respond—to call out the author for her ridiculous implication that nonwhites should remain an exception to the rule, but also to point out how powerful on-screen images really are and how embedded they become in the cultural consciousness. It’s not just the industry itself that continues to give minorities short shrift—the media helps to perpetuate this as well.

So the motivation to peel back these complicated layers of prejudice has led me to cover the conversation around diversity in Hollywood on as many fronts as possible. My deepest dive into the subject this year was my cover story “Same Old Script,” in which I interviewed TV writers of color about their experiences working in Hollywood. It was an eye-opening experience, and I was grateful to the writers I interviewed for being so candid and open—there have been other pieces written before about TV writers rooms’ overwhelming whiteness and maleness, but I had yet to read one in which firsthand accounts of the pressures of being “the only one” in the room were accompanied by names and faces. (That’s the thing about being a minority in Hollywood—it’s risky to speak out against inequalities because it’s so easy to be blackballed.) To my surprise, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive—since the piece went up, I’ve heard from many people in the industry who found it resonated with their own experiences and shared it enthusiastically.

I’ve been told many times by readers that I “dwell” on race and gender too much, and asked whether or not I find it “exhausting.” Of course I find it exhausting sometimes! It’s such a relief when I get the rare opportunity to watch a movie or TV show for no other reason than pleasure. But at this point I can’t turn off the parts of my brain that assess how a show handles gender and racial representation, and I’ve learned to accept it. I also fear that if I don’t acknowledge the icky parts of the cultural products I consume, and even love, I’m living in a well-constructed fantasy world. And it’s important that the big steps we’ve taken to bring more diversity to Hollywood, as trumpeted by the industry and the media, don’t drown out the problems that persist. I’m happy that I get to help make sure that doesn’t happen.