As television becomes more diverse —
Its corps of mainstream critics remains starkly white
This year, the Emmys felt like a victory lap for diversity. Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance took home trophies for their roles in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, while Rami Malek was recognized for his lead role in Mr. Robot. Regina King was a repeat winner for American Crime. Sarah Paulson, who is openly gay, won for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Susanne Biers won for directing The Night Manager. And in a sign of the times, Transparent actor Jeffrey Tambor called for an end to cisgender actors portraying transgender people, while Jill Soloway, who also won for directing, told the audience to “topple the patriarchy.” Both Biers and Soloway were the only women nominated in their categories.
Things are far from perfect, as evidenced by a recent report from the Directors Guild of America tabulating the lack of female and nonwhite television directors. The vast majority of television is still disproportionately directed by white men.
We’re enjoying this moment in television diversity in no small part because of the internet. The same force that’s blamed for shrinking newsrooms and the downfall of the American newspaper is also the democratizing force that’s made it more difficult to get away with creating all-white shows and behaving as though they’re normal. There’s a reason that Emmys host Jimmy Kimmel was poking fun at the Oscars. After all, the damnable hashtag everyone knows isn’t #EmmysSoWhite. Aside from its power to name and shame, the internet is responsible for ushering in a post-ratings age of choice when it comes to how and where we watch TV. We are living in the age of specificity.
It’s odd then, that in a year that feels like a boon when it comes to nonwhite faces on TV, the corps of people vigorously covering it is still so white.
In some ways, the Television Critics Association press tour feels like a weird anachronism. For starters, it’s noticeably, abnormally, uncomfortably white. Melanie McFarland, the television critic for Salon who currently serves as treasurer of TCA, estimated that out of the organization’s 220 or so members, “you can generously say like 20 or 30 of them are people of color … in proportion, it’s not a whole lot of us and it never has been.” When I attended this summer, I counted seven black journalists, including myself.
Twice a year, several hundred reporters from all over the country descend upon a California (either in Pasadena or Beverly Hills) hotel ballroom for approximately two weeks. Usually, we’ve been given screeners of the shows up for discussion. At the very least, we see clips. Back in the ’70s, when press tour began, it functioned as a way for television journalists at midsize newspapers around the country — back when it was still perfectly normal for regional newspapers to have multiple TV writers, believe it or not — to talk to the people they wrote about.
Now it’s become an essential tool for sorting through the more than 400 scripted shows that make up Peak TV. It’s also an opportunity to ask questions of network executives, producers and actors during panel discussions. If you’re a person who covers television, the TCA press tour offers valuable context about how things work, and a chance to hold network executives accountable for all sorts of decisions. I had a sit-down with PBS president and chief executive Paula Kerger at TCA this summer, and that’s when I asked her about the lack of diversity in the dramas that air on Masterpiece.
Todd VanDerWerff, who is now Vox’s critic at large and a TCA member, wrote a defense of the whole enterprise aptly named Why the Television Critics Association press tour still matters when he was at the A.V. Club. He wrote a similar one in 2014 for Vox. And he’s right in both. Press tour does still matter. It’s just super white.
“Of course, everybody doesn’t go to TCA, but it’s partially just reflective of the larger problem in journalism that extends beyond TV, but I think it’s particularly true arts criticism is going a different way,” said Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic. “It’s tricky to get paid for arts criticism in general, and it has a history of this, but it’s particularly striking to me. Especially because the last five years have marked this massive expansion in just all sorts of things on TV including, but not limited, to stories about, by, and starring black people. That’s got to change the conversation.”
This discrepancy between the makeup of the people we’re seeing on television and the press covering them came up at press tour. A reporter asked HBO’s Insecure panel, which consisted of co-creator Issa Rae, showrunner Prentice Penny, and director Melina Matsoukas, if “the makeup of critics, people who are reviewing and promoting TV shows, affects the opportunity for creatives who might not reflect that same makeup?”
“I would hope it wouldn’t,” Penny responded. “I would hope that critics who are smart and have done this for a long time can see something that has universal gain and the universal experience and acknowledge it, again like Issa said, from a human perspective, like what’s the humanity in this? What’s the comedy in this? I think all the things that we talk about in the show, insecurity on down, that’s a shared experience. That’s just human. I would just hope and think that all the brilliant people in this room will understand that and portray that in the writing of the show as well.”
So what does happens when journalists of color are missing from press tour?
One of the things I noticed very quickly is the difference in the questions that are addressed to white producers and talent versus people of color. The first group gets to answer questions primarily about the art and construction of their shows, from the writing to the characters to the music choices and everything in between, while the second is tasked with most of the heavy lifting when it comes to talking about television and race.
Producer Shonda Rhimes deserves a lot of credit for this current wave of diversity on television, which began when people started to notice the utter normalcy of the casts of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. Rhimes had the ratings to back her up, but Shondaland shows drew recognition for dominating the Twittersphere. Now, Hollywood trade paper Variety doesn’t just run regular ratings, it runs social ratings too. But she has gotten fed up with continually being questioned about diversity and little else, and this summer, black-ish showrunner Kenya Barris and actress Tracee Ellis Ross called out the practice.
“I feel like every question at every panel … I get so tired of talking about diversity,” Barris reportedly said. “These are amazing, talented actors and amazing writers who give their all and they don’t have to do this. It’s crowding the conversation.”
Ross turned the tables:
“Is that a question that you’ve asked other shows that are not predominantly of a certain color?”
When the reporter responded, “Not necessarily,” Ross replied, “Those questions continue the conversation in a direction that does not help the conversation.”
Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times won the 2014 Pulitzer for criticism in part because of her coverage of diversity. Maureen Ryan has been a stalwart in pressing network executives about diversity as well. But longtime critics I spoke with noted that questions about diversity are expected now as a matter of course, as opposed to 1999, when the NAACP threatened to sue the major broadcast networks over their lack of diversity.
“Those issues are generally not, until recently I would say, those issues are not front and center for most critics because they feel it’s not something they have to necessarily worry about,” McFarland said.
“There’s a weird dynamic where if you’re a person of color and you always ask questions about race that you get pigeonholed that you only want to talk about diversity,” said NPR critic Eric Deggans. “I think it’s less of an issue now because we talk about diversity so much now in mainstream culture but I do feel like five years ago or 10 years ago, there were a lot of white TV critics who were hesitant to bring up tough questions about diversity … and it was often left to whatever people of color in the room there were to bring up these questions and sort of aggressively try to hold network executives and producers to task for shortcomings.”
Part of what we’re seeing are the aftershocks from upheaval in media. The newspaper industry has shrunk as a whole, and that’s been especially detrimental for journalists of color. That said, there are writers of color doing valuable and important work writing about television, including Bethonie Butler, Rembert Browne, Pilot Viruet, Ira Madison III, Alanna Bennett, Dave Schilling, and, before she stopped, Danielle Henderson. But none of them are full-time TV critics, and none of them go to TCA.
It took a long time for television criticism to be recognized as a legitimate form of art criticism and for the medium itself to be recognized as meaningful art. Now that it has, people of color are still largely missing from the positions charged with evaluating television that way. Deggans, McFarland, Inkoo Kang at MTV and Sonia Saraiya at Variety are notable exceptions. Criticism, especially the sort that Nussbaum does for The New Yorker, is increasingly seen as a luxury. Earlier this year in a column for The Guardian, Columbia journalism professor Howard French seethed about how black journalists are still “typecast” into stereotypical roles.
“There are very few black journalists writing about politics and national security, international news, big business, culture (as opposed to entertainment) or science and technology – they are essentially absent from large swaths of coverage, and even more sparsely represented among the ranks of editors,” French wrote. “This is not a trivial matter, or a subject of concern solely to journalists: the overwhelming whiteness of the media strongly but silently conditions how Americans understand their own country and the rest of the world.”
That bifurcation that French talks about is still around, but in a slightly different context. For Henderson, that chasm was painfully evident in television writing. Henderson, 39, is a former academic and the creator of Feminist Ryan Gosling. She also spent five years as a popular, well-respected voice writing about television, but finally abandoned the pursuit, she told me, because of typecasting and a seemingly impermeable wall when it came to breaking into fulltime criticism. She attributed that wall, at least in part, to her race and her gender — editors, she said, would routinely make her the “black girl critic” while her white counterparts faced no such categorization.
“I feel like a lot of people of color are, first of all, pushed into a freelance career, sometimes unwanted,” Henderson said. “Then, also, in that, they’re being almost exclusively asked to work on these shows that feature people of color because a lot of these publications don’t have any people of color on staff. I never felt like I had the validity of a critic, even though I did good work and work that I’m proud of. I never quite had that validation that I was a critic overall. The things [that] were pushed the hardest, were when I wrote about black people — anything that had to do with a person of color or anything with a feminist angle.”
There are an enormous amount of people of color writing about television on the internet from a social justice or sociological perspective. It’s important work. But when the bulk of the writing about shows starring people of color gets shunted off solely or largely as “diversity work,” chiefly concerned with questions of representation and little else, there’s a larger effect.
“The thing about a lot of the new television shows that are out, plenty of people are going to be talking about them loudly and together, whether they’re paid for arts criticism or not, because there’s a million ways in which people respond to TV that are not through TV criticism,” Nussbaum said. “The problem is who gets paid for it.”
“It feels like you’re waiting for a whole generation to die so your work will be taken seriously for what it is, and not for what they’re trying to make it,” Henderson said. “I feel like there’s a lot of amazing criticism happening that is very sociological and very rooted in people’s real lives and lived experience. I don’t think that that makes their work less than. It’s sad to me that it’s always shunted off as, ‘OK, but that’s not real criticism.’ … What you consider real is truly old-school, old model, very canonical, very white man putting the message down from on high and deciding culturally, being the arbiters of what’s culturally valued.”
Henderson now writes television. Last October, she left freelancing behind to write for the Hulu show Difficult People, and this summer she was on the staff of HBO’s Divorce. She’s continuing to write for shows, and she’s also working on her next book, a memoir due out in 2018.
“I feel a little bit more comfortable in that space because it’s not as tokenized as the freelance work I was doing,” Henderson said. “Even if there are instances where I’m the only black woman in the room, it hasn’t been my experience, so far, even though I’m new at this as of early last year, I’m rarely the only person of color in the room.”
The treatment of black talent at TCA mirrors what Henderson experienced covering television, where people of color are seen first as vehicles to discuss race and as artists or writers second. Neither of those things changes until it becomes normal to see people of color on both sides of the room — on the stage answering questions about shows, and in the ballroom audience, where the press is doing the asking.
“One day I aspire to have my own show and it could be that I’m presenting at TCA to a room full of hopefully not all white critics,” Henderson said. “I would like for TCA to fix that before that happens. That’s just real talk. It’s just bizarre that we’re having all these conversations about what people want to see and people pushing this narrative of what they don’t see and you go to events centered around television and it’s still white faces. Publications that have white editors and all-white staff and they farm out their diversity work as if it doesn’t matter as much. Diversity work is very much the farm league team of television criticism.”