Pointing out the evils of television is a longstanding tradition, but recognizing its role in creating a more vibrant, diverse, and tolerant society is something of a rarity. Recent research shows that the small screen is just as influential as we’ve always thought, and that influence is a mighty weapon for instigating changes in societal norms — especially when writers and directors make a conscious choice to use that power for good.
What Research Found
The research, conducted by Jeremiah Garretson of Stony Brook University, compared thirty years of television portrayals of working women, lesbians, gays, and African-Americans to societal attitudes about these minority groups during the same time.
Looking at the frequency and portrayal of these groups from 1970 to 2000 showed a correlation between the proliferation of minority characters and storylines and increased tolerance and acceptance of these groups across the country.
Bottom line: Watching television can actually open our hearts and minds to people and circumstances that were previously unfamiliar to us.
Viola Davis, Jeffrey Tambor, and the Emmy Awards
In the eternal words of Virginia Slims, “we’ve come a long way, baby” — and the recent Emmy Awards seem to bear that out. African-American women and shows portraying diverse characters won the night: Viola Davis became the first African-American woman to take home the award for Best Actress in a Drama and Jeffrey Tambor won his own statue for playing a transgender woman in Amazon’s “Transparent.”
It certainly seems like a banner moment for the transgender community, and the rate at which transgender characters and actors have been embraced by the small screen probably made Davis’ head spin. After all, it’s been 60 years since Rosa Parks took her world-changing bus ride and an African-American woman just claimed the Best Actress prize for the first time.
The stark difference in the rate of acceptance and tolerance confirms what Garretson’s research found, that television has the potential to be used to “increase political tolerance, and eliminate racism, sexism, and heterosexism.” But that isn’t the end of the story.
African-Americans have been part of the television landscape for more than six decades, yet this final barrier was only recently breached. As Davis said in her landmark acceptance speech, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” To Davis’ point, it’s taken that long for African-American women to be given strong, powerful leading roles that showcase them as raw, real, sexual, emotional, successful, complicated women — not caricatures of who the (primarily white) establishment thinks they should be.
Where We Need to Go from Here
Even though this year’s Emmy broadcast tried really hard to show how far television has come in regard to diversity and tolerance, where they really succeeded was in showing how far we still have to go.
Many marginalized groups still lack the kind of small-screen representation that can break down barriers and rally support. It’s up to the bigwigs in their corner offices to make sure that potential comes to fruition.
One group television would do well to embrace positively is the mentally ill. Historically, characters with mental illness show up as frightening threats or charming basket cases. In the wake of ongoing mass shootings, a real portrayal of mental illness could change the world.
If television has the power to make my 80-something grandmother understand the struggles of transgender women, it can help us all recognize and understand mental illness. Perhaps “normalizing” the real struggle — and potential — of this large segment of the population will compel more of us to reach out a helping hand when we see someone in need of help.
Television is not the panacea to all the world’s ills, nor is it the cause. However, it has the power to make a difference. Imagine the profound change that could be realized if the “powers that be” of the small screen make an intentional effort to foster awareness and tolerance. That, I believe, would be a lovely technicolor world, indeed.