Dear BBC: We Don’t Need Tokenism

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Today, the BBC has revealed their new diversity targets. These targets state that by 2020, one in six of all on-screen roles must go to a LGBT or disabled person.

Also, fifty percent of on-screen roles will go to women, who already make up 48.5% of the BBC’s total workforce. That’s not to say they won’t still be able to commission male-dominated shows, however.

A statement from the BBC on this, reads: “We are making good progress in our work to make the BBC a truly diverse organisation, but there’s more to do and we’re always keen to improve. Almost half of our workforce is made up of women and the proportion of our workforce who are black, Asian and other ethnic minorities is at an all-time high.  We’ll continue doing what works but also develop new and innovative ideas to do even better, and we’ll set this out in our new diversity strategy shortly.”

With the facts out of the way, let’s move onto opinions, shall we?

Diversity in media, be it video games, movies, or TV, is definitely an issue. Getting more interesting, diverse characters on screen is something we definitely need to see more of. In that, me and the BBC are in agreement.

A recent study showed that while the number of LGBT characters is increasing, the characters are overwhelmingly white. The study found that on broadcast networks, 69% of gay characters are white, 7% are Latino, 19% are black, and 6% are Asian. On cable and streaming platforms, 71% and 73% of gay characters are white, respectively. However, while this statistic shows a heavy dominance of white characters on TV, the study also found a 6% increase in gay characters of colour from the year before.

The cast of Orange is the New Black, one of the best shows on Netflix.

The cast of Orange is the New Black, one of the best shows on Netflix.

So there is clearly a need for more diversity on TV and in film.

Here is where I heavily dislike the plan put forward by the BBC: it smacks of tokenism. That is exactly what we do not need.

I want to see interesting, intriguing characters, I want to read or watch interesting stories from perspectives unfamiliar to me. I want to hear the tale of a person who’s life is worlds away from my own. I want creators to be able to write the stories they want to write. If that’s about a cisgender, hetero man or woman? Ok, cool. If it’s about a PoC LGBT person? Great.

What I do not want, is characters existing purely to fill in a check-box. Because that is not how you get well written representative characters. A character who exists solely to fill some sort of corporate quota of “diversity” is highly unlikely to be more than a cardboard cutout, existing purely so someone on a committee somewhere can say, “we have the right (?) amount of diversity” and then feel pleased with themselves.

That isn’t what LGBT people, or disabled people, or anybody wants or needs. What we need, are more stories from these perspectives who exist because the creator wanted to explore that topic. Not because they felt obligated to include them. That is not how you get interesting stories well told, that’s how you get stereotypical, badly written characters who will only do damage to how people view the LGBT community and disabled people.

What we need to do is encourage creators; writers, directors, producers, or whoever, to feel like they can explore these ideas. To encourage them to write from the perspectives of these people, even if the creators themselves are not part of that community. Some of the best LGBT or PoC characters in recent memory exist not because some boardroom full of executives in suits wanted to fill their quota, but because someone somewhere had an idea and wanted to explore it.


The cast of Sense8.

And when it comes to filling a role, even if that role is not of a LGBT or disabled person, that role should go to the best person for that role. Hollywood definitely has a problem with this, and often whitewashes or puts “that big name actor who’s in everything” to get bums in seats, rather than the best actor for the role.  This is a symptom of a larger problem, but I don’t know if forcing it is the right way to go.

I feel like you can’t force this. There was a time when women weren’t allowed on stage, but slowly and painfully, we fought for that right. Just as we then fought for roles that weren’t generic housewife #50001. Things like this take time, and patience and work to get people to wake up and start casting people in the roles they should be in, and also creating more interesting roles. While we need more diverse actors, and more appropriate people in certain roles, that goes both ways.

I also don’t want a LGBT or disabled actor put in a role to fill this quota, I want them in the role because they have the acting talent to fill those shoes.

We should make information more available to those who want to write these stories and characters, we should be welcoming to tales told about us, even if they are not written by someone in our community. But all in all, we should let creativity be creative. And that means letting writers write the things they want to create, even if they don’t fill some imaginary diversity quota.

Forcing diversity like this sounds great on paper, but will it actually help anything? I don’t think so.

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Dear BBC: We Don't Need Tokenism
Article Name
Dear BBC: We Don't Need Tokenism
An open letter to the BBC on their "diversity quota" and why we don't need tokenism.