Over the past few years, TV has become more diverse. Not shockingly so: most lead characters on primetime shows are still white. But there’s no doubt that the number of black (or Asian) friends and supporting characters is increasing. It’s a small step, but still progress. And a larger number of shows, like Scandal and Quantico, are even taking the leap to cast people of color in leading roles.
Most recently, CW’s soapy teen murder mystery Riverdale chose to cast six previously white roles with nonwhite actors. (I’m so unfamiliar with the Archie comics on which the show was based — which first debuted in 1939 — that I honestly didn’t even notice, but it turns out that casting decision increased the show’s representation from having one African American character to a cast that is over 40% people of color.)
I can’t tell if increased representation of ethnicity on television is here to stay, or just a passing fad that TV execs are cautiously testing to see if it’s an effective strategy to make more money. But whatever the cause, I’ve loved watching TV become more diverse (though some shows are suffering from beginners mistakes more than others.)
As a journalism major in college, and a former web writer and editor, I’m fascinated by the way “the media” — that ever-criticized yet completely inescapable conglomeration of web, TV, movies, advertising, and radio — subtly or not-so-subtly influences what we as a culture value, what we decide to buy, and what physical features we view as attractive and desirable.
Representation in media matters. It’s important to show more than just white (or straight, or able-bodied, or size 2) characters on our TV screens. As a teenager, I was constantly aware of how different I looked from the slender, perfectly-toned, gorgeous teenagers on TV.
But for as much as I felt my inadequacy, my favorite TV characters still looked a fair amount like me. My blonde hair and blue eyes were all over television and media. During a recent discussion of Disney princesses, a Eurasian friend remarked that Mulan was always her favorite princess. She’s not even Chinese, but as a young girl — she only saw one princess who looked even remotely like her — so there was pretty much only one choice in her 5-year-old head for her favorite.
There’s still a blonde, blue eyed character on Riverdale. Betty Cooper — one of the show’s three leads — embodies traditional Western standards of beauty flawlessly. But for her best friend, Veronica — traditionally raven-haired and white, Riverdale chose to cast a Latina actress and the actress who plays her mother has European and Mexican ancestry. Camilla Mendes, who plays Veronica, says she was particularly drawn to the role because Riverdale‘s version of Veronica was a complex character who didn’t fall into traditional stereotypes so often present in Latina roles.
Josie and the Pussycats are part of the Archie universe, and while the band traditionally features a blonde Melody, a redhead Josie — only Valerie is African American — all three of Riverdale‘s Pussycats (as well as Josie’s parents, who are background characters) are African American.
So while none of the five have starring roles, it’s nice to see a show unafraid to have more than one African American character — not just the stereotypical “black friend.”
For the guys, Archie’s football jock rival Reggie, another character who was dark haired but white in the comics, is played by a Eurasian actor. Archie himself is actually biracial as well — actor KJ Apa, who drops his New Zealand accent to play an American on the show, is the son of a Samoan chief — but his character passes as white, and both Archie’s father and mother are played by white actors.
Riverdale hasn’t yet ventured into discussions of race in a meaningful way. Like fellow CW shows The Flash and Supergirl, it intentionally chose to cast traditionally white roles with POC actors. Much of that has to do with the era the stories were written in: Archie was first published in 1939, The Flash in 1956 and Supergirl in 1959 — at a time when ethnic diversity in media was basically nonexistent. Though this update is encouraging, none of the shows have included more than a passing comment to the experiences with marginalization, implicit bias, or microaggressions that are common realities for POC in America. Yes, it’s awesome that Supergirl‘s Jimmy Olsen is black. I love that Joe West (quite possibly one of TV’s greatest dads), Iris West, and Kid Flash Wally West are all black in CW’s Flash.
But these intentional casting choices aren’t really pushing the boundaries of race on TV. Don’t get me wrong — they’re an important and meaningful step. But they’re just a first step. By casting traditionally white characters (in comics written decades ago) with POC actors, these TV shows have updated their casts to look more representative of the ethnic demographics of America today.
In case you haven’t noticed, white people don’t make up 85% of America, as our TV and media seem to portray. It’s more like 62%. Riverdale and The Flash have cast their shows to reflect this 60/40 breakdown fairly accurately. And that’s exciting. But their shows still haven’t taken the space to represent the reality of live as a person of color in the U.S. to a full extent.
They’ve taken an amazing first step. But U.S. television and media still have quite a ways to go if we hope for our storytelling to paint an accurate and authentic experience of what it’s like to be a person of color in the U.S. today. We don’t need heavy-handed anti-racism messaging or cheesy after school specials.
But being POC in America comes with an understanding of reality that white America just doesn’t experience. We don’t need our television to document every last detail and facet of that. But one day, if our storytelling and cultural narratives were able to portray that more accurately — can you imagine how exciting that would be?