Write Inclusively Without Appropriating

by Tawnya Bhattacharya

Cast of TV show This Is Us

Inclusion in media is now both a creative and commercial necessity. While data published in Variety has shown that movies centered around white male protagonists aren’t holding up at the Box Office, Wonder Woman became one of the top-grossing films of the year, GIRLS TRIP blew away Box Office records as well, and shows like INSECURE, ATLANTA and MASTER OF NONE are some of the hottest new water-cooler shows on TV.

Furthermore, directors, producers and show runners are getting called out for not having creative teams that reflect the POV of the stories they’re telling. Jenji Kohan and her camp suffered a huge backlash after last season of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK when (SPOILER ALERT!) a queer black female character died at police hands in the season finale and then the internet discovered that there was not a single black writer in the room for that season. Sofia Coppola also has egg on her face for her remaking THE BEGUILED, a Civil War-era drama, without the only 2 characters of color, opting for a cast of all-white women instead. By ignoring the characters of color, Coppola also erased the intense racism emblematic of the time period and crucial in the birth of the American South we still know today.

But this is tricky territory. A question we hear a lot is How do we write inclusively without crossing the line into appropriation? Here are some easy ways to look at it:

AVOID “ARTISTIC IMPERIALISM”

“I would say the biggest thing when writing inclusively is you have to talk to that group. If you’re writing about Native Americans reach to that community. Ask your Native friends what they think about your approach.

And if you don’t have any Native American friends, think about what that says about yourself. ;)” ~ Lucas Brown Eyes, YOUNG & HUNGRY

There’s a difference between making your cast inclusive and appropriating a narrative that really belongs to another writer. If you have a story whose lead character is of a different race, gender, or sexual orientation to you, ask yourself is “is this story about an experience of marginalization specific to this character’s race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality/etc.?” If not, then cast away.

CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND is an excellent example. Rebecca, the main character, suffers from mental illness, but the writers refuse to let it define her. The show’s male lead, Josh Chan, is Filipino-American, and two of the largest supporting female roles are women of color (Valencia and Heather). CLAWS is another seamlessly inclusive show. With Niecey Nash in the lead as a nail salon owner with big dreams, the show’s diverse cast represents different social classes and disability/mental illnesses without being trope-y. However, if your story is about an “otherness” you do not personally identify with and is grounded in a background you do not share, then it might be worth asking yourself if your idea is best suited for another writer.

But big showrunners cross race/gender/sexuality lines all the time. Ryan Murphy’s 2nd season of AMERICAN CRIME STORY focuses on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and HBO’s female-driven hit BIG LITTLE LIES was written and directed by men. Even the screenplay for WONDER WOMAN, the feminist rallying cry of the 2017 Box Office, was penned by two men. The book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, a true-crime thriller about serial murders on a Native American Reservation, is set to be adapted into a movie by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, who have released no plans yet to involve Native content creators.

And this is part of the problem.

In 2015, Jessia Kiang wrote this dead-on-balls accurate deconstruction of the gender parity issues in feature directing—most blockbuster feature narratives remain in white, male hands, which leads to most narratives focusing on the white, male journey. What’s more, since the 2008 strike, production companies and studios are less likely to take chances on new writers with original ideas. So if they are given a great story that focuses on a marginalized group’s experience, their first, often well-intentioned impulse, is usually: “how do we get this made?!” Unfortunately, the surest way is to attach a “name”, and those “names” are largely white men. So execs are faced with a choice: do they move forward with an unknown, untrained show runner and risk not getting a pickup? Or do they attach a show runner who already has a good relationship with the studio/network, but is a member of the good old Boys Club that still runs this town?

“If you really feel compelled to [write about someone outside of your own gender identification, sexual orientation, or race], then that starts with a conversation, a friendship, really connecting with that person — whether that be a person of diff race, sexuality, a person who doesn’t define their gender in a binary way… and if you don’t know anyone, if you do find a blind spot in your social circle, well… if you’re being called to write, maybe you’re also being called to open up your life a little bit.” ~ Diarra Kilpatrick, THE CLIMB, AMERICAN KOKO

However, it’s important not to accidentally commit erasure, either.

If you’re writing a pilot set in a homeless youth center in a Phoenix that services at-risk LGBT+ youth, you’d be remiss to not include a Two-Spirit character, since so much of Arizona and Utah is occupied by Reservation land. And Natives should write about the Two-Spirit Nation, surely? Because you want to write those characters accurately and respectfully. Which leads us to our next maxim —

LISTEN

“People need to acknowledge their own blindspots and subsequently welcome the POV’s that are different from their own. I believe great writing has no ego behind it. You could spend months on a story, developing something you feel confident about. But I think it’s important to be aware of the fact that someone else could present you with an angle or different take on your story the next day and it’s OK for it to be better or more authentic. The other thing is sensitivity. The best writers are sensitive because they can empathize with anyone. The best way to get the tone or POV of a character is to empathize with that character. And the way to do it is to lean on those who can provide you with that specific insight and perspective that your writing needs.” ~ Mnelik Belilgne, THE MAYOR (ABC)

Now comes the humbling part: if you are writing characters that are of a different race, gender, or sexual orientation, then the first thing to acknowledge is that your portrayal of this character may be informed by biases, and enforced by stereotypes and tropes. A recent study showed that at least half of all Latino immigrant characters on TV are portrayed as criminals, whereas European immigrants are largely portrayed in lawful or “respectable” professions. We’ve been fed these tropes for years, and as they say, “you are what you eat.”

So, when forging into uncharted territory as a writer, get friends who represent those communities to read your work, so that you know you’re writing those characters as accurately as possible.

“When talking with groups, believe them, what may not feel offensive to you may be something they’ve struggled with their whole lives. You’re asking for their input because they have a point of view you don’t.” ~ Lucas Brown Eyes, YOUNG & HUNGRY

And don’t get defensive if you get feedback from trusted sources that your portrayal of a marginalized group bumped them. Accept their explanation with gratitude and take the note.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

RESEARCH

“When you’re writing inclusively about a character that is outside your race remember that they are people. And people are all extremely unique. Avoid at all costs writing a character that is defined by their race.” ~ Lucas Brown Eyes, YOUNG & HUNGRY

Wikipedia, your high school textbooks, or a common Encyclopedia is not good enough. History is often skewed by a colonialist patriarchal lens, one that led Disney to make a film in which Pocahontas consented (a dangerous narrative, considering Native women are disproportionately at risk for sexual violence and sex trafficking). Find writers who represent the communities you’re writing about, follow them on Twitter, read more female and queer/non-binary writers and writers of color.

Hamilton Cast Singing

DON’T DRAW ATTENTION TO WRITING INCLUSIVELY

“Avoid cultural tourism… don’t make a black friend just so you can write THE WIRE.” ~ Diarra Kilpatrick, THE CLIMB, AMERICAN KOKO, THE LAST O.G.

There’s a way to be part of the solution without constantly saying LOOK GUYS WOW I AM PART OF THE SOLUTION! So, when pitching your pilot in general meetings or even just talking about it at drinks, don’t treat accurate representation in your cast like it’s something special. It should be the norm. And be careful about boasting about your BIPOC or “strong female” lead—it can come off as tokenizing or fetishizing. Harlots on Hulu and Claws on TNT are great examples of effortless inclusive writing without being self-congratulatory about it. (Claws has one of the most diverse writers rooms in town, run by a woman of color, and Harlots has an all-female writers room and director’s roster.) In Claws, show runner Janine Sherman Barrios uses a diverse cast to weave together stories of complex female friendships that have a universal appeal. Of course the characters’ race and gender affects the stakes on Claws, but the writers don’t let the “otherness” define the characters.

BE OPEN-MINDED DURING THE CASTING PROCESS

“If there’s a character on the page, a good actor will come in and bring something to it, and you’ve just gotta be open to what they’re going to look like” ~ Diarra Kilpatrick, THE CLIMB, AMERICAN KOKO, THE LAST O.G.

Former Script Anatomy panelist Diarra Kilpatrick’s web series American Koko deconstructs “sticky racial situations”, and was picked up by Viola Davis’ production company and is now available through ABCDigital. She describes “Inclusion for Dummies” as “just write — write beautiful, flawed, fucked-up characters — and stay open-minded during the casting process.” If you don’t have control over casting, then not specifying any characters’ race can get tricky, especially if you get the wrong casting director, because whiteness is still the default for many. But Diarra advises taking measures to “force casting people’s imaginations to expand. If you’re writing a romcom, and you want to make sure you have accurate representation but don’t want to assign every character an ethnicity, you can just say at the top THESE PARTS CAN BE PLAYED BY ANY RACE OR ETHNICITY. I would literally put that in a script.”

“…Inclusivity doesn’t have to be something you specifically do. It can be casual. Write characters that could be any race. Course there is a problem in casting where, when people think “any race” or “person of color,” they tend to forget underrepresented groups like Indigenous people. So actively talk to people you work with to include groups of people who may not be considered at first.” ~ Lucas Brown Eyes, YOUNG & HUNGRY

Also, be open to an actor changing your mind in the room. Legend has it that, when GREY’S ANATOMY was casting its pilot, it was written into the script that the character of Miranda Bailey was a blonde-haired blue-eyed woman. Her character’s nickname, “The Nazi,” supposedly had to do with her physical appearance as well as her demeanor. But Chandra Wilson walked in for her audition and blew everyone away.

IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING

Don’t just hold yourself accountable, hold your friends accountable too. If a white male friend pitches you his Civil War biopic about an emancipated slave who goes on to serve in Congress, don’t just say “cool, good luck with that” and hope he figures his own shit out. If someone in your writers group describes a female character by her physical attributes, or writes a script in which the only character of color is a criminal, then say something, if you feel it would be worth your emotional labor to do so. Most writers don’t want to write stories full of tropes and stereotypes. But, like we said earlier, we have a lot of deprogramming to do.

And in the writers room, if someone’s positions make you uncomfortable, then don’t go running to HR or make an incident of it, rather see if you can explore the opportunity to have a conversation. The best writers rooms, where the best work is created, are those where people can communicate openly and have difficult conversations.

That said, if your showrunner or a Co-EP pitches something straight out of the DON’Ts section of a workplace sensitivity training brochure, it can be dangerous to stick your neck out. Often HR departments have been weaponized by white show runners who are terrified of any hint that they might not be perfectly sensitive at all times. There is a real danger in this industry of diversity optics, in which people of color are punished for speaking out about storylines/characters from their own community, simply because their white bosses resent the implication that they have anything to learn.

In the wake of the initial accusations against Harvey Weinstein, Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff wrote: “…we work within this culture so that we can amass some power and have a voice. Those who don’t do that — those who shout and scream “this is not OK”, they largely live on the fringes of this town. They don’t get the power.”

Be careful out there!

Donald Glover

PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS

If the 2017 Box Office taught us one thing, it is that your money matters. Movie execs told us that female-driven movies weren’t commercially viable, and holy hell did audiences prove them wrong. People thought a “black” comedy would only gross meager box office numbers, and Girls Trip grossed over $100million worldwide. In the age of information, we can find out who’s behind these movies and TV shows, so if there’s a problem—if it’s a Reservation narrative written by white men with no Native American actors— then don’t see it! (Or just watch a screener, don’t contribute to its box office!)!

A study came out recently that shows less than 5% of writers in TV Writers Rooms are black — and the numbers for Latinx writers and Native American writers working on shows currently in production is even smaller. Prioritize shows whose writers rooms have accurate representation‚—ike Insecure, Claws, Queen Sugar, and the upcoming VIDA on Starz, (created and executive produced by Tanya Saraccho, one of only 3 Latina showrunners currently working).

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