Shows like Orange is the New Black have drawn ire for their tone-deaf racial storylines. Scarlett Harris unpacks why the lack of diversity in writers rooms is a factor.
Scarlett Harris

12 Oct 2016 - 12:41 PM  UPDATED 12 Oct 2016 - 12:41 PM

In a bid for diversity on television, liberally minded TV writers and producers have sought to depict a broader range of experiences on screen. Sadly, the systemic problems within the industry have failed to address the real issue which is a lack of diversity behind the scenes - starting with the predominantly white writers room.

Orange is The New Black is an excellent example of a show executing storylines with the best of intentions, but improperly handled. Instead, the plot and thematic ideas appear limp and hollow in spirit, which was particularly evident in season four.

For example, protagonist Piper Chapman accidentally incites a race war between white power inmates and the growing Latinx prison population. It results in her being branded with a swastika and gaining sympathy from her white friends and, thusly, the audience. Meanwhile, black trans inmate Sophia Burset, whose family had no idea where she was or whether she was alive while being held in solitary confinement as protection from inmates who attacked her last season, concludes her story with a reconciliation with her tormentor. The death of beloved character Poussey Washington, crushed during a peaceful protest under the weight of an inexperienced and poorly trained prison guard, was used to garner sympathy for her killer.

Many of these storylines see parallels with social justice movements Black Lives Matter, #SayHerName and #ICantBreathe, but OITNB ultimately fails to add anything new to the broader conversation.

A tweet from the OITNB writer’s room account shortly after the fourth season’s premiere in June this year revealed that the minds responsible for creating majority-characters of colour navigating life in a women’s prison were majority lily-white, with debate surrounding white writers insensitively telling black stories ensuing.

Obviously, Orange is The New Black isn't alone, with many other shows also failing to properly reflect an accurate black experience. UnREAL season two, which is coming soon to SBS, has also been criticised for the way it superficially featured #BlackLivesMatter to further a white character’s trajectory.

It speaks to a larger problem of white people telling black stories, a phenomenon since time immemorial. With people of colour being more visible than ever and excelling in myriad industries, there’s no excuse not to cast them in front of the camera and employ them in writers rooms, particularly if said shows insist on co-opting their stories.

A quick survey of the influx of “race-themed” shows during the U.S. 2014-15 season, such as Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Empire and How to Get Away with Murder, indicates that their writers rooms are far more accurately reflective than OITNB’s. In the current ratings season, breakout hits about the black experience Atlanta, Queen Sugar and Luke Cage feature all (or predominantly)-black writers rooms and crews, and subsequently have been met with praise. Whether these shows are making an explicit statement about race (Black-ish dealt with the n-word and police violence, as has Scandal) or are just about non-white people doing things, these shows succeed in dealing with race because they have diverse input from the outset.

At home, Screen Australia is trying to remedy the dearth of diversity on local televisions, pledging not to support drama series seeking funding if they don’t include women on their creative teams and undertaking a landmark study that showed lower representations of minorities on Aussie TV than is reflected in the population. ABC’s Cleverman, though, raised roles for Indigenous actors to 5% (compared with 3% of the population). Screen Australia’s head of Indigenous content, Penny Smallacombe, said “Whilst overall diversity on Australian screens clearly has a very long way to go, what the Indigenous experience shows is when you have Indigenous decision makers within funding bodies and broadcasters, coupled with initiatives that support Indigenous writers, directors, producers and actors, diversity and good entertainment can be one in the same.”

The Family Law and Here Come the Habibs stand out as shows contributing to the, albeit slow, increase in diversity - one more successfully than the other.

It’s an indictment on Australian TV that the most diversity we see on-screen is on reality shows. The U.S. series mentioned above offer a glimmer of diversity in what is still largely a white field, but in Australia the television landscape still leaves much to be desired. Hopefully the response to white writers telling black stories and initiatives such as Screen Australia’s can combine to produce more diverse content both here and abroad.