The racist TV of the 1970s may feel like a lifetime ago. But how much has really changed when it comes to the representation of BME people in the media? Runnymede Unbound Trainee, Leon Williams, investigates.
It’s no secret that our views are shaped by the images we see in the media. TV and film are particularly influential in how individuals and societies understand themselves. While the media can serve as a self-reference point for individuals, it also allows us to understand ourselves in relation to others – not least of all ethnic minorities. Often depicted in a stereotypical nature, TV shows and films can often contribute to the discrimination and racism we experience.
Such portrayals, however, cannot just be laid at the door of the media – they are often reflective of society itself. With the National Front gaining popularity during a period of economic and social turmoil in the 1970s, shows like Love Thy Neighbour and ‘Til Death Do Us Part – frequently criticised for their perpetuation of racist tropes – remained prominent fixtures on British TV. Though some have defended these shows on the basis that they are a form of satire, their obvious appeal to overt racism means they have not been shown since they first aired.
We have come a long way since then. The problem, however, has not disappeared – it has merely changed. The public is still concerned about the portrayal of British Asians in creative industries, as shown by protests against “yellowface” in a production at London’s Print Room Theatre in 2017. At the heart of such “scandals” lies racism and its relationship with power. Denied the opportunity and lacking the space to tell their stories with complexity, British Asians often find themselves othered, having to play crude stereotypes such as the compliant partner, stern disciplinarian or the exotic other. This is an act of dehumanisation with very real consequences.
With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the continued proliferation of stereotypes, and the general public misunderstanding about the lives of British Asians, several British Asians have been subject to abuse and physical assault over the past year. Such examples are reflective of how reality and fiction can intersect, with one influencing the other and vice versa. Fiction is not distinct from reality – they interact with each other.
While the situation appears bleak, there is evidence of progress. Conscious of the lack of diversity within the wider TV and film industries, several TV networks including ITV, BBC, & Channel 4 have pledged to improve representation in front of & behind the camera. Bursaries are becoming increasingly common, the BBC launched a new creative diversity fund to provide support for ethnic minorities, and the Broadcaster appointed a Director of Creative Diversity in 2019. Alongside such steps, the proportion of ethnic minorities employed within the TV industry has started to reflect their overall representation in the UK workforce.
In the wake of these changes, there is also evidence that the contributions of ethnic minorities are being recognised by critics and audiences. Combining hope and humour into a poignant drama about the trauma experienced by a Black woman surviving sexual assault, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You has received widespread critical acclaim, winning a BAFTA and a Royal Television Society Award. It is clear that, when given the space and provided with the resources, ethnic minorities are not only able to define themselves and their experiences, but they are also able to champion stories that reach broad sections of wider society.
While we should welcome the success of Michaela Coel and others, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of the wider issue, which goes far beyond those in front of the camera. Any discussion of racism within the TV and film industry must also look to address the situation behind the scenes. Influential in themselves, the images shown on screen are shaped and fashioned by the production staff, writers, and directors who exercise power and influence over the direction of television and film productions. And with representation of behind-the-scenes staff from ethnic minority backgrounds declining from 12.3% to 11.8% in 2020, there is still much work to be done.
Considering this, and the fact that ethnic minorities and working class people still often say they are denied the support or advice needed to succeed, we must continue to demand meaningful change. The alternative is a situation in which the images on our screens – though different from those of the seventies and eighties – continue to reproduce harmful stereotypes. Therefore, in the struggle against racism in the media, it is imperative that such a system is subject to change. The equitable treatment of ethnic minorities depends upon it.
Image via BBC