Why Does Diversity and Representation on Stage and Screen Matter?
By Vivek Sharma.
Trigger Warning: Discrimination (Racism; Misogyny; Homophobia); mental health; trauma
We throw around the words “Diversity” and “Representation” so much, sometimes I worry that they lose meaning. I feel like we forget the weight of what they stand for. WHY do they matter?! I think that if we want to unpack these big concepts, we need to take a few steps back and first talk about identity. We need to talk about what it means to be “different”.
I did a Verbatim Theatre project earlier this year, and in my interviews I asked each person to sum up their identity in 3 words. I interviewed some amazing people, and I was so surprised by how many of them needed a moment to think. When they did find their answers, many chose words that had to do with their personality: “Empathetic”, “Warm”, “Kind”. Aside from one person, everyone I interviewed was white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, yet none of those words formed their self-identity. After one of these interviews, someone asked me how I would answer that question, and I replied without missing a beat: “Indian. Gay. Artist.” Those three words have done a lot to shape who I am. I’ve lived a significant part of my childhood at war with each of those words, because each of them have been used as a reason to exclude me from various spaces throughout life. Each of those words still exclude me from certain spaces.
I think it will come as no shock to you, dear reader, when I tell you that growing up in middle-class predominantly-white Australia in the 90’s and 00’s, as a Gay Indian Artist, was not the most fun. Okay, I’ll humour you. “Why was that?” Well if we talk about identity, we must also talk about what is considered the “normal” identity. No one sits you down to tell you that a certain identity is normal. But you can tell when you watch TV, when you read books, when you go to school, when you look at the covers of magazines. The image of “normal” is white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, and very often it is masculine. I couldn’t fit into that “normal” image, even if I tried (and believe me I tried). Kids made fun of me for not eating the same “normal” food they ate. They made fun of me for standing like a girl, talking like a girl. They made fun of me for not being “a man”. They made fun of my skin colour. They told me I was ugly, and they told me I was ugly BECAUSE I was Indian. They didn’t understand me because they had never seen anyone like me before, and neither had I. I was different, so for most of my life until I left school I didn’t have many friends.
So I looked for friends in other places. I read books, I watched TV. My friends were the characters who were seen as abnormal or weird. Characters who— like me— felt lonely, ostracised. My friends were Harry Potter. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Spiderman. The X-Men. My friends also felt different, but they had secret superpowers that made them special. My friends helped me to survive a very lonely childhood and adolescence. I related to them in a lot of ways, and they inspired me to tell stories that could help another kid to survive a lonely childhood—they inspired me to become an actor and writer.
I was in year 6 when I first said out loud that I wanted to be an actor. I didn’t really know how to be an actor, so I borrowed books on acting from my school library. But within 12 months of that decision, I realised something… I realised that my fictional friends and the other actors whose footsteps I wanted to follow in were very attractive. If they looked male, they were expected to be masculine. They were heterosexual. Above all, they were white. But… I had always been told that I was none of those things.
When you watch TV, when you read books, when you go to school, when you look at the covers of magazines. The image of “normal” is white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, and very often it is masculine.
I stopped borrowing books on acting.
It was almost another 10 years before I would say “I want to be an actor” out loud again.
I was 12 when I decided that I couldn’t possibly be an actor because I wasn’t white. As a 12-year-old I gave up on my dreams because of the colour of my skin. I might just be able to pretend to be masculine and straight, but I could never pretend to be white and attractive.
Now put yourself in these Given Circumstances. You’re a 12-year-old who has been told for years that you are not normal, you’re different. You now have a dream and you want to pursue that dream… only to connect the dots and realise that only “normal” people have achieved that dream before. What would you think? Would you think there’s something wrong with you? Would you think there’s something wrong with the way you were born? If you think that there’s something wrong with the way you were born, how would you act? Would you try to change yourself? Would you use the internet to try to find out how to become straight? Would you make plans to have conversion therapy one day? Would you try to find ways to look whiter? Would you stay out of the sun to prevent your skin from getting darker? Would you try to cover up the parts of you that people have said are ugly? Would you wear long sleeves and trousers during hot Australian summers because you don’t want to expose the ugly Indian body-hair on your arms and legs to more criticism?
I was 12 when I decided that I couldn’t possibly be an actor because I wasn’t white.
Because I did. I did all of that. I didn’t know that there were words for these thoughts at the time. I now know that the words for these thoughts are Anxiety, Depression, Body-Dysmorphia. We don’t talk about this enough. There is a psychological burden that you bear when you experience discrimination. Discrimination isn’t just about experiencing fewer opportunities, it’s also about experiencing significant damage to your mental health.
It took me years to work through the noise in my brain and decide that I’m okay with who I am, and that I will still pursue acting because I need to tell stories. I’m not in that dark place anymore, thankfully. In the meantime, I lost years of pursuing my dream so now I’m playing catch-up in my late-20’s. I hope it isn’t too late for me. Today, 'diversity and representation' means something different to me—it means employment, income, livelihood.
It took me years to work through the noise in my brain and decide that I’m okay with who I am, and that I will still pursue acting because I need to tell stories.
Let’s talk about some statistics. If I look at the industry, I can draw a fairly good map of what my career might look like as a South-Asian actor, and I can very easily identify my glass ceilings. Let’s start at the “top”. Culturally, the Oscars are treated as the pinnacle of the Acting industry. From the year of my birth, there have been 29 Oscar ceremonies. There are four acting categories, which means that 116 Oscar statues have been handed out to actors during my lifetime. Of those 116 statues, not a single one has gone into the hands of an actor who looks like me; an actor or actress who is South-Asian. Each year, there are five nominees per acting category. Since the year that I was born, there have been 580 Oscar acting nominations. Guess how many acting nominees were South-Asian? One. Just one. That was Dev Patel for Lion in the 2017 award ceremony. One South-Asian nominee out of 580 nominations during my lifetime. That statistic seems scary enough, I don’t have the heart to calculate the statistics across all 92 years of Oscar Ceremonies. To my knowledge, only one South-Asian in history has ever won an Acting Oscar: Ben Kingsley, who is half-Indian, and who played Gandhi. As a Biracial actor, he is white-passing, and from what I have read he used makeup to darken his skin for the role of Gandhi. He also has an anglicised stage name. If the only South-Asian to have won an acting Oscar is an actor who can pass as Caucasian and has adopted an English name, it doesn’t instil a lot of confidence in my own chances. I know that I will never win an Oscar—there’s my glass ceiling.
Today, 'Diversity and Representation' means something different for me - it means employment, income, livelihood.
Asians are the second largest ethnic group in the UK. I may never be in a musical, let alone the lead actor of the musical—there’s another glass ceiling. I could write a whole article about my glass ceilings—I could talk about how there are so few South-Asians who are the lead of a western film or TV show. I could talk about how the South-Asians who become the lead of a TV series are usually also the writer for that show—they have to be a multi-skilled writer AND actor to be the lead. I could talk about the Indian actor Kal Penn who anglicised his stage name on his acting resume as an experiment, and received 50% more callbacks.
Diversity and Representation matter because no 12-year-old should have to change their mind about what they think they can achieve in life simply because of the colour of their skin, their ethnicity, their gender identity, their sexual orientation, their disability.
Dear reader, I don’t tell you these statistics to make you feel hopeless, but to demonstrate what our job prospects look like in this industry if we deviate from the “norm”. This isn’t just about Diversity and Representation, it’s also about Workplace Discrimination. If there are less roles available to me in the western acting industry, it means there is less income available to me. It means I have to work a lot harder than white counterparts to get work.
I write this piece the morning of Chadwick Boseman’s passing. My social media feeds are full of praise for him, and for the characters he brought to life. Overwhelmingly, people are talking about what his work has done for Diversity and Representation. The outpouring of love, admiration, sorrow and loss demonstrate how deeply Diversity and Representation matters to those people who enjoyed his work. And we have more work to do, to share this representation and diversity with other races, with our Trans and Non-Binary siblings, with our friends who have disabilities, and with all humans who live in the intersections.
So why does diversity and representation on stage and screen matter? It isn’t just about numbers, it isn’t just complaining, or “pulling the race card”. Diversity and Representation matters because my dreams should not have a glass ceiling because of the way I was born. It matters because no 12-year-old should have to change their mind about what they think they can achieve in life simply because of the colour of their skin, their ethnicity, their gender identity, their sexual orientation, their disability. It matters because representation expands the idea of who we treat as “normal”, because actually all of us are normal.
Diversity and Representation matters for the underrepresented, because it informs the way that the world treats you, and then the way that you treat yourself. Now do you understand why it matters?