An Uproar Over ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Shows the Problem with Diversity
Netflix dropped the entire fourth season of its runaway hit, Orange Is the New Black, on June 17th. As soon as it was humanly possible to have binged all 13 episodes, a flood of think pieces, reactions and reviews appeared online along with an outpouring of emotion from fans on social feeds.
OITNB has been a fan favorite specifically because of the diverse cast of extraordinary actors who embody lives and realities that are typically never seen in mainstream programming.
So, you can imagine the reaction when the writers of the show tweeted a picture of themselves wearing orange, in support of gun rights legislation.
Turns out, they’re almost entirely white. Twitter collectively turned their heads and squinted, then snorted. #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign tweeted, among other things:
“Well at least the dog is brown,” scolded another user. Ruh roh.
So far, the production has avoided a major hashtag meltdown, but the disappointing reveal has resurrected important questions about diversity in television writer’s rooms.
A recent report released by the Writers Guild of America West (WGAW), appropriately called “A Renaissance in Reverse,” reveals that things have stalled badly for underrepresented groups. They make up less than 13% of the writer’s rooms working today. (They get paid less, too.) And a new investigation from Variety found that the showrunners for the fall television line-up are 90% white and 80% male.
“We’ve been working at this problem for a while,” says Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, who knows how hard it can be. Cullen writes and pitches television pilots for a living, and in the last few years has successfully sold five dramas to major studios. Only one pilot was produced, and that’s as far as it got.
It’s now a $6 million treasure safely housed in the CBS vault, despite a diverse dream team cast: Audra McDonald, Jorge Garcia, Hope Davis and Charlie Cox. “It makes you wonder, are they just ticking boxes when they buy a pilot with a diverse character? From a diverse writer?” she says. “What’s it going to take to get these stories on the air?”
Cullen is a member of the diversity coalition of the WGA East, who have been working on a surprising solution: Legislation.
Specifically, a ‘TV Diversity Bill” that’s been kicking around the New York State legislature since 2013. The bill would modify the already successful Empire State Film Production Credit — a $420 million annual tax incentives program — to allocate $5 million towards salaries for writers of color and women for productions in New York. The bill recently passed the NY State Assembly, but didn’t make it through the Senate. “Nobody has a silver bullet,” she says, but this is the only guild pushing for a legislative fix. And no other state legislature has a similar bill in their pipeline. “But they should,” she says.
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It would solve a variety of problems. “The talent pool in New York is already more diverse,” she says. And it would be of particular benefit for people without Los Angeles connections – where most studios and writer’s rooms are located – or who have partners and kids, like Cullen. “We just can’t drop everything and move to LA and try to get in the door.”
So, does it matter that the writing staff for OITNB is almost entirely white? Cullen weighs the question carefully. “You always do a disservice to the viewing public when you don’t draw from a bigger pool to tell stories of any kind, but particularly those that involve race, gender, sexual orientation and experience,” she says.
The opportunity costs for art, storytelling and impact are just too high. Would things have turned out differently at Litchfield Prison if there were black, Latina and Latinx writers on staff? “I have no idea,” she says. “But it makes you wonder.”