Stories matter, along with who gets to tell them. They shape our reality and perceptions, influencing how we see ourselves, and how we see others. While progress is being made towards diversity both on screen and off, stubborn pockets of inequity remain.

Wunderman Thompson Data finds that people who are neurodiverse, or who have a disability or mental-health condition, are less likely to feel represented on screen. As for the industry, the “Hollywood Diversity Report 2022” finds that women and people of color are underrepresented among directors and in the writing room. The UK’s Diamond diversity monitor, which tracks representation in TV production, reports that disabled people are the most underrepresented group, followed by the over 50s and transgender people.

Representation can change opinions; the participation of a transgender woman, Linn Da Quebrada, in Big Brother Brasil 2022 provoked a national conversation on transphobia. Representation can also inspire resilience. Dr Jonathan Paul Higgins, also known as DoctorJonPaul, a writer and social justice educator focused on gender, race and media, tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence that when they feel represented on screen “it really is a signal to me to keep going. And to let me know that the pain and the strife that I’m currently going through to find my voice in this industry will have a major payoff one day.”

Conversely, tokenistic or stereotyped representation is damaging, shrinking aspirations and even harming life outcomes. Writer Wajahat Ali explains: “At best, you’re a stereotype, a villain, or a sidekick, not a hero. That corresponds to your role in the country and how you’re treated. And so you self-police your dreams and your ambitions.”

Yet research proves that diverse content sells, all over the world: films with more diverse casting enjoyed higher global box office receipts in 2020, according to the “Hollywood Diversity Report 2021.”

Young Pakistani woman looks at her own outstretched arm. Her hand is open and lined with white, blue and purple light. She is wearing a navy blue, red and gold leather costume with a star on her chest. The background is a blurred city skyline
Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel in Marvel Studios' MS. MARVEL, exclusively on Disney Plus. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved

Testament to that, Marvel’s Black Panther, released in 2018 with a 90% Black cast, is among the highest grossing superhero movies of all time, with global box office receipts of $1.3 billion. 2022 sees the release of a sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, signaling that the benefits of shifting the gaze are now resonating with Hollywood studios. Elsewhere in the Marvel Universe, another inclusive superhero debuted this June: Ms Marvel, the first Muslim superhero, played by Iman Vellani, who appears in a series of the same name. She follows Makkari, the first deaf superhero, played by Lauren Ridloff, who debuted in 2021’s Eternals.

A colorful still from the animated movie Encanto, featuring a cast of Latin characters at night. They are all gathered around a young girl with curly hair and glasses.
Disney’s Encanto features an entire Latino/Hispanic cast

Another box-office hit, Disney’s Encanto, featured an entire Latino/Hispanic cast and was broadly celebrated for showcasing a non-stereotyped view of Colombian culture. Many of the actors are of Colombian heritage, and the filmmakers are of diverse Latin American descent.

Two Black men sit close, with their backs to camera, looking out over the countryside. One has a bare torso, the other wears a patterned shirt with earrings and pearl necklace.
Country Love is Wapah Ezeigwe’s directorial debut

Beyond Hollywood, we’re seeing cinema reflect the nuanced lives of marginalized communities. Nigeria’s Country Love features a femme male protagonist, countering the dominance of more masculine representations of gay men. In India, directors such as Mrittika “Mou” Sarin and screenwriters such as Sulagna Chatterjee are paving the way for mainstream LGBTQ+ stories in Bollywood and beyond. Malaysia is also starting to see a trend towards post-racial film; Ceroboh (The Screaming Sky), directed by Feisal Azizuddin, is a multi-ethnic dystopian survival thriller that offers no explanation why a young woman might have a brother who looks ethnically unrelated to her.

Stories are so important. If stories weren’t important, you wouldn’t see people trying to ban them.

Wajahat Ali, columnist for the Daily Beast and author of Go Back To Where You Came From

The next step is to level the playing field off screen. Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, found that in 2020-2021, 59% of those working in broadcasting grew up in a “professional” household, compared to a UK benchmark of 33%, and 72% are White. British broadcaster Channel 4 was founded to cater to a diverse society and has been a trailblazer in this space for more than 40 years. Its Black to Front Project commits to improving industry representation of Black talent and the 2021 launch featured a full day of Black programming, created by Black talent on screen, behind the camera, and led by a senior Black commissioner.

Driving better Black representation in filmmaking is also the goal of the Converse Create Next Film Project, fronted by the activist and actor John Boyega. Fellow actor Riz Ahmed is partnering with the Pillars Fund to up Muslim representation in the entertainment industry via a funding and mentoring initiative.

Seven people with different disabilities pose against a light blue background surrounded by swirling snow. They are all wearing blue clothing. Four are standing, while three are seated in wheelchairs.
Channel 4’s all-star disabled presenting team at the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games

Another Channel 4 first cast an all-disabled presenting team for its coverage of the Beijing Paralympics. Zaid Al-Qassab, chief marketing officer and inclusion and diversity director at Channel 4, says the broadcaster’s own research shows that having disabled presenters and characters helps audiences value disabled people more. “It helps them move away from stereotypes and oversimplification to think more about the range and nuances of disability.”

Storytelling has a powerful influence on culture and even life outcomes. Ensuring that diverse narratives are centered on screen is crucial, while greater diversity behind the scenes, among content creators, commissioners and financiers, will deliver authenticity and better reflect the real world.

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