Racial politics of Netflix series

By Adriana Obertova, Caitlin Reder

Our project is using the visual medium of the video essay to approach racial representation in Netflix original series answering the question:

How have people of colour (POC) been represented in Netflix with a focus on casting in Netflix Originals Series in the years 2012, 2015, and 2018?

As the most rapidly growing video-streaming service (Elliott, 2019), Netflix has re-invented the notion of television, not catering to a national or regional audience but to a global one (Jenner, 2018). This is an interesting tool for the study of International Relations, yet due to its modernity it has not been taken seriously by academics.

Methodology

In our research we focus on Netflix original series in the english language because they are broadcasted globally. Series were chosen instead of the traditional entertainment sources such as films, due to their larger casts, modernity, and increased popularity among viewers. To clarify, measuring racial represntation can be a sensitive subject so when referring to racial diversity and people of color (POC), we mean non-white people with non-european backgrounds.

We chose three years to consider: 2012, 2015, and 2018, which enable us to compare any changes and show how the representation of diversity evolved. 2012 was picked as a starting point when Netflix began to release original series, 3 series were released. In 2015, 12 original series were produced. Finally, in 2018, 12 shows were released and the year was chosen as it is the most recent to refer to. In total, 27 series will be analyzed and only the first season will be considered. This quantitative approach was used when gathering the data for our statistics, an internet background check was completed on each member of the series cast and the results were presented in the form of a video essay.

Theory: How the topic falls into IR debates

Authors such as Lloyd have proven that the aesthetic is political, because we cannot separate the work of art from its production; meaning the time period, and personal beliefs of artists inevitably influence their work (Lloyd, 2019). Bleiker discusses the visual turn in International Relations, and the importance of considering visual aspects; as they represent how politics is perceived and legitimized (Bleiker, 2018). The politics of the visible and invisible is also important to note here. Life is reflected in art, and therefore should be representative of the real world. The lives which are not depicted are “invisible”, in this case people of colour.

Within International Relations, Post Colonialism has concerned itself with the representation (or lack thereof) of non-western people. Post colonialism highlights the impact that colonial history still have in shaping a colonial way of thinking about the world and how Western forms of knowledge (Chowdhry and Nair, 2013). The use of non-traditional sources is appreciated in post colonial studies, usually meaning primary accounts of historical events, but we could also use modern depictions of reality such as Netflix. Post colonialism asks different questions than other theories of IR and allows for not just alternative readings of history but also alternative perspectives on contemporary events and issues, such as representation.

The concrete analysis of the results

In 2012, three series were released, two of which had all-white casts therefore POC are not represented at all. In the talk show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, one out of 13 guests, was African American. Therefore, out of 25 characters,one was non-white which amount to only 4% representation.

The year 2015 shows improvements in regards to racial diversity. In 12 shows, out of 224 characters, 42 are POC. Racial representation increased to 18%. However, shows such as The Last Kingdom and Glitch still had no POC cast. It is important to note that not only the number of POC cast is relevant but also whether they were part of the main or supporting cast, and how they are represented in regards to stereotypes (Miller, 1998). In shows like Better Call Saul, only one main role was played by a POC. Some of the supporting roles were in non-powerful positions eg. assistances, deputies. Some roles did not have full names eg. Abuelita. Furthermore, there were many negative stereotypical roles such as drug dealers or gang members.

However in shows, such as The Returned, River and Dusk till Dawn many of the main roles were POC. An exceptional case was the show Chewing Gum in which almost half of the characters are POC and more than half of the main characters are non-white and avoids negative stereotyping.

In 2018, 150 cast members were analyzed and the result was that 58 were POC, which means racial representation has increased significantly reaching 38%. All but 2 shows, namely Dirty John and Derry Girls, had cats with POC. Although stereotyping has occurred in the show The Alienist, where a Latin American woman portrayed the maid, in general we assessed that the shows tend to successfully avoid negative stereotyping.

We observed that POC are still widely under-represented in casting in a number of shows, such as You, The Guardian Code, Titans and The Bodyguard. However, more shows have proven to increase diversity in their casting. One of these is Black Lightning, where 80% of the whole cast and 6 out of 7 main roles are POC. Another is Unsolved, where 75% of the cast members is African American. The rest of the shows could be located in between with having ¼ to ⅓ of the roles played by POC. In addition, it can be observed that in 2018, shows tend to either have almost no POC in them or have almost exclusively only POC casted.

Conclusion

Our research and video essay reflects the current change we see in our society. Over the past 6 years, representation of POC in Netflix has increased by 34%, proving that Netflix is hiring a wider variety of actors from various ethnic backgrounds. Netflix is catering to an international audience and breaking down post colonial notions of who should be represented in mainstream media. In today’s globalized society international entertainment platforms are an important aspect to research as mainstream media has a powerful effect on how we view our surroundings. As life imitates art, art too begins to imitate all walks of life. Netflix is just an example of our modern post colonial world, where the focus on western civilization is shifting to include our world as a whole.

References

Bleiker, R. (2018). Visual Global Politics. London: Taylor and Francis.

Chowdhry, G., & Nair, S. (2002). Power, postcolonialism, and international relations: reading race, gender and class [Ebook]. Routledge. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/rug/reader.action?docID=180717

E4. (2015). Chewing Gum | What to Expect From Season 1 [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dpm3UcJd3no

Elliott, M. (2019). Netflix Is the Most Popular Streaming Service in the World, New Report Finds. Retrieved 1 October 2019, from https://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/netflix-is-the-most-popular-streaming-service-in-the-world-new-report-finds.html/

Jenner, M. (2018). Netflix and the Re-Invention of Television [Ebook] (1st ed.). Palgrave Macmilian. Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.proxy-ub.rug.nl/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-3-319-94316-9.pdf

Lloyd, D. (2019). Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics [Ebook]. Retrieved from https://www-jstor-org.proxy-ub.rug.nl/stable/pdf/j.ctvb4bshw.5.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A04e34f1d744bc1e50d3cc376b01b2fc8

Miller, C. (1998). The representation of the black male in film. Journal Of African American Men, 3(3), 19-30. doi: 10.1007/bf02902936

NBC. (2018). Champions NBC Trailer [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTAEdW_vnzg

Netflix. (2013). Derek | Full Trailer | Netflix [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hd5WdxGRNG8&t=5s

Netflix. (2015). Better Call Saul | Series Trailer [HD] | Netflix [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HN4oydykJFc&t=44s

Netflix. (2017). Unsolved (USA Network) Trailer – Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. series [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LypX9r33GZY&t=22s

Netflix. (2018). Black Lightning 1×01 “Family Fights back” Trailer Season 1 Episode 1 [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMuB-YQ8XmI

Watch Andy Samberg’s New Comedy ‘Cuckoo’. (2014). [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KS6F57gp5RY&t=6s