When official gatekeepers won't do the work, who does?

“Who Gets To Speak, and When”

“Cripping up” is in the news again; one new TV show definitely features a sighted actor playing a blind character, and it looks like Emily Blunt may be playing a deaf-blind character.  And of course there’s The Silence, soon to be available on Netflix, with a deaf main character played by Kiernan Shipka.

A recent New Yorker article examines the phenomenon of gatekeepers refusing to gatekeep and what happens next, within the context of the Young Adult literary sphere. The author, Katy Waldman, summarized her own article on Twitter with the following intro:

We always hear the same story about YA Twitter: that they’re a pitchfork-wielding, woker-than-thou mob. But another, more accurate story to tell might be one of a publishing industry that isn’t diverse enough to do the kinds of vetting and critique that is its job. Or the story of what happens when a group of unpaid readers — without the power/status of official gatekeepers — do that work instead.

This refers to publishing specifically, but the problem of gatekeepers – the people who make the decisions about whether an idea should become a reality, and how – has been proven to be an issue across a wide swath of media. The new “Road Map for Inclusion” from Judith Heumann provides numbers that show how incredibly under-represented disabled people are in the media.

According to GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV ’18-’19,  only 2.1 percent of primetime broadcast TV series regulars—or a total of 16 characters—have disabilities. A recent Annenberg study found that, across the 100 top-grossing movies of 2016, only 2.7 percent of characters were depicted with a disability, only 2.5 percent of characters were depicted with a disability over the past 10 years, and nearly half of the films across the top 100 did not include a single character with a disability. Of those small numbers of characters, 95 percent are played by non-disabled actors on television. This has critical ramifications for media and society.

This report did not include the numbers on those behind the camera, the ones making the decisions throughout the pipeline, but it’s likely that those numbers are incredibly low. And another report gives us some information about how difficult it is for those who do find themselves in that position:

Nearly 300 diverse TV writers were surveyed, and “nearly three out of four reported facing barriers based on their gender, ethnicity, ability or sexual orientation.”

“We knew what the issues were, many of us had experienced them,” said Razack, whose credits include “New Amsterdam” and “Rizzoli & Isles.” She added, “What we were surprised to see was the level to which it is so systemic.”

Both of these reports include ideas for how to fix these systematic problems. At the same time, we know those problems exist, right now. We know that the gatekeepers are not reliably doing their job, in part because so few of the gatekeepers are members of the marginalized communities that we would like to see represented accurately in the media.

Nobody wants to see a project that has already seen a large investment of time, money, or both be scrapped. At the same time, when there is legitimate criticism, and when the gatekeepers are not doing their job, it’s left to the community to explain the problems and demand better representation.

And this kind of community outcry, from members of the targeted community and, importantly, their allies, can get stuff done. Remember the kerfuffle around Confederate? (Talk about a lack of gatekeepers – how that got past the drunk-idea-on-a-bar-napkin stage, I have no clue.) It seemed like a slam dunk, the creators of the mega-hit Game Of Thrones‘s next endeavor. But after an avalanche of negative reactions, it disappeared without a trace.

In the New Yorker article above, Waldman writes, “The outrage [about reaction to a problematic YA novel] seems rooted in who gets to speak, and when, and how much power their words can wield.”

We need better gatekeepers. But while we’re waiting (and actively trying to get more-qualified gatekeepers in the game), we will keep providing the post-gatekeeping feedback that projects need. And collectively, there’s a lot we can do.

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