Beyonce the gatekeeper? How African-American representation in media has evolved

Beyonce the gatekeeper? How African-American representation in media has evolved

n 1968, when the character Franklin walked up to Charlie Brown at the beach, it was the first appearance of an African-American in Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip.

“I’m 60 years old, and 50 years ago, whenever a black person would appear on television, we would crowd around the TV and say, ‘There’s a black person!’ It was such a rare occurrence that any sighting was exciting for the community,” said Charles Whitaker, interim dean at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “So when Franklin appeared in ‘Peanuts’ — I was a huge ‘Peanuts’ fan — it was, ‘Oh, my God! There’s someone like me in the Charlie Brown universe.’ He was a minor character, he barely said anything, there was rarely a storyline that revolved around him, but it actually did mean something to me as a 10-year-old to see a black character in ‘Peanuts.’ ”inRead invented by Teads

To Blair Davis, associate professor in DePaul University’s College of Communications, the way in which Franklin was introduced was also revolutionary.

“He’s at the beach with Charlie Brown and he walks up with a beach ball and they start playing together, like kids do,” Davis said. “No one had to address race directly in the strip, and I think that was progressive in its own way at that time. We’re going to show this new character and say he belongs here, just as much as all these other white characters do.”

Though it feels like progress has been made in terms of racial representation between 1968 and now, has it actually? It depends on who you ask.

According to a new study from USC Annenberg that looked at 1,100 films from 2007 to 2017, there has been “no meaningful or consistent change” in diversity on screen. Overall, white actors make up 70.7 percent of speaking roles on screen. Behind the camera, only 5.2 percent of directors were black or African-American.

Davis cited this study when he talked about the progress made in representation, saying that the raw numbers are disappointing. However, he said progress can be seen in other ways.

“By the early 1970s, you had people starting to wonder if they could put black faces on TV. And two of the biggest black shows were ‘Sanford and Son’ and ‘Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.’ Those shows take place in junkyards. You’re dealing with poverty and a low position of power in society,” Davis said. “Now we have shows where black characters have reached the highest peak of their industry or profession in ‘Empire,’ as doctors and lawyers in ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ So the types of roles that are being offered are much more progressive.”

How else can progress be made? Davis called Beyonce’s role of power at Vogue that of a “gatekeeper” — someone who has creative control in the media industry and selects what content is presented and on what terms. The Annenberg study touched on this as well: “The percentage of black characters in 2017 films increased by 41.8 percentage points when a black director was behind the camera.” Having African-Americans serve as gatekeepers improves racial representation.

Whitaker said that these decisions are not made with social justice in mind, but from a purely financial approach. He explained that fashion magazines in particular have always been elite, traditionally white organizations that people of color haven’t known how to break into — Beyonce’s appointment isn’t an effort to change that tide, but rather an experiment looking to create monetary success.

“What is happening now in 2018 with media in general, the business model is broken, they are losing readers at a stunning pace, particularly for print products, and they are grasping at straws,” he said. “So with Beyonce, you have an international celebrity who is known as an arbiter of taste, and why not try ceding the issue to her? Why not try ceding control? She is a brand. Why not allow her to take her brand, meld it with ours, and see if we can make some magic happen? It is pure economics. This is not necessarily a desire to pry the doors open to people of color; this is, in some ways, a Hail Mary for the industry.”

Davis agreed that true change would come as industries chase the almighty dollar and audiences demonstrate that there’s a demand for truly diverse films, shows and magazines.

“The media industry will follow the money where they think there is an audience, where they can convert that over to advertisers or whatever,” Davis said. “Each industry will follow where there is money to be made. So if ‘Black Panther 2’ only makes half of ‘Black Panther,’ Hollywood will see that as more risky to then follow that with new black characters.” He says, “it’s up to audiences to show us the same pattern of supporting the efforts of people of color when they are given prominent roles in franchise pictures or top fashion magazines.”

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