Was 2015 a Big Year for Diversity in Television?

We made tremendous progress, but we still can do better.

Even if you're a casual television viewer, you know the small screen amped up its diversity this year. Just turn on How to Get Away with Murder, starring Viola Davis (a dark-skinned black woman) and also featuring complex gay relationships. Stream Orange Is the New Black on Netflix and watch Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox, a transgender woman of color) navigate her gender identity as supporting lesbian characters deal with love issues. Switch on Black-ish and see Dr. Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross), a biracial woman, exist in a world completely bereft of black stereotypes. Even Keeping Up with the Kardashians stepped into a more inclusive space by featuring Caitlyn Jenner on the show.

Diversity works.

Yes, 2015 television was more multicultural and LGBTQIA-inclusive than any prior year. From black women to gay men and transgender individuals, you more than likely could identify with at least one character on TV in 2015. And that's more than we can say for years past. Here is a list of the most diverse TV shows and their impressive stats:

  • How to Get Away with Murder: Fourth-ranked drama its mid-season finale
  • Scandal: Third-ranked drama its mid-season finale
  • Empire: First-ranked drama the week of Nov. 25
  • Jane the Virgin: 980,000 viewers the week of Nov. 23
  • Black-ish: 4.09 million viewers the week of Nov. 25
  • Fresh Off the Boat: 366,000 viewers the week of Dec. 1
  • The Mindy Project: No ratings available, but it has a 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes
  • Orange Is the New Black: No ratings available, but it has more than 10 Emmy nominations
  • Master of None: No ratings available, but it has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes
  • And it's not just these shows. Our very own Love & Hip Hop continues to rule Monday nights. It is one of the few reality shows that dominate a night of the week--and it features the tangled relationships of a black cast. (Most recently, it broke barriers by featuring a gay couple on the show and aired a special, Out in Hip Hop, which explored homosexuality in rap.) Transparent--a Hulu original which centers on a transgender woman's (Jeffrey Tambor) transition--won big at the Emmys this year. So, what does all of this mean? Diversity works. Mainstream audiences and critics alike embrace multicultural characters. We care about their stories. We want to see us represented on the tube--not just white characters and minorities who depict lazy (and grossly inaccurate) stereotypes.

    Take one look at Denis O'Hare's Liz Taylor, the trans bartender on American Horror Story: Hotel, and you know this is true. Watch Quantico, which has an Indian actress--Priyanka Chopra--in the lead role, and you'll get it. We replaced two white talk show hosts--Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert--with black men: Larry Wilmore and Trevor Noah (who is also South African, yet another layer of diversity). The number one drama on TV right now, Empire, boasts a mostly black cast. Heck! Even the freakin' commercials featured more gay couples this year.

    The pie is still white.

    But it's not enough. This is a smorgasbord of races and sexualities, yes, but we only listed about 10 shows here. There are literally hundreds more on channels and streaming services. As VH1 Big In 2015 with Entertainment Weekly honoree Aziz Ansari noted in a very pointed New York Times essay, we still exist in a very white-dominated pop culture landscape. "Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40 percent of the American population, when Hollywood wants an 'everyman,' what it really wants is a straight white guy," he wrote. "But a straight white guy is not every man. The 'everyman' is everybody." We caught up with Aziz on the Big in 2015 pink carpet, and he talked more about the subject. See the video below.

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    He's exactly right. It seems TV is diverse when presented in an essay like this, but in actuality, these shows are only a small piece of a very large--and still very white, heterosexual and cisgender--pie. We need to see more of the nuanced, multifaceted minority characters present in OITNB on more channels. We need more Sophia Bursets and Liz Taylors and Olivia Popes to reach a point where television diversity isn't an issue--it's just happening.

    Where are the Asians, Africans and plus-sized stars?

    However, it goes deeper than that. Even within these diverse shows, there is still room for growth. Fresh Off the Boat--which we included a clip of below, if you want to check it out--is one of very few Asian-centered shows on TV. Why don't we have more of those, or at least more Asian actors in leading roles? Some of 2015's standout characters include HTGAWM's Annalise Keating (Ms. Davis) and Dr. Bow, but they are African American. Why are producers hesitant to include black people of Caribbean or African descent on primetime? In other words, when Lupita Nyong'o--who has an Oscar--decides she wants in on the TV game, let her play.

    The Mindy Project got the axe from Fox after three seasons due to poor ratings and is now available on Hulu. That's great, but we think Fox should've held onto this critically-lauded show for as long as possible. It's funny as hell, but also includes something unprecedented: a plus-size Indian actress at the head. Yes, Quantico features Ms. Chopra, but she is--quite frankly--model-esque. Mindy is in fact one of the most diverse characters ever, and keeping her on Fox might've opened doors for other plus-size actors to find primetime success. (Like Tituss Burgess' opulent self-titled character on Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. He deserves Thursday night treatment, damn it!)

    Diversity isn't a trend.

    But let's not start tokenizing these people, either. Diversity isn't a trend. The mentality shouldn't be, "Empire is doing well, so let's put more 'black' shows on TV." Empire isn't doing well because it's a "black" show. It's doing well because it has intriguing plots involving three-dimensional characters who are black. Don't bandwagon our TiVo with ratings-chasing minority characters. We can spot that a mile away. And the same goes for adding LGBTQIA characters just for the sake of doing it. That usually leads to stereotypes, which really need to be swiped away for good.

    What does this mean for 2016? It means more diverse characters. It means deeper diverse characters. It means more diverse diverse characters. Let's cross races, genders and sexualities to create dynamic subjects in our entertainment. Let's simply represent the world we live in. Fully.

    And can we make sure everyone gets paid equally, too? That would be nice.