The main reason people talk about diversity in entertainment is not to annoy you. I promise you that. It's not primarily an attempt to troll or enrage you into clicking a link, although that can certainly be a result. It isn't primarily to raise the clout or attention given to a specific activist or pundit, although that can also certainly be a result. The main reason people talk about diversity in entertainment, and why a lack of it is a problem, is because we all live in a world of our own making, and so it's vital to do what we can to ensure it's the best possible world as we see it.
When Fusion tweeted out my write-up on Thursday morning's announcement that Stephen Colbert would take over the Late Show once David Letterman retired, our team chose to go with this line: "Stephen Colbert is taking over for Letterman, keeping late night TV exactly the same (Read: White. Male)"
That language prompted responses, as such language is designed to do. One man pointed out that Arsenio Hall is also part of the late night landscape. One voiced the opinion that it doesn't matter what race Colbert is because he's talented. One asked if we'd like some cheese with our whine, and the answer to that is yes, always. If you need to unburden yourself of some Fontina or a wheel of smoked Gouda, feel free to send it my way. And one person said that he understands "the push for equality," but knows that Colbert is the best choice to replace Letterman.
There is little doubt that Stephen Colbert is a talented person and a likable host and interviewer. Many, including those at CBS, obviously believe he's the best choice for the spot. I think he's a solidly ok choice, personally, and also a wild card in many ways (Mediaite's Joe Concha points out a particularly glaring one). Indeed, I said as much in my write-up. But let's focus on why his talent, while noteworthy, is only a small piece of a larger discussion on diversity in entertainment, particularly in late night.
Colbert is not walking into a vacuum. He is entering into a place with a legacy and with an existing culture, and, as Shakesville blogger Melissa McEwan pointed out back in 2009, that culture isn't always a positive one. Indeed, it is at times downright hostile to female employees. It's an issue of power: who has it, who does not, and how it is wielded in a professional, private, hierarchical setting. And, perhaps most importantly, how it is managed and handled — or mismanaged and mishandled — by those in power at the very top. And, again, this isn't something Colbert is complicit in; it isn't his fault. It is simply to note that this is the status quo, that this is what he is walking into. This is how it's been.
When it comes to the public, how a host looks and where a host comes from sends a message — and, sure not always an intentional, calculated message, but it exists nonetheless — about what a network believes its audience to be, and who it is that they most want to see and receive their news and information from. The current crop of late night hosts — Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, David Letterman (and, later, Stephen Colbert), Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart and, yes, Hall and Chelsea Handler — is overwhelmingly slim, straight, white and male. That's not to say there is anything wrong with being slim, straight, white, or male. It seems that, sometimes, people on the other side of the discussion seem to think that proponents of diversity would want to see straight, slim, white men suffer or disappear or be made to feel bad about the circumstances of their existence. This is not the case.
It's not about how people "should" feel. It's about how people "do." It's about dealing with a current reality and an existing culture that sees white, slim, straight, and male as the default mouthpiece for and reflection of American audiences.
Take Chelsea Handler, for instance. She's been vocal about her frustration with being positioned as "the other one," time and time again, among a crop of men. She deviates from what is normal, and is constantly reminded of that, because this is the culture we're living in.
And her concern about being a parenthetical is a big part of why simply having an Arsenio or a Chelsea around is not enough. Diversity is not simply pointing and saying "we got one." Diversity meant to assuage is not actually diversity, but tokenism. Another issue I see facing Hall — and George Lopez's canceled TBS show, while we're at it — is that their respective networks don't/didn't seem to know what to do with these hosts, or how to effectively promote them to a wide audience. In the previous incarnation of his show, Arsenio was a breath of fresh air because he was someone who was able to speak directly to an audience of young black people who loved and consumed comedy and entertainment, and who had long been ignored by most media. But Arsenio was also talented as an interviewer in general, and a genuinely funny person whose appeal extended to people in general who followed comedy and entertainment and who enjoyed his sketches and interview style. He was cool, and he made his cool seem effortless. Contrast this with the current iteration of his show and with George Lopez's show, which both, to this viewer, feel forced, dated, and irrelevant to all but a very, very select audience. (Unless, of course, we're talking about having Prince on as a guest.) There is a difference between catering to a select audience on a select network, and resonating with a broad, diverse audience on a bigger network. A black host, or a female one, or a gay one, or a Hispanic one, or one that is any combination of these things doesn't necessarily need to cater to an audience that looks and thinks exactly like they do. That's not diversity, either. It's good to have those options, sure. But it's also important to have someone bring different experiences and viewpoints and styles of humor to a broad audience, and to exchange the experiences and viewpoints in a way that's beneficial — and also, of course, funny and engaging.
Look at Ellen DeGeneres, for instance, and her success in catering to a broad audience on daytime TV, while also sharing her own experience as a gay woman in the spotlight. Her show isn't about being gay or a woman, and her audience isn't solely made up of gay women, but her experiences as someone who is gay and female (and Southern and famous and awkward and married and a pet lover and all sorts of things) does inform aspects of her show and helps usher in people who might not otherwise have tuned in to a daytime talk show. Or take Key and Peele, who allow their experience of being biracial to inform their comedy, without making comedy that is exclusively about biracial experiences for a biracial audience. And they're garnering great ratings in the process. They're resonating with a variety of viewers while, while building a bridge between different experiences.
And this is why diversity is important. It not only reflects back a changing idea of what it means to be "the norm" in America, but it also teaches networks how to produce and market to an audience not solely made up of straight white males, and how not to think of anyone but straight white males as a "niche" audience that only wants to see and hear from people who look exactly like them. It's not, then, merely about having more people of diverse backgrounds in media — both in front of the camera and behind the scenes (you can check out exactly how many female writers are on staff for each late night talk show) — it's about understanding this audience, recognizing that your advertisers likely already know that they exist and spend money, that they are cultural arbiters in their own right, that they are savvy enough to know when they're being pandered to, and they are part of the fabric of America. It's more than catering to an "acculturated" audience in many ways. It's also about recognizing that the very culture of the America is changing and melding and transforming, as it always has, and that networks and advertisers would do well to recognize that or risk falling behind.
So when people — when I — talk about Colbert being yet another straight, white man walking onto the world's stage, is isn't because I don't think he's talented or doesn't deserve the job or should feel ashamed of himself. It's because it is another indication that American entertainment isn't budging, and that the faces I see and the voices I hear on television continue not to reflect the faces and voices we interact with in "the real world."