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Not So Black and White Television: Diversity and inclusion in TV shows.

On Dec. 18, 2019, Jeff Probst and the production team of the iconic reality show Survivor announced the theme for the upcoming 40th season: Winners At War. Twenty previous winners of Survivor would come back to the game and compete for the biggest cash prize in reality show history. Fans started buzzing about the season: who would be returning, and how many of them would turn the game on its head.

When the cast was revealed, many super fans of the show were excited. The cast had an even number of men and women, and was incredibly diverse as far as race, occupation, and geographical location. It’s the reason so many people, including myself, love the show. Unlike other reality shows (such as Survivor’s sister show, Big Brother), Survivor has always made an effort to keep the show as diverse as possible.

Over the 40 seasons of Survivor, two individuals have won the game twice. The first to do so, Sandra
Diaz-Twine, is a proud Puerto-Rican American woman and United States Army veteran. Diaz-Twine is known as the “queen of Survivor” by fans, contestants, and producers, and she refers to herself as such.

Big Brother (which is extremely similar in format and airs alongside Survivor on CBS) has had multiple
instances of racial discrimination and exclusion among the houseguests. The current season, Big Brother 22: All-Stars, has stirred up a great amount of controversy in recent weeks. Contestants Nicole Franzel and Daniele Donato-Briones have both lost corporate partnerships after the two said insensitive comments about Ian Terry, a contestant on the autism spectrum. Another contestant, Christmas Abbott, has been called out for nominating two black women, Da’Vonne Rogers and Bayleigh Dayton, for elimination.

The Bachelor franchise, which has had over 35 seasons, has only had two Black leads. Rachel Lindsay
was the first Black lead in the franchise in 2017, and Matt James is set to become the first Black bachelor in 2021. The winner of the 17th season, Catherine Guidici-Lowe, a Filipino woman, expressed her concerns in an Instagram post this past June. “I knew that one of the reasons I was probably chosen was because I was Filipino,” said Guidici-Lowe, “I thought I was there just to check a box”. While she went on to win her season, get married, and have three children, Guidici-Lowe is an example of why it is important to diversify reality television.

This lack of diversity goes beyond race; it affects every minority group in the country. My grandma often asks me “why is there not a Bachelor for senior citizens?” These shows are typically filled with contestants in their twenties and thirties, and the older contestants are more often than not swept to the sides.

The demographic that I feel is extremely underrepresented in reality television is the one closest
to my heart: disabled people. As a young woman living with cerebral palsy, I rarely see contestants on reality shows that look like me. Sure, there are reality shows that are about disabled people, but we seldom see disabled people in mainstream reality shows like Big Brother or The Bachelor. Many times, these contestants are on these shows for what I feel is a way to tug at people’s heartstrings.

So many times I have seen friends and family share videos on Facebook of a girl in a wheelchair singing on a show like The Voice or American Idol. “Wow, this is so inspiring!”, they say. Yet, I see a girl who is being used for ratings and views. We are tired of being tokenized to make the general public feel sad or inspired. We are so much more than our disabilities.

As the new television season approaches, I think that we will start to see more diverse casts. Since George Floyd’s death and the protests that followed, many casting directors are seeing that minority groups do not just need to be represented, they want to be represented.

Shows that keep their casts diverse like Are You The One, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Temptation Island have had consistently good ratings and cultural relevance, and they have some of the most diverse casts I have ever seen. One thing is for certain, though: as our culture grows to be more accepting and loving of diverse voices, so will our television screens.

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