As the Twitterverse debates who did or didn’t write the last seasons of Kim’s Convenience, a report lands showing that white women are making great strides in Canadian television. Asian or Black women? Not so much.
Interest groups such as Women in View, a non-profit dedicated to advancing gender equity in Canadian film and television, take a deep, statistical interest in who is directing and writing the stuff. Their recent report found that the CBC had made rapid progress since 2016 when it made a commitment to gender equity. By 2019, 60 per cent of its prime-time series were being directed by women. On the other hand, most of the private broadcasters have made much less progress. Blend the two together and you get 50-50 parity on directing and a female majority on writing. Well, at least public shaming of publicly funded organizations works.
Meanwhile, women now make up 40 per cent of film writers and directors – good enough for most advocates who consider anything from 40 to 60 per cent female to be equitable. (One nasty truth remains: the bigger the budget, the fewer women involved.) Still, the overall story is that when an industry makes a commitment to equity, change happens.
The report, however, was less positive about the progress of BIPOC writers and directors. Black women and women of colour are directing 12 per cent of Canadian TV shows but writing less than 5 per cent. The report doesn’t say this but, by the way, non-white, non-Indigenous Canadians make up about 22 per cent of the population (although they would be much more heavily present in the urban centres where TV shows get made and media employees live). So if we leave out the men, women of colour have made progress getting directing jobs but are grossly under-represented as writers.
Indigenous people only represent 5 per cent of the population but because of their historic relationship to Canada, I don’t think the proportional representation argument is useful here. The numbers of Indigenous women involved in TV are tiny, less than 1 per cent directing, less than 2 per cent writing, but much higher in film, hitting about 4 per cent in both writing and directing. It is worth noting that these film projects are often self-produced: Indigenous women are making their own movies.
Why should anyone care about all these stats? It’s not simply a matter of job equity. More importantly, directors and writers tend to dictate point of view. That is why the controversy over the Kim’s Convenience cancellation exists. Did Ins Choi, the Korean-Canadian who wrote the original stage play, control the show, or was it really Kevin White, the aptly named showrunner, who took over during the last seasons? Actor Jean Yoon, who plays Mrs. Kim (a.k.a. Umma), said on Twitter recently that scripts for the fifth season were so culturally insensitive the cast complained collectively. She asked to have a scene cut where her modest character unwittingly appeared in nude exercise shorts, and she criticized Mrs. Kim’s MS diagnosis: The disease is incredibly rare among Koreans. After the cast members complained, they were told Choi was taking back control of the season.
This is an imbalance between two male voices, white versus Asian, but the controversy points directly to the belief that stories belong to specific communities and if you want to hear them you have to hire specifically. When it comes to ethnicity, and Indigenous identity especially, the issues become complicated ones of ownership and authenticity in historically marginalized communities. A white Canadian screenwriter can set a murder mystery in the cozy pre-war England of her imagination without risking much more than mockery if she gets the details wrong. Try setting that story among the people of a contemporary First Nation, who have had their culture and language suppressed and their stories appropriated or ignored, and she will be lucky if she’s only accused of gross insensitivity.
The issue becomes balder, so perhaps easier to understand, if you just look at gender. After all, one half of Canadians are female. Of course, male writers can create female characters and vice versa, but if women are writing and directing only a fraction of Canadian TV shows and films you are losing artists more likely to create female protagonists, three-dimensional female characters and themes that bust out of gender clichés. In that regard, the report issued by Women in View makes for rather cheery reading, at least in the television sector. Gender equity initiatives seem to work and women are now well represented in television production.
On the half-empty side, however, if women of colour remain underrepresented as storytellers the same equation applies. You will see more realistic and interesting Black and Asian characters and stories on screen if you have more Black and Asian professionals behind the camera. Part of Yoon’s predicament was that, as an actor, she had to raise issues of authenticity and cultural insensitivity in the scripts she was handed. She wouldn’t have been placed in that unfair position had there been a more diverse creative team in the first place.
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