Hollywood has a diversity problem.

People of color are underrepresented in film and TV, and when they do appear, they often show up as stereotypes. For young viewers, this isn’t a minor issue; under-representation can be extraordinarily disheartening, and it leaves kids without role models.

image
Empire

The good news, however, is that some studios are addressing the problem. On television, shows like Black-ish and Empire have predominantly black casts, while Jane the Virgin and Ugly Betty introduced American audiences to the Mexican telenovela.

Before these groundbreaking shows went on air, people of color had other heroes that looked just like them. That’s what makes the #FirstTimeISawMe hashtag so powerful.

The Black Girl Nerds Twitter page came up with the idea, and it’s pretty simple. Users simply share the first time they saw themselves represented in the media. Some of the posts are pretty incredible.

“#FirstTimeISawMe was Susie Carmichael,” wrote Twitter user Jess Young, PhD (@JessL_Young), referring to a character from Nickelodeon’s Rugrats. “She had hair like mine and was smart, sarcastic, and independent like me.”

“#FirstTimeISawMe was Akeelah and the Bee,” wrote @ToriTheTeapot. “I remember feeling so happy knowing hood black girls could be smart too.”

Soon, other under-represented groups joined in, sharing the stories of the characters that made them feel a bit more human. The hashtag brought out the best in Twitter, and it was a pretty inspiring sight.

These posts are inspiring, and they point out an important problem.

Science backs up the idea that people of color aren’t adequately represented in media.

Researchers at University of Southern California analyzed more than 21,000 characters and studio employees to assess the film industry’s inclusivity on both sides of the camera. They found that just over one-third of speaking characters were female, while non-white characters spoke a mere 28.3 percent of the dialogue.

“We’re seeing that there’s not just a diversity problem in Hollywood; there’s actually an inclusion crisis,” Stacy L. Smith, one of the study’s authors, told NPR.

Women of color over the age of 40 were “largely invisible,” according to the writers.

“The film industry still functions as a straight, white, boy’s club,” the authors of the study wrote. 

“It’s about who is green-lighting those decisions and who is giving the okay for certain stories to be told,” Smith told NPR. “When a very narrow slice of the population is in control of power and has the ability to green-light a project, then we are going to see products and stories that reflect that narrow worldview.”

“I think we’re seeing, across the landscape, an erasure of certain groups; women, people of color, the LGBT community … this is really [an] epidemic of invisibility that points to a lack of inclusivity across [film and TV],” Smith said.

While people of color wait for Hollywood to catch up, they can at least celebrate the media that gets it right. Be sure to check out the Black Girl Nerds Twitter for more.