GLAAD does an incredible job of combing through new and returning every fall to figure out who—and not only on the basis of sexual orientation—the networks want to tell stories about. The numbers on series regulars are important because they represent a more significant commitment: it’s not particularly hard for a show to slot in a supporting characters whose main characteristic is his or her gayness, or to cast an actor of color to play a wholly generic supporting character whose role is so slight doesn’t require anyone to think about any potential racial inflection of the part. So as the season gets off to a start this year, here’s what television looks like:
-4.4 percent of series regular characters are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender
-61 percent of gay characters on broadcast television are men
-20 percent of gay characters on broadcast television are lesbians
-78 percent of series regulars are white
-12 percent of series regulars are African-American
-4 percent of series regulars are Latino
-5 percent of series regulars are Asian-Pacific Islanders
-1 percent of series regulars are multi-racial
-45 percent of series regulars are women
-0.6 percent of series regulars on the broadcast networks are people with disabilities
On race, the really egregious representation is for are Latino series regulars—16 percent of the American population is Latino, and this number of series regulars is actually down 2 percent from the previous television seasons. I’m not entirely sure why writing Latino characters appears to be such a challenge for television networks. Maybe it’s that archetypes of Latino characters aren’t as well-established as those for African-American characters, though I think the works of folks like Michael Peña is starting to establish roles like Latino cops that will prove as durable and as easily slotted into shows as African-American police officers and detectives. It may also be that some of the archetypes that do exist, like the volatile bombshell, only work and aren’t awful, stereotypical throwbacks under certain narrow circumstances, and when executed by certain performer like Sofia Vergara, and then not with consistent success. But either way, it’s an embarrassing statistic.
People with disabilities are also dramatically underrepresented on television: the reality’s around 12 percent, and representation’s clocking in at 0.6 percent. Some of this may be a settings issue: 21.1 of people with disabilities were employed in September 2012 as compared to 69.3 percent of people without disabilities, which means that a lot of American television is set in environment where people with disabilities are underrepresented compared to their actual presence in the population. But it’s also a matter of reminding network suits that, in fact, people with disabilities live and laugh and love and have adventures and solve crimes and practice medicine and run parts of government and try cases in court, and that audiences at home can see something other than their disabilities.