Let’s talk about the TV series Heroes for a second. Yes I know it ended some five years ago, but clearly I’m not the only one who thinks it deserves some recognition (a new series called Heroes Reborn has just started airing in the US).
I’m not going to echo the frustration many fans felt when the show ended in series 4 somewhat abruptly (in my opinion), or discuss the travesty of seasons 2 and 3 which caused me to take some long pauses before continuing with my recent plan to revisit every episode of the series (it really was a terrible time, with random events that had little relation to the original character story lines, due to the unfortunate timing of a writer’s strike). No, I want to talk about what was so great about the show, and that was the diversity of its cast.
It’s rare to come across a major TV series that has lead characters who are Japanese, African American, Mixed Race, Indian, British and Haitian, as well as Caucasian. The minds behind the series decided to be really smart in their decision to accurately represent the diversity of the human race, and further illustrate the point that anyone can have superpowers; in a world where these exist, obviously.
The first time I watched the series, some years ago now, I didn’t notice this spectrum of people and the underlying message they stood for, but that was probably because I was a self-involved 18 year old, concerned only with perfecting my moodiest look.
These days though, things like that have really started to matter. The countless conversations I have had and heard, about seeing a representation of ourselves on television and film (whether you’re a person of colour or not) have increased tenfold in the last few years. For those of you wondering why it’s even important, think about who your childhood heroes were and how they impacted on how you saw yourself in the future.
As a young first generation Ghanaian girl born in North London, I looked up to the people on television and in films growing up. They represented the magic of what could be if you really put your mind to something; they were glamour and talent and “important people”. But all my television heroes were mostly white Americans. I never identified with the black characters in the shows I watched because they never seemed to have very big story lines, or even stories that I could relate to. The meatier parts were handed over to the Caucasian characters, and I accepted that that was just how things were.
As I got older, I no longer expected to see anyone that looked like me on the big or small screen, unless they were in Eastenders doing some dodgy deal, or playing ‘Gang member number 4’ in some police movie. But then social media arrived and people started talking, and the conversations that were being had in the comfort of people’s homes and at friends houses, became public.
Now there’s shows like Scandal with leading lady Kerry Washington – the first African American woman to lead a major television drama in a very long time. And there’s Viola Davis who just won an Emmy and made an epic speech about the numerous women of colour who have talent but are not given the opportunity to shine. There’s casts like Grey’s Anatomy, and basically there is Shonda Rimes who is killing it. Essentially, the characters these women play may not have lives that are similar to mine, but their characters are complex and human, and their story lines are meaty.
Growing up in London, every primary and secondary school class and group of friends I had, looked like a United Colours of Benetton ad, even if TV or “the rest of the world” that we were shown did not look like that.
So what’s my point? Well for me at the most basic level, seeing someone on television who looks like me in a leading role of some kind, is inspiring. Even if I have no plans to become an actress or director, it gives me some notion that I will one day be able to be in a position where I am respected for my talent alone. This is important, because it fuels my creativity and impacts on how successful I think I can be as a black British woman in society today.
Heroes wasn’t the first series to showcase diversity and help normalise it on TV, but it took a really good go at it. Despite its writing inconsistency (the whole story line about Sylar being Peter Petrelli’s brother was just ridiculous), it made some valid points. For a few years after it aired, there was not much diversity on prime time television, but people seem to have clued themselves up again, and now you can’t move away from diversifying a show without Black Twitter having something to say about it.
I’m not mad about that though, because challenging perceptions is what breeds progress in humanity; in my humble opinion anyway.