Change the Casting, Change the World
During the South by Southwest Film or Interactive Conferences in Austin, Texas there was a giant ferris wheel that appeared just south of the state capitol building. The ferris wheel that added a touch of boardwalk to the downtown business district was promoting a television show about a computer hacker called Mr. Robot. The show’s cast includes 80s teen heartthrob Christian Slater.
Slater was at the festival to promote and discuss Mr. Robot at the packed panel on “Coding on Camera: Mr. Robot and Authenticity on TV.” I was at the panel because of my Slater fangirl past.
While taking way too-many pictures of Slater I was caught off guard when one of the audience members asked show creator and executive producer Sam Esmail if the choice to put women and actors of color in tech roles in the show was a conscious choice. His answer: it had more to do with the actors who were available, but it was a good thing if it promoted more diversity in technology.
Diversity and access to technology is an important topic that matters to our country. President Barack Obama even addressed the ongoing problem of the “digital divide” (the gap between those who have easy digital access and those who don’t) when he gave the keynote at South by Southwest. Being lucky enough to have high speed digital access at home, I was able to stream his talk his talk from my sofa, without either standing in line for hours or putting on my going-out pants.
After the President spoke, I realized that the issue of what technology means for us as a society is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.
My niece Elizabeth is in high school near Boston and will soon be deciding where to go to college and what to study. Her recent years have included selling enough Girl Scout cookies to go to Europe with her Girl Scout troupe and doing several projects for fun involving computer programming. Over the years she has gone to various camps and events for kids interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Often she has been the only girl at a particular camp.
It was hard not to think of Liz as I went to panel after panel during the South by Southwest Interactive Conference, where I somehow managed to stumble into multiple panels on diversity. I saw a tech keynote on “Elephant in the Valley” with Megan Smith (The White House Chief Technology Officer) talking about women in technology; then I saw a panel with Harvard University Professor Henry Gates and the popular-on-PBS documentary filmmaker Ken Burns discussing current racial tension in America.
What I got from going to these panels is that the substantive issues around diversity and technology and access really matter, but are really hard systemic problems to solve. Yet the question from that audience member at the Mr. Robot panel got me to thinking about media representation and how it might matter for the future.
Research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media about “Gender Bias Without Borders” tells us that “Men outpace women 7 to 1 in on-screen STEM career roles.” Frankly, the only STEM character I can think of from television is Abby Sciuto, the goth fashion plate, tech genius and basement lab guru from the popular television show NCIS.
Since not everyone gets to go to South by Southwest and see a powerful women from The White House talking about technology firsthand, it’s time to change our overlying cultural perception of who gets to do what as a career. It’s time to start making a real effort towards changing the media perception of people who have jobs in STEM.
If studio heads, advertising directors and other cultural influencers made a real effort to find more women and minorities to fill the tech roles in their screenplays, low-budget films, television commercials and print products, it would help jobs in technology seem more accessible to more people. Let’s start changing the real world by changing the default casting of white male actors as lab techs, “IT guys” and tech support.
It’s hard to dream yourself into a technology-oriented future when you don’t see anyone who looks like you doing it on television, movies and video games.
Fixing the systemic issues behind who is working in technology in the real world is a complicated problem, but fixing it in the imaginary world should be totally doable. Changing the casting in movies and television will maybe help people like my niece envision a place for people who look like her in technology in the future.
The issue of diversity is so important that First Lady Michelle Obama addressed it when she gave the talk on “Let Girls Learn” that opened the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival.
“If you’ve got a voice at the table, ask: is there diversity around the table? Are there voices and opinions that don’t sound like yours?” the First Lady said near the end of her talk.
Full disclosure: Hanks’ husband co-heads the Podcast crew for SXSW.