What does Netflix’s inclusion report mean for teen content?


Hi, Netflix Lifers! We’re onto March, but we didn’t leave February without Netflix releasing an inclusion report that revealed where the streamer needs to improve with key demographics.

As you know, I recently lamented the glaring absence of Black teen romances in the platform’s original content. To briefly reiterate one point I made, as the king of teen programming, Netflix has to stop primarily catering to white teenagers at the detriment of teens of color if they truly want to be the inclusive platform they tout themselves as being.

Their inclusion report conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith’s team at the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative backs me up on this point despite the data collected not being broken down by age demographic. I say this because the report highlights the disparities on-screen and behind the camera across race/ethnicity, LGBTQ+, and disability lines in Netflix’s original content as it analyzes 126 live-action fictional films and 180 scripted series released between 2018-2019.

While Netflix reached gender parity with 52% of their films and series during that time period being led/co-led by a female-identifying character that equity begins to breakdown once race/ethnicity is factored in. Also, the parity on-screen isn’t similarly reflected behind the camera.

Netflix’s inclusion report should mean improvement in original teen content

Of the 126 films examined, only 27% of above-the-line personnel (directors, writers, and producers) were women, that’s 206 out of a total number of 763. There’s significant improvement when it comes to series considering the medium is an entirely different beast with more opportunities per project.

For instance, 33.8% of above-the-line personnel (which includes series creators in this medium) were women. That’s 2,097 out of 6,195. But while Netflix is either on par or doing better than the industry as a whole depending on what statistic you look at, they’re woefully under-performing when it comes to underrepresented races/ethnicities, LGBTQ+, and disabled characters based on U.S. census population.

Now this is not the case when it comes to the visibility of Black characters. Out of the non-white racial/ethnic groups represented in Netflix original content, the platform is at least meeting equivalent representation based on population percentage. Visibility, however, only speaks to the presence of these characters not the authenticity of their stories or the impact of their narrative representation. Netflix’s latest teen original series Ginny & Georgia is a prime example of inclusion not meaning adequate storytelling.

However, visibility does trump erasure. According to the report, Netflix has yet to meet equivalent representation for Hispanic/Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern/North African, and American Indian/Alaskan Native demographics. It’s also rare to see Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders on-screen. This is true when it comes to leads/co-leads, main casts, and for some races and ethnicities even speaking parts in a film or series. Again, this is made worse when broken down by gender.

If you factor in a character who isn’t heterosexual or cis, they’re more likely to be white which follows the dominance of white stories on Netflix. But also regardless of race, LGBTQ+ characters only make up 2.3% of all leads/co-leads. That’s a total of five films and two series from 2018-2019.

The numbers are significantly better when it comes to main cast members which is 5.3% (a total of 129 projects), but that’s still less than half of the equivalent representation based on population percentage. Not to mention that’s the community as a whole not broken down by lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or other identities under the umbrella nor by gender nor race (the report does, however, include those percentages).

When it comes to characters with disabilities, 5.3% of all leads/co-leads on Netflix at the time had a disability. Basically all of them are film roles considering out of the 16 projects only one was a series. It’s a number that’s drastically different when it comes to main cast members with disabilities which is 4.7%. These characters are more likely to be on a series than in a film.

Now, you’re probably wondering, “What does this have to do with teens?” And I’m here to tell you, it has everything to do with the teen market. Why? Netflix is consistently engaging the 13-18 year old demographic with content primarily created with them in mind.

While I don’t know how the data collected in the inclusion report shifts when the age of the intended audience is factored into the results, it does provide answers concerning the overall lack of diverse stories for teens on the platform when it comes to Netflix’s original content.

The problem is an over-representation of white above-the-line personnel, specifically white men though white women are not exempt from this particular criticism I’m about to expand upon despite Netflix failing to reach gender parity when it comes to behind-the-camera talent.

Of the 126 films examined, 85.4% of them were directed, written, and produced by white above-the-line personnel. That’s 651 directors writers, and producers out of a total of 762. That leaves 14.6% or 111 non-white above-the-line personnel that worked on Netflix originals in 2018-2019.

The results are a streamer that churns out overwhelmingly white stories written by and for the white consumer base. This is true when it comes to series as well with 87.8% of Netflix series creators identifying as white compared to non-white. That’s 231 series creators out of a total of 263, leaving 32 non-white series creators attached to Netflix originals over the course of two years.

If only 17.4% of all Netflix series writers during this time were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, how many shows with diverse casts had issues accurately depicting non-white life experiences and cultures? How many featured a diversity of characters but struggled to develop storylines for them or assumed their presence was enough?

I ask these questions because the report shows that white above-the-line personnel regardless of gender predominately hire and cast other white people. White women are more likely than white men to hire women, but they, too, are biased toward their own race. To quote the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s findings:

"…underrepresented creatives featured more than double the percentage of underrepresented leads, main cast and speaking characters than white directors did. Clearly, underrepresented content creators were more inclusive than their white counterparts when it comes to storytelling and casting. Although more white directors worked on Netflix films, they contributed less to the on-screen inclusion profile of Netflix content. Hiring practices behind the camera should take into account the need for inclusion on screen across all content."

Recognizing their need for improvement, Netflix has started a creative equity fund capped at $100 million dollars designated to support organizations cultivating and fostering talent from underrepresented communities for the entertainment industry. The streamer is also organizing itself via its Inclusion Strategy team to build from within.

Ted Sarandos, co-CEO and Chief Content Officer of Netflix, had this to say about it in the video “Sowing the Seeds: Inclusion Takes Root at Netflix”:

"I think if we’re to ever realize our ambitions around the world, we have to tell stories that reflect the population…In order for us to tell those stories we have to have inclusion on-screen. And the best way to have it on-screen is to have it in writers rooms. And the best way to have it in writers rooms is to have it in our internal community."

All of this, from the inclusion report to Netflix’s transparency/open discussions of their shortcomings and plans for improvement, is a lot of good talk. It’s enough for me to have hope that the streamer does intend to make good on its marketing that emphasizes diverse storytelling being of utmost importance to the platform’s future.

So is the knowledge that an inclusion report detailing the gains and losses Netflix has made in this area will be released by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative every two years up to 2026. But the thing about talk is that you actually have to see the change taking place otherwise it’s just a lot of hot air and ado with very little tangible action.

As such, I’m hopeful but I’m keeping my optimism at reasonable levels. Netflix isn’t going to be able to snap their fingers and fix the company’s biases overnight. But I do believe that the attention they’re giving to where their lacking when it comes to inclusion in media overall will have a positive effect on their teen content.

Part of Netflix’s consumer model is based on the retention of viewers from youth to adulthood. The older members of the Alpha generation are currently growing into the streamers’ pre-teen audience while the younger half of Gen Z make up their teen demographic.

Their generations are influenced and marked by the growing diversity in America as the white majority continues to decline, marginalized groups gain power and representation in various industries, and society’s depiction of whose stories are told and uplifted begins to shift in accordance to these changes. The media provided to them and created for them has to recognize their specific needs.

It’s always been the case that the industry has needed to improve when it comes to non-white, non-cis, non-straight, and/or disabled individuals. We are still unpacking, unlearning, and reflecting on the myriad of content that has and continues to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and inaccurate portrayals of marginalized people.

But we can’t keep having this discussion. We can’t keep recognizing the problem only to get marginally better. Has Hollywood come a long way? Yes, obviously. However, more people need to recognize that there is no goal post. We’re never going to reach a point where the work is done. This is a never-ending project.

Reaching gender parity is great, but you have to maintain it. Improving your inclusion of underrepresented groups on-screen and behind the camera is wonderful, but you have to keep improving. You have to reach equivalence with population and surpass it. You have to think beyond equivalence with population to storytelling.

How much of your original content for underrepresented populations are telling the same story again and again? How many films and series don’t break past contemporary genres? Is nearly every offering about struggle? Who is the story for? Who is it servicing? Are you bringing to life a narrative about an underrepresented person or a narrative about an underrepresented person for the viewing pleasure of the majority?

All of these questions apply to Netflix original teen content because it, too, has fallen prey to the company’s admitted issues with inclusion. Yes, they are doing better than the industry as a whole. Yes, Netflix should be recognized for its efforts to change said industry. But the deck has been stacked for a very long time, so while I wholeheartedly welcome what is certain to be a herculean effort, I’m not going to applaud something that should have already happened decades before Netflix even existed.

What I am going to do is acknowledge the work that each generation has put toward progress and find joy in Netflix, an industry titan, being a part of that history. And, keep my eye on how their changes effects content created for the generations coming into their own as we speak.

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