It’s July 2021, and summer is in full swing. This past June has meant a lot to many people – the start of summer, the end of another pandemic school year, and the much-awaited transition back to a hopefully safe public life are all events that have sent people abuzz on the internet. Outside of these extraordinary circumstances, however, June has continued to be a key month for the queer community and its allies, and this past month has been no exception. In fact, Pride Month has become so widely recognized that adopting the rainbow flag as a form of solidarity has become ubiquitous for major brands and companies, especially in recent years. And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve noticed it too – if you’ve been anywhere on the internet, the rainbow colors are hard to avoid.
Maybe the natural reaction to this is to celebrate. That is, if even mainstream corporations are embracing the queer community, then perhaps this is an indicator that progress has been made. However, if examined more closely, it’s clear that some of these brands and companies are only engaging with the queer community as a way to garner approval from these potential customers rather than actually taking actions to support them, which is an act of virtue signaling fittingly labeled as “rainbow washing”. Although this practice has been more obvious in recent years, it’s no surprise that it exists, given that brands have tried to cater to an increasingly open minded youth population since the ‘80s and ‘90s.
All this is to say that mindful consumers, which includes people like us who are passionate about film and television, may benefit from being aware of the intentions behind the creators and distributors of the movies and shows we like. In light of instances of corporate rainbow washing, it’s helpful to cast a critical eye on corporate efforts to push diversity, equity, and inclusion. Are these efforts actually impactful and do they reflect a company’s true values, or are they simply just trying to cash in on what they think is just the most recent “trend”?
Given this framework, where does Yasuke fit into all of this? Given that Yasuke is a show centered on a Black character that was released in the same temporal context as the growing Black Lives Matter movement and shows with increasingly diverse casts such as Bridgerton, and that it follows from the legacy of Marvel’s Black Panther, I think it’s important to evaluate it critically and understand whether or not it represents progress in media towards better representation.
For this analysis, I’d like to look at Yasuke through two lenses, which are limited in scope and that won’t fully address all dimensions of this issue – I fully acknowledge that I’m doing this as an interested consumer and not a subject matter expert.
The first is: was Yasuke itself produced meaningfully – as in, was it produced not just to make a quick buck, but with intentions to create a positive impact? According to this article by Leslie Nguyen-Okwu for Quartz Africa, Yasuke is already making waves for how it not only highlights a Black main character in a positive light, but also for how it’s bringing this positive representation to anime, a medium that is notorious for representing Black people in offensive ways. In a conversation with TIME, Yasuke creator LeSean Thomas and the anime’s composer, music producer Flying Lotus, outlines how breaking these barriers was their goal from the start.
Both Flying Lotus and LeSean Thomas are passionate about both providing proper representation for Black anime fans and “planting a seed” for new Black creators. Proper representation for Black anime fans is especially important because of how underrecognized the Black nerd, or “Blerd”, community is. As explained by Adam Bradley in this NY Times piece, Black nerds have been historically overlooked because of the “cognitive dissonance” created by the persistence of America’s toxic myth regarding Blackness: if Black people are supposed to be “alternately ignorant and emotional or sexualized and cool, the nerd – smart and cerebral, unsexy and decidedly uncool – creates cognitive dissonance”. Proper representation of Black people in media such as anime would be actively recognizing the existence of these fans and validating their existence, and Yasuke works to do just that. As recorded in TIME, LeSean Thomas explains that this dedication to proper representation bled into their creative process, such as in the inclusion of key details such as ensuring that the Black characters’ palms were colored in a lighter tone than the rest of the hand. In Flying Lotus’s words in his conversation with TIME: “I just hope that this project shows the world that there are so many Black anime fans”.
Just as important to Thomas and Flying Lotus was inspiring a new generation of Black creators. Yasuke was, to some extent, a reaction to the dearth of Black creators. Thomas’ intentions are cited in his interview with TIME: “Thomas said that he had expected a wave of Black creators in the animation space to follow after The Boondocks… but it ‘didn’t really happen’… Thomas hopes that Black kids will watch Yasuke and be encouraged to try something similar in the future”.
These sentiments from Thomas and Flying Lotus make it clear at least to me that on the creators’ side, this anime was a passion project created from their desire to see a part of themselves and their community in the things that I love. It’s clear that this anime was made with loving hands, and ultimately, I think it shows in the attention to detail that’s present all throughout Yasuke, especially with respect to its art and music. With these conclusions in mind, I do believe that Yasuke was produced meaningfully.
The second lens through which I wanted to examine Yasuke is: does the streaming site that hosts the anime, Netflix, actually care about diversity, equity and inclusion? Does it avoid the trap of virtue signaling with no tangible action to support the cause it purports to be an ally to?
To be frank, I came at this question out of an attitude of cynicism, and I had fully expected to find that Netflix, alongside other streaming services, would have had no tangible stake in initiatives to improve diversity and representation. I was surprised by what I found, and although I acknowledge that perhaps some of these initiatives could be still rooted in a desire to appeal to a target demographic that’s increasingly young, open-minded, and more demanding of the companies that they support, I still think that these gains are worth mentioning.
First, it’s worth noting overall that streaming services in general seem to do a better job at portraying diverse populations than other television platforms, as written by Ruth Umoh for Forbes. This, however, does not mean that streaming services are unilaterally better than normal television. Umoh’s article reports that Hispanic and Latinx people, which constitute the largest minority group in the US, are still heavily underrepresented across all platforms, showing that although streaming services in general cater to more diverse populations, a lot of work still needs to be done.
In terms of the relative efficacy of streaming services in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, Netflix seems to be leading the pack. In a move to audit its original US content from 2018 and 2019, Netflix collaborated with Dr. Stacy Smith of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to study the gains in diversity that Netflix made across 22 inclusion indicators in those two years. Smith’s study suggests that Netflix improved in 19 out of these 22, which suggests that Netflix is trending upwards in terms of diversity and representation. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reports some other key highlights of the study:
- “Netflix achieves gender equality in the most prominent roles”
- “Netflix’s commitment to racial/ethnic inclusion is increasing over time”
- “Women of color are prominent in some areas in Netflix content, at risk of exclusion in others”
- “‘Strong Black lead’ is more than a marketing slogan”
- “Netflix needs to cultivate storytelling opportunities for specific racial/ethnic groups”
- “The LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities rarely see themselves reflected on screen”
I personally believe that due to Netflix’s own involvement with this study, these results should be taken with a grain of salt. However, the fact that the results are fully transparent for the public to view and that the results aren’t all positive and there are actual action items for Netflix to improve on makes me optimistic that this isn’t simply a publicity stunt for Netflix. It also helps that Netflix has already taken some form of action with respect to these results. As reported by Forbes, Netflix created the “Netflix Fund for Creative Equity”, which will funnel $100 million over five years to external organizations that help individuals from underrepresented communities find success in film and television.
There’s also additional evidence that Netflix’s company values include diversity, equity, and inclusion. In 2018, after the streaming company fired its former PR chief for using the n-word in a meeting, Netflix tapped diversity consultant Verna Myers, the head of a company that consults major corporations on how to promote racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual equality in their workplaces, to be the head of “inclusion” strategy.
It’s difficult to tell how impactful any of these single developments are, which is a qualifier best explained by Dr. Smith, who headed the USC Annenberg study in collaboration with Netflix: “…there have been years when we’ve measured the industry, and there’s been no change. So it clearly has to be one tool in a series of tools for companies to use to create change in terms of how they look internally, the stories they tell, and the storytellers they greenlight for these narratives”. Despite this nebulous conclusion, I think what we can confidently say is that Netflix does offer many people who might not have otherwise chosen to watch programs like Yasuke a chance to do so, which is something that I personally think is worth it.
Ultimately, this is all my personal speculation, with a bit of online research that can hardly be called comprehensive. What I see in Yasuke, though, is a project created by passionate people who have a lot of love for their community and their craft, and I hope that Netflix and other streaming services will continue to support these creators. As Dr. Smith mentioned, the journey to proper representation is a long road, but these individual steps are worth commending and worth encouraging for us to get there. As for me, I hope that I can continue to understand what I watch as a mindful consumer in broader social contexts such as this one, and if you as the reader of this article are inclined to do as well, it may provide you some value, too.