Cancelling Representation: Is COVID Really Culpable?

Whilst show cancellations are an expected part of any television viewing experience, over the course of 2020, fans have started to notice a disturbing trend concerning which shows networks and production companies, such as Netflix, have put on the chopping block. Although in recent months the cancellations, or withdrawals of renewal, for these series have been attributed to complications in filming arising from the coronavirus pandemic, many viewers have been quick to point out that those which have received Netflix’s kiss of death have overwhelmingly been shows which feature diverse casts, female protagonists and LGBTQ+ storylines, along with other crucial representation. 

So how worried should we be that, in 2020, networks are still choosing profit over important narratives? Can we really chalk these cancellations up as “innocent” in the face of COVID-19?

Of course it is important to recognise that these networks are businesses, and sacrifices have to be made in order to keep the company up and running. This can easily account for the loss of shows where the licensing for the characters is owned by another company, such as the Marvel originals, and even for the cancellation of series featuring expensive sets, costuming and special effects, such as Altered Carbon (cancelled in August), though this doesn’t make these losses any less devastating for fans. 

Beyond cost, we must take into account Netflix’s ‘streaming culture’, whereby they drop entire seasons of a show at a time, giving them the unique ability to chart show-growth over the course of the first day, week and month after its release. Thanks to this, they are able to decide much quicker than a regular network if a show’s viewership is worth spending the money to produce the next season, and so a small-but-loyal fanbase doesn’t hold the same weight in the company’s eyes as the chance that a series may become the internet’s “Show of the Month” for multiple seasons.

With all this talk of money, we cannot forget the impact of marketing, which has meant that Sex Education, a fan-favourite which also boasts a diverse cast and storylines revolving around its queer characters, has managed to not just survive the company’s culls, but thrive. Just as other shows were being shut down by COVID fears, filming for the third series began in August 2020. This has sparked many Twitter users to wonder if we would be seeing more diverse stories being told if all shows received this treatment, and not just this diamond among recycled rom-com narratives. 

“We cannot be so naïve as to think that these cancellations have nothing to do with profit and marketability in a world dominated by consumerist culture, however, there are only so many repeats of the same whitewashed narrative that a modern viewership can stomach.”

We can also see the impact of the streaming service’s algorithm on which shows are being marketed to the most households. Often, as shows are released they are featured in the site’s homepage for a number of days, particularly in the ‘Top 10 in … Today’ feed. However, whilst some shows maintain this presence for multiple weeks, others are there only for a day, or never make it at all. Although this prime internet real estate could be connected to the all-important algorithm, Netflix’s runners always have the option to push shows to the top which they want more viewers to see, reducing their chances of low viewership, and therefore cancellation.

As fans point out, it appears that in an overwhelming majority of cases, these series feature white actors in heterosexual relationships. Most recently this was exemplified in the case of Emily in Paris, which received largely negative reviews from casual viewers and critics alike, both for its lack of real diversity and its unimaginative storyline, and yet has remained in pole position on the homepage for over 3 weeks following its release. 

So what shows have we lost in the past few months? Whose downfall has been blamed on the pandemic? 

On social media, the two which have received the most coverage have been the sci-fi/coming-of-age fusion I Am Not Okay with This, along with the Lord of the Flies-esque teen drama The Society. The latter has been praised for its inclusivity, with main storylines being given to strong female leads and actors of colour, as well as queer representation and a featured role for a deaf actor (Sean Berdy). I Am Not Okay with This was equally well received by viewers – particularly fans of the über-successful Stranger Things – for its representations of mental health and grief that were explored through its science-fiction elements, but more specifically for its female lead, along with the writers’ decision to give her a female, multiracial love interest. 

Adding to these cancellations was female-centric wrestling show GLOW, which hosted a diverse cast, and was notably called out for being cancelled before many of its characters, particularly those portrayed by women of colour, were given fleshed-out storylines that the actresses had been promised for its fourth and final season. Additionally, and outside of the Netflix-sphere, was ABC’s crime drama Stumptown, which followed a bisexual leading lady, Dex Parios (Cobie Smulders), along with a host of unique characters from different ethnic backgrounds whose character arcs were not based solely around racial or gender stereotypes. It was also praised for its presentation of PTSD, grief, and its respectful presentation of a main character with Down’s Syndrome, portrayed by actor Cole Sibus in his first television role. 

Much of the backlash from all of the aforementioned shows stemmed from their being axed despite having already been picked up for another season, leaving each of them with unfinished story arcs which viewers felt they deserved to see completed. 

We cannot be so naïve as to think that these cancellations have nothing to do with profit and marketability in a world dominated by consumerist culture, however, there are only so many repeats of the same whitewashed narrative that a modern viewership can stomach. In 2020, audiences expect more from networks who promote themselves as inclusive yet do little more than add a token black or queer character to adhere to a quota, without treating them with the same respect afforded their white counterparts.

What fans are asking for is representation without the bitter taste of tokenism, and an end to the epidemic of cancelling diverse shows ahead of their time, which began long before the virus spread.

Words by Vixi Mann

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