It is a known fact that UK televised content, from casting to cue cards has been dictated since the beginning of broadcasting. This meant that those given a voice in society, those who were seen as valued and respected and treated as such, were also those who read us the news or showed us the weather on the pixelated box. These people were white, predominantly British and majority male. They were every rising TV star and every target audience member, coinciding between sofa and screen. TV was controlled. They were also who we saw depicted in television shows, anyone other than them was shown in a negative light, exposed to harmful, offensive depictions and typecasting.
We know that society is far from fixed and that TV is still very much a filtered and commonly fact-skewed and censored media platform. But TV, and television shows, in particular, have come a long way in the journey of visibility and inclusivity and for once, the horizon for true representation for all looks bright and forthcoming.
Ncuti Gatwa has been named as the next Doctor Who by the BBC. Nctui’s claim to fame came from his beloved portrayal of Eric in Netflix’s Sex Education in which he won the hearts of audience and critics alike for his energetic, emotionally in-depth performance and comedic charm. Nctui was awarded Best Actor Award at the Scottish BAFTA’s in 2020 for his role of Eric, and multiple nominations including Best Male Performance in a comedy programme at the BAFTA’s this year. Nctui is Rwandan-Scottish and will be the first black actor to play the lead role of the Doctor. It took twelve white, male Doctors to get to Jodie Whittaker in 2017, the first woman to play the Doctor. It was problematic for BBC to continue to depict a canonically ungendered Alien entity- a time lord- as singularly white and male. Unfortunately, this was unsurprising because of TV’s history of generic choices and unwillingness to change. However, in the Doctor Who universe, Jody came along and smashed the stereotype and repetitive pattern of the show which considering its long-running screen life and pride of place in UK culture, is a huge achievement for inclusivity. After her time in the tardis, the BBC must have known they needed to go further. It’s 2022. Representation time is long overdue and Ncuti is ready to shine, as showrunner Russel T. Davis stated, “The future is here and it’s Ncuti!”
Yasmin Finney, a current favourite actress of the new Netflix series Heartstopper has just been announced as Ncuti’s co-star in Doctor Who, taking the role of Rose. Yasmin is a black, British, transgender teenager who began to gain an audience through talking about her experiences on Tik Tok before rocketing to her current level of fame as part of the cast of Heartstopper. Yasmin is the third transgender actress to star in Doctor Who. The showrunners appear to be looking to the future within their casting for the new series, by listening to what viewers are calling out for, representation. This will not only keep the long-running series afloat but most importantly provide a clear representation of everyday people who have only begun to recognise and relate to themselves in character depictions on screen, a privilege that many don’t think about because they have always been able to recognise themselves in shows.
When Simone Ashley (costar of Ncuti in Sex Education) was announced as this season’s love interest in Bridgerton which aired in March, there was an outpouring of support from fans of both shows. Simone played Olivia, the friend of a secondary character called Chloe. She had little solo screen time to showcase her range of acting abilities, so there was excitement and intrigue as to what she would bring to Bridgerton. Simone did not disappoint. Her portrayal of Kate Sharma took the absolute world by storm and the established character Anthony Bridgerton (set up to be this season’s heartthrob), took a bit of a back seat as Miss Sharma stole the show, every viewer’s heart and Anthony’s all in one.
This second season of Bridgerton broke Netflix streaming records in its opening weekend and its momentum reached every social media platform and in-person conversation. The show received praise for casting two dark-skinned South Asian actresses as the two main love interests, Kate Sharma and Edwina Sharma (played by Charithra Chandran). South Asian TV and film industry has a history of casting lighter-skinned actresses over those with darker skin in the name of beauty standards, standards that need to be deconstructed.
Talking to Glamour magazine, Ashley said that “Representation matters, and yes, there is a minority that needs to be represented more, and I’m very aware of that… Everyone should be seen. I think we can all relate to each other in some way.”
After being typecast for earlier roles because of her skin colour, Ashley revealed that she couldn’t have imagined being in the role she is now in Bridgerton, “I didn’t really watch period dramas much because I felt like I couldn’t relate to them, maybe because I couldn’t see myself within one.”
Bridgerton flipped the script on period drama’s for the better and the season 2 verdict was that it was refreshing to have insight into Indian culture with the Sharma family, which was beautifully depicted within the episodes. Although, Bridgerton’s depiction of the Sharmas’ culture wasn’t perfect. Complaints were raised with inconsistencies surrounding where the Sharmas are said to be from and the languages they speak. Kate calls Edwina “bon,” which is Bengali for sister. Edwina calls Kate “didi,” which is Hindi for older sister, and both sisters call their father “appa,” South Indian for father. The Sharmas are from North India. Harleen Singh, a professor of women’s studies and South Asian history at Brandeis University highlighted this at the time, stating:
“I’m a little annoyed (…) Do your research. If you’re going to cast Indian women, be specific. Are they from the North? Are they from the South? They say ‘appa,’ but then they say ‘didi.’ True representation actually lies in them making the effort to find out.”
Some viewers interpreted this as Bridgerton trying to represent multiple cultures at once and were pleased with this portrayal. However, whether intentional or not, as professor Singh made clear, these inaccuracies can cause frustration. Shows must put in more work to ensure that accurate representation is met, half researching or mish-mashing languages and cultures leads to inaccuracy and disappointment.
It is worth noting that period dramas before Bridgerton have been bland when it comes to culture, and completely lacking in cast diversity. A unique and celebrated aspect of Netflix’s Bridgerton is its colour-blind casting. The Bridgerton ‘ton’ has no racial divide, in this show’s universe that has been abolished and overcome and this has allowed for the most inclusive and diverse casting ever seen in a period drama to date.
The casting choices within TV this year have sparked encouragement for future representation within shows and films. Colourism within casting is still continuous, but with streaming sites like Netflix creating new shows full of culture, diversity and visibility that have done undeniably well (Sex Education and Bridgerton being two of them) an example is being set for what all TV and film must aspire to and carry out from now into the future. Judging by Doctor Who’s recent evolution, this message seems to have finally reached mainstream television channels as well as streaming sites, and hope is there for the reinvention of casting and content of TV, film and the entirety of visual arts.