Know Your Diverse Audience

Written by: Athena

Edited by: Frannie Sprouls


Know your audience

It’s one of the cardinal pieces of advice taught to all aspiring writers and storytellers. There’s truth in the statement.

With this year’s Oscars yet again being a whitewashed lineup of artists and performers, the question of representation in the entertainment industry comes back into the spotlight. Even one of the largest entertainment industries in the world, cinema, fosters a disconnect from its actual audience. Hollywood has forgotten its audience is more diverse than it actively produces, represents, and rewards. A diversity that is not reflected in story choice, gender, sexuality, race, religion, or even economic standing.

I argue that we, as storytellers and writers, artists and creators, are often missing the element of knowing our own changing and evolving audience. Is it that we can’t see them, or they can’t find us? Are we blocked by gatekeepers? Is our work filtered or conditioned, edited or whitewashed, re-gendered, hyper- or even hyposexualized, retrofitted to an “audience that exists only in the producer’s mind,” a completely different representation from the original creator?

Or is it that creators are as blinded by the market-conditioned representations of acceptable materials as the producers, and create only what they believe will sell or be chosen for mass re-production? Are we selling out in an attempt to simply sell?

Here are some percentages to help you decide.

“This overview is an example of why traditional publishing no longer serves the author and explains why a nontraditional model that straddles the old house rules and the rising independent waves can and will replace legacy publishing in the next five years. It begins with the author, but ends with the audience.

The current figures for traditionally published literary works state that in collected American catalogs for newly launched books, less than 30 percent of the authors were female, 10 percent of authors were nonwhite (Hispanic, black, Indian, and mixed races included), let me reiterate that — 10 percent. More than 65 percent of the writers identified as Christian, with the next largest religious denomination being atheist.” (BlissQuest Publishing Model’s Overview)

Is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that more than 10 percent of the nonwhite population is publishable?

Of course they’re publishable. So why aren’t they being leveraged into the market?

Underrepresented creators are not the only part of the diversity failure in publishing and entertainment. There’s significant under-representation in characters and stories as well:

“Trends note that traditionally published, market-driven books average these statistics: Characters that have lead roles are predominantly male with roughly 42 percent being female, and less than 13 percent of those female roles being nonwhite and 2 percent being nonstraight. Then 70 percent of the religious orientations of characters were characterized as Christian or Judaic and 5 percent being Islamic, Muslim, and other, while the remaining 25 percent were nondenominational, agnostic or atheist.

The average age of female characters in traditionally published adult books is 27 to 34, with a very slim margin, 2 percent, of main female characters over the age of 58.

Interestingly, the female-to-male reader ratio is 2 to 1.

Only 10 percent of traditionally published works from large houses have a character that is openly LGBT; less than 2 percent of those characters have a leading role. Many authors have come forward after publications of certain works to state their characters were gay after the fact, such as J.K. Rowling and Professor Dumbledore—but the fact remains that there were no other gay characters openly or otherwise in her best-seller works for the audience to identify with. Socially normative expectations for sexual orientation or gender identification are vastly different from the actual reading population.

To state the difference, the young adult (YA) population of readers for independent and traditionally published works identifies as 57 percent straight and only 12 percent unidentified. That means 31 percent of the youth YA reader population identifies as LGBT. The current statistics of sexually active young adults between the ages of 14 and 18 is nearly 60 percent, yet less than 21 percent of YA-targeted books include sexual language, or any real explanation on how to navigate around sex, or young adult expectations of sexuality or emotional needs. Talk about underserving a market.

From the audience angle, speculative fiction market has vastly more character diversity in gender, race, and sexual orientation; an important observation since the speculative fiction audience grows by nearly 12 percent annually.” (BlissQuest Publishing Model’s Overview)

Let’s do a little basic audience comparison to the U.S. census data. To give an accurate understanding of American population representation – keep in mind that 1 percentage point represents 2,814,219 humans.

So, a 5 percent disparity in representation doesn’t seem like much until your realize that’s a difference of almost 14 million people being underserved by a demographic lockout.

First, let’s assume we are all audience; we all appreciate entertainment in some format or another.

Secondly, we assume the creator population and audience population are one and the same. (They are, but not all audience will become creators, and not all creators are full-time audience)

According to the U.S. census data, 97.6 percent of Americans largely defined themselves as one race, leaving about 2.4 percent to be accounted for as mixed race.

The male-to-female ratio is 49.1 percent to 50.9 percent—with women outnumbering men just marginally. Still, with nearly a 50-50 split in population, women are published only 30 percent of the time and represented in character about in 42 percent, but statistically only if they are under 40 years of age. (Furthermore, the average rule of thumb for male-to-female speaking parts is 60-40 or 70-30 in order for producers to consider the characters balanced or “fair”—the woman cannot speak or be in scenes more than 40 percent of the time.)

As of 2000, 75.1 percent of the American population identified as white. The census data showed 12.3 percent of the population as being black, 12.5 percent Hispanic, 3.6 percent Asian, and 1 percent Native.

Roughly 25 percent of the population of the United States is “non-white”—yet they account for less than 10 percent of the entertainment industry’s creator profile. (That’s a percentage difference accounting for the underrepresentation of over 42 million Americans.)

Is it any wonder then that we are currently in a politically radicalized environment of ignorance, fear and religious domination, which is finally shedding light on the thin veneer of our understanding of audience?

Audience is not us versus them. Audience is we. We are audience. All of us. We are all storytellers and story lovers. We.

If we don’t represent ourselves in all our diversity, in all media, and in all the rich multitude of ways our humanity shines, we can only expect to be confronted with hate crimes, ignorance, and injustices. If we, as creators, don’t tell the stories that highlight our many glorious human differences, we can only expect to be separated out, judged, attacked, and ostracized by the whitewashing of the audience.

Don’t forget the angry, fearful, masses spouting anti-Muslim propaganda and racial slurs—they are part of the audience, too. They are the audience that has been conditioned by the gatekeepers to treasure their status and privilege. We made them with our lack of diversity, as much as we made the oppressed subversives and the rightfully indignant. We made them the heroes and heroines of the bulk of our white, Christian-based entertainment machinery. We’re as guilty of their attachment to privilege as they are because we’ve shown them nothing else to choose from in the scope of humanity’s story.

We, as creators, are just as guilty of the glass ceiling for women, as those who enforce it, because we have participated in the marginalization of the female gender in entertainment, and encouraged the pay gap by not recognizing female artists in the same capacity as we recognize male artists, and we’ve failed to insist women have the same speaking relevance in books and cinema.

We, as creators, UNDERSERVED them all. Worse, our overindulgence of one demographic of the audience, is actually doing calculable harm to the rest of the underrepresented audience members.

To put it differently:

If you are a gatekeeper, producer, creator, storyteller—you have the power to re-write this reality. You have the power to establish a better balance for the creators, for the audience—the whole audience.

Tell your stories. Tell all the stories. Tell OUR story. The whole, bloody, messy, gritty, beautifully diverse adventure of spinning on this great unlikely rock in the middle of this extraordinary universe.

It’s a story about humanity.

See you there.

Viva la Story.



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