Marketing the Rainbow
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This article was last updated Jan 9, 2021
Netflix is an American content platform and production company headquartered California. The company was founded in 1997 as the world's first online DVD-rental store by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph. Its primary business is a subscription-based streaming service offering online streaming from a library of films and television series, including those produced in-house. As of October 2020, Netflix had over 195 million paid subscriptions worldwide, of which 73 million in the United States. During the pandemic in 2020 Netflix acquired 16 million new subscribers, which almost doubled the result of the final months of 2019.
The corporate website states: "Netflix is a global company, with a diverse member base, which is why the content we produce reflects that: global perspectives, global stories. We must have the most talented employees with diverse backgrounds, cultures, perspectives, and experiences to support our innovation and creativity. We are an equal opportunity employer and strive to build balanced teams from all walks of life. Inclusion plays just as much of a role in our success as having a diverse team. Our goal is to create an environment where people of different backgrounds can contribute at their highest level and where their differences can make a positive impact for Netflix."
In April 2017, Netflix was nominated for Broadcaster of the Year in the UK's Diversity in Media Awards. OUT already listed 57 shows "With Awesome LGBTQ+ Characters" at the time. This number only grew.
In 2018 Vernā Myers was appointed to the newly created role of Vice President, Inclusion Strategy. Her appointment came two months after Netflix fired its chief communications officer Jonathan Friedland, after he used a racial slur on at least two occasions in the workplace.
A corporate focus on diversity is prerequisite for a believable appearance in content and Marketing the Rainbow.
Netflix has also been accused of "pinkwashing", of using diversity to rake in the "pink dollar" and then dropping it just as quickly. This was even suggested by supposedly knowledgable Dutch author and scholar Linda Duits, an affiliated researcher at Utrecht University, specialized in gender and media studies. Her website says: "Most of my time is devoted to dissiminating academic knowledge. My job is sharing academic knowledge about audiences and popular culture."
She wrote an opinion piece for Amsterdam newspaper Parool in 2019, in which she states "Diverse representation often a pacifier". She continues to say Netflix is not really committed to progressive politics and positive imaging, but only presents a few pieces of bait, and then quickly withdraws when the pink dollar has been raked in - in other words "gay baiting" (similar to click baiting). I have to strongly disagree, and debunked that myth in my (Dutch) blog for Frankwatching and in an article for Gaykrant.
This genre of movies is often about family and love, warm fuzzy feelings, candelight and decorated pine trees. Most of the films are over the top sugary and for some reason, LGBT characters have very rarely played a role. Although it took Netflix until 2019 to release the first Xmas movie with a gay character (Let it snow), it opened the floodgates. All of a sudden, the exclusion of LGBT+ stories from holiday movies became a thing of the past. The 2020 season treated us not only with another Netflix LGBT movie
A New York Christmas Wedding, but also with Hallmark's The Christmas House, Freeform’s The Thing About Harry, Lifetime's The Christmas Setup, Hulu's Happiest Season and Tello's I Hate New Year's - which all followed in Netflix' footsteps.
All streamers seem to be scrambling for our attention and vote. For me a case of great, but a little late. We entered the 21st century 20 years ago. Even the waterfall of LGBT-themed commercials that erupted after the 2015 SCOTUS decision did not lead to a change of policy for the streamers mentioned. Even Netflix was late to the LGBT Xmas game...
Netflix released more original series and films than any other network or cable channel, an estimated 126 in 2016, for instance. On July 10, 2020, Netflix became the largest entertainment/media company by market capitalization.
Netflix sought and was approved for membership into the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 2019, as the first streaming service to become a member of the association.
Netflix has a long-standing history of inclusion and diversity. Autostraddle made an inventory of the content that Netflix had on offer in Dec 2020. They count no less than 95 (!) products, varying from shows where almost everyone is LGBT (Pose, Tales of the City) and series centered on an LGBT character "with lots of gay content" (Feel Good, Gypsy, Orange is the New Black [OITNB], Sense8) to films or series with the casual appearance of LGBT, either with or without a specific story line (Black Lightning, Grey’s Anatomy, Sex Education).
Huffpost wrote in 2016: "If You Want To See Diversity Onscreen, Watch Netflix. Celebrate diversity and chill." They also observed that the Oscars are, always, "overwhelmingly straight, white and male". Industry insiders brought up one advantage of streaming sites that is often overlooked: they’re new at this and aren’t afraid to make up their own rules. "Netflix, Amazon and Hulu don’t need to play by anyone else’s rules, because they all have their own means of distributing whatever they make to potentially massive audiences." In 2020, Netflix was nominated for a record 24 Academy Awards, up from 1, 2, 3, 8 and 15 in previous years. Two were won.
Netflix scores a perfect 100 percent on the HRC Corporate Equality Index.
The inclusion is not just an instance, rare, or used as a token. Seven (!) seasons of OITNB, the same number of Pretty Little Liars, 5 seasons of How To Get Away With Murder. The beautiful revival of Tales of the City, the unique show Special, The Politician - but also teenage series such as Riverdale, the dark comedy Working Moms, the remake of One Day at a Time. Visibility in superhero series Black Lightning, Jessica Jones, Arrow, Flash, Supergirl and Legends Of Tomorrow: all aimed at mainstream audiences, not at niche markets.
Next to their own productions they acquired series like Pose, Glee, Shameless en Modern Family.
That is, for sure, not even close to pinkwashing! On the contrary, the variety of content, and the weight or attention given to LGBT characters is outstanding, and makes Netflix a role model in the world of TV and film.
Netflix puts their money where their mouth is. No sweet talk, tokenism or pacifiers, but full-blown, visible, recurring and sometimes daring representation of LGBT characters in their whole spectrum. Plus they take a stand against homophobia, and is not afraid to let us know, even at their expense.
A trailblazer and role model that needs to be applauded!
There was some criticism in 2018 that the LGBT section on the app's menu would predominantly serve gay men, but this has meanwhile been greatly improved with the L (and to a lesser extent, as always: the B), as well as a very present T. Also, unfortunately such a section is not available in all regions.
OITNB launched the career of Laverne Cox, where she became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. She also was invited to be spokesperson for several brands like Smirnoff, and had a spin-off Billboard top 10 hit called "Welcome Home" (Pose's Billy Porter even reached Nr. 1 with his “Love Yourself” – Pose-A-Thon Version).
Fun fact: Laverne has an identical twin brother, Lamar, who portrayed the pre-transitioning Sophia as Marcus on OITNB.
In The Umbrella Academy one of the seven siblings is gay, while another was non-binary: meanwhile Elliot Page has come out as transgender, and he will appear in the next season as a brother in the sibling set.
Another sign that Netflix is proud of its rainbow content could be seen in both Madrid (2016) and Milan (2018) during their Pride events. Same-sex couples from OITNB, Sense8, Umbrella Academy and Black Morrir were used in abundance to decorate a number of underground stations. They added the slogan "Rainbow is the New Black".
In Milan, the messages became political and read for instance "Nomi and Amenita do not exist". This was in respons to Italy’s families minister, Lorenzo Fontana, who earlier that month had responded to a question regarding the rights of families with same-sex parents by saying, “per la legge non esistono”: under the law, they do not exist. Netflix criticized this with an 'ironic' message of support.
Why is it important to have LGBT characters in movies, series (and advertisements)?
First of all, they serve as role models in a world where young people are bombarded with male/female and blue/pink images. The 'normal' (read: casual) representation of a gay man or woman, bisexuals or transgenders will give young people a more complete view of society. An image of a world that is not binary, and offers a variety of characters, genders and people. Of course, being LGBT is not a choice, but to find your place in the world is greatly helped by role models, other than those consistently presented in schools or in families - on purpose or not.
Secondly, the casual - or overtly present - representation of LGBT's will lead to the normalization and acceptance of their place in society. It should reduce the 'fear' and rejection of queer youth (and adults).
Entertainment, be it TV or cinema, even more so than the commercial messages of brands and companies, play a very important role here. Also see my article Entertainment: an introduction.
Netflix also made (political) statements in countries a lot less LGBT-friendly. In 2018, Netflix Polska (a partner of the Poznań Pride Week and March of Equality 2018) unveiled a colourful mural on the side of a tenement house, with the words “Orange Is Part Of The Rainbow” written next to the character Alex Vause on the background of the LGBT pride flag. One week later, the Polish Defence Minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, said of Poznań Pride: “Another parade of sodomites… If somebody tries to impose something that is not normal on us, then he will meet with resistance.”
It is not just the American or even British productions (with the widest audiences) that show the rainbow story lines: both Élite and Casa de Papel, the two Spanish blockbusters, incorporate LGBT characters, as well as Casa de Flores. A risqué gay Jesus was presented in the Brazilian The First Temptation of Christ - for which they even defied a boycott after a petition signed by 2 million people. The Dutch-Flemmish series Undercover had a thin lesbian and later gay story line. And even an animated show like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power brings "all the representation that you wanted as a kid", acoording to Seventeen.
In Turkey Netflix decided to cancel the production of the new show If Only (Simdiki Aklim Olsaydi), after the regulatory authority RTÜK objected to the script. "Permission to film the series was not granted because it includes a gay character" said Ece Yörenç, one of Turkey's best-known screenwriters. She added that the script included no scenes depicting or implying intimacy between gay characters, despite false reports in the Turkish press claiming gay sex scenes would be shown. Yörenç stressed that this act of censorship was "very frightening with regard to what still may be in store" for Turkey.
According to Netflix, Osman, the gay character, was only a supporting role in If Only, the main focus of the series being on the trials and tribulations of an unhappily married, middle-aged mother-of-two named Reyhan. The show was supposed to air on Netflix in 2021. ‘If Only’ featured some of Turkey’s biggest actors including Birkan Sokullu and Özge Özpirinçci.
Netflix preferred to pull the plug on the production while still agreeing to fully pay the If Only team.
Turkish daily HaberTurk reported that the series' cancellation would cost Netflix $5 million.
When LGBT Americans won the case of same-sex marriage (2015), there were a few states who tried to re-introduce discrimination under the guise of their constitutional Freedom Of Religion or the Freedom of Speech. I wrote about the destructive power of Mike Pence, which cost the state of Indiana several billion dollars, after he tried to strengthen the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" (RFRA) in 2015. But then the focus of the discussion changed to transgenders - and the use of bathrooms. In the 2019 kerfuffle that followed, some of the more conservative states tried - again - to sneak in discriminatory regulations, while trying to 'keep their children safe' in the bathroom discussions. One such state was North Carolina with 'House Bill 2'.
Netflix had initially wanted to shoot its coming-of-age series OBX, set in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, in the show’s creator Jonas Pate’s town of Wilmington, but they decided to move production because of the discriminatory legislation. South Carolina was chosen instead, leaving N Carolina with a loss of income of some $60 million.
When the organizers of 2019's Boston 'Straight Pride Parade', the anti-LGBTQ group Super Happy Fun America (established around the belief that straight people are an "oppressed majority") listed Netflix on its website as a “prospective corporate sponsor” of the event, Netflix sent them a cease-and-desist letter, ordering them to remove the company’s logo from all materials associated with the event. In the email to the parade’s organizers, Netflix said: “You should know that we’re unafraid of bullies. Our legal department is here, it’s queer, and it’s telling you to steer clear.”
Super Happy Fun America said, “it is Netflix that is acting like a bully. We have every right to inform the public about our attempts to gain sponsors for our parade and their hate will not stop us". One of the organizers, John Hugo, a former Republican Congressional candidate for Massachusetts, told CNN Business, "We are appalled at the hateful and bigoted email issued by Netflix. By their highly irresponsible statements they effectively demonstrate the serious need for our civil rights movement." Note: their leaders are known for their ties to white nationalism and the far-right.
15 of the 25 'prospective corporate sponsors' of the Straight Pride parade joined Netflix in explicitly refusing involvement, and some were also threatening legal action.
The also run a solid social media management. When one troll tweeted why Netflix had to 'shove' "an unnecessary gay character into every damn new series", Netflix saw the meme, and they weren’t a fan. “Sorry you have yet to realize that every gay person is very necessary,” they responded. Their tweet got some 650,000 likes and was retweeted 115,000 times - so the followers greatly appreciated Netflix' stance too.
In 2015, when same-sex marriage was legalized in the US, Pride celebrations were exuberant. Netflix participated in New York and San Francisco. They created the first Pride float that put parade attendees in control of the entertainment using Twitter. They focused on representing four shows (OITNB, Sense8, Grace & Frankie and Kimmy Schmidt) by using local drag talent dressed up as characters from each show, performing dance routines to songs from the shows that were remixed for the event. Stars from OITNB and Grace & Frankie joined both parades.
Around 150 employees and their families marched in SF and showed their support. They led the way for the floats wearing “Watch loud. Stream proud. Be an original.” shirts. They created a social conversation, reaching more than 3 million people, by using Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter. 17,500 people opened the Snapchat story with an 84% completion rate. Four posts (2 from each city) receiving 56k likes and 600 comments across four. Four Tweets were sent out or retweeted from the brand. (3k likes across all, 960 RTs).
The float they dressed up for Pride Amsterdam in 2019 allegedly required a total investment of €100,000. They frequently appear in a number of other Pride parades too.