Let me start off by saying I don’t believe wokeness is a bad thing. It’s quite a good thing, actually, that we collectively as a society are altogether progressing towards ideals that are more committed towards fairness, equality, and justice.
This has also been largely reflective in mainstream entertainment media, too. Much has been said about the media’s function as a window and mirror to society, and in recent years, mainstream entertainment has adapted to tell stories that reflect the public’s continuously changing views.
In the midst of all this, new major players in the media landscape have also emerged, with Netflix becoming one of the biggest producers of entertainment media in the world. Far from its beginnings as a mere video-on-demand distribution service, which at one point distributed physical — physical! — CDs, Netflix has since emerged as a titan in the video streaming era; the number one in the world, and has now evolved to become a reputable creator of original entertainment content as well ever since its first original series, House of Cards, premiered in 2013.
These days, to call the service a streaming giant might still be quite an understatement. Now boasting over 158 million paying subscribers and approximately 2.2 million hours of content both original and and syndicated, the very rise of Netflix has all but changed the very nature of our entertainment habits. People are now staying home more than they are going out, even pre-quarantine period, and Netflix has always been consistent in creating entertainment that always fits just right with the current cultural landscape, more often than not touching on themes and issues that are at the forefront of sociocultural discussion.
In 2017, it released 13 Reasons Why, an adaptation of the young-adult novel by Jay Asher. For a considerable time since its release, the show was at the center of social media controversy for its blunt portrayal of teenage mental illness, rape, and suicide. Netizens were divided — some accused Netflix of being too careless in its depiction of highly sensitive issues, while others praised the show’s courage in addressing the very issues itself.
All this buzz, of course, guaranteed one thing — increased public interest, which translated into higher viewership. Since then, 13 Reasons Why has been renewed for two more seasons, although it now includes a trigger warning before each series.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Netflix tackles pressing social issues purely for higher viewership numbers (although it definitely helps). It is, however, more than anything else, an indicative aspect of the way it brands itself towards its consumers. The world we live in today is vastly different from the one we lived in a mere thirty years ago, when the internet was still at its infancy, and global connectivity was yet confined to the limits of television and radio, pen and paper. Today’s hyper-connectivity has resulted in an entirely different generation: one that is more informed about the world, is more accepting of cultural differences, and is more demanding than ever of seeing better and more accurate depictions of themselves and their peers in the media they consume. It is this particular demographic that Netflix now targets to monetize from.
This is, perhaps, what all this boils down to, at the very core. Netflix, before anything else, is a brand first and foremost, whose principal purpose is to win over an audience and sell its content. And if these days that audience is far more selective of its content that fits their values and principles, Netflix will undoubtedly conform to those standards.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing, either, as Netflix as a modern entertainment titan wields significant influence over its predominantly young audience, and thus has the unique capacity to impact millions of young people’s minds through their content. But Netflix is still very much a developing, far from perfect brand, and will inevitably have a few missteps here and there. So far, the brand has been transparent in its goals of “global perspectives, global stories” and has been consistently churning out content featuring diverse characters in terms of race and sexuality. But the larger landscape of representation goes far beyond the screen, and a look at Netflix’s website shows that approximately 50% of their entire staff still compose of white people, with other races — black, Asian, Hispanic, among others — comprising the other half. Actual, genuine representation can only really be fulfilled when there is diversity in those at the helm of the actual stories we tell.