Most Americans accept writers depicting characters of different backgrounds than their own

Oana DumitruContributor
September 19, 2022, 6:48 PM GMT+0

Although the issue of representation in media and entertainment has gained more attention in the past several years, many agree that there is still work to be done to accurately represent various groups. To this end, some have suggested that it is not only representation on screen that matters, but also representation among the people writing characters for the screen. This raises the question: Who can write characters from different backgrounds, and can they write about their experiences realistically?

More than half (57%) of Americans say they think it is somewhat or very acceptable for a white person to write a racial minority character for TV, film, or books, and one-quarter (25%) say it is somewhat or very unacceptable, according to a recent YouGov survey based on a poll YouGov ran in the UK last year. Slightly more Americans (61%) say the reverse is somewhat or very acceptable — that is, writers who are racial minorities writing characters that are white. Similar patterns also hold for gender (whether men should be able to write women and vice-versa) and sexual orientation (whether straight people should be able to write gay or lesbian characters and vice-versa). Compared to the other categories polled, slightly fewer Americans – though still about half – say that it is somewhat or very acceptable for a cisgender person to write a transgender character (51%), or vice-versa (52%).

Although most questions did not show large differences by political ideology, for some the differences were more notable. Liberals were 25 percentage points more likely than conservatives to say that it is acceptable for a transgender person to write a cisgender character. Liberals were also more likely than conservatives to say the opposite scenario is acceptable as well — that is, that a cisgender person write a transgender character. Some of these responses could also reflect people’s opinions on whether these groups should be represented in entertainment at all, regardless of who is writing them — a subject not asked about in the survey.

But perhaps a more important question than acceptability is: Can these characters be portrayed realistically by writers who come from different backgrounds? In most cases polled, more Americans say yes than say no. Half of Americans (50%) say that a white person can depict the experiences of a racial minority somewhat or very realistically, and 58% say a female writer can depict experiences of a male character realistically. Similar patterns hold true for the other groups polled. Americans seem slightly less convinced that a cisgender person can realistically depict the experiences of a transgender person, with less than half (45%) saying they think a cisgender person could depict transgender experiences realistically.

Ideological differences can be observed for some of these questions as well. While 71% of liberals say a transgender person can realistically depict a straight person’s experiences, only 44% of conservatives and 49% of moderates say the same. Liberals are also more likely to say that a female writer could realistically depict the experiences of a male character, compared to conservatives and moderates.

Related: Can writers accurately portray characters of a different ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation? (YouGov UK)

— Carl Bialik, Taylor Orth, and Linley Sanders contributed to this article

This poll was conducted on August 31 - September 4, 2022 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.

Image: Getty (Dougal Waters)

Explore more data & articles