Netflix Wants Women Creators To Be More Than Trailblazers

Priah Ferguson
Priah Ferguson remembers the very first time she saw herself on screen. She was 5 years old, watching Tyler Perry’s 2007 movie Daddy’s Little Girls, and mesmerized by China Anne McClain. 
“It felt like I was watching myself,” she told Refinery29 on a recent phone call. “I had a connection with the McClain sisters through the screen. I felt like they were telling my story. They looked like me, too, so that’s what made me more connected to it, and made the story more believable and relatable.”
Now 14, Ferguson plays that same role for many young Black girls. Her character Erica Sinclair on Neflix’s Stranger Things was the breakout star of the show’s third season, and Ferguson says she’s been contacted by many fans who felt moved by what they saw. 
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“Erica has confidence and brings a lot to the table. She doesn’t just present herself as small, where you get the perception that she needs to rely on boys. She’s a true problem solver. That’s why I think young girls saw themselves in her,” she said. 
The importance of seeing oneself counted and depicted in mainstream pop culture is at the heart of Netflix’s new initiative, $100 million Fund for Creative Equity, announced last week in the wake of a study by Dr. Stacy Smith of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The research, funded by Netflix as a means of accountability, tracks the streaming service’s performance in providing diversity in front of and behind the camera. Netflix has pledged to spend $20 million a year over five years with the goal of creating more inclusive pipelines to give tangible opportunities to a wider array of voices. How does this affect us, the viewer? It means that young girls like Priah Ferguson will be far more likely to see themselves on screen. 
On Thursday, Bela Bajaria, Head of Global TV at Netflix, revealed that $5 million of the funds spent in 2021 will go towards programs that help identify, train, and provide work placements for women creatives around the world. Netflix will use this money to create its own programs targeting increased representation, and will also partner with existing international programs. Among the participating organizations are France’s Collectif 50/50, a year-long mentorship program open to women creatives of various ages and backgrounds; Germany’s Into the Wild, a one year program that offers a script-writing bootcamp to 13 women currently enrolled in film school, with the chance to pitch at a festival; Women in Post, an eight-month program that provides training and mentorship in post-production for Canadian women; and Narrative Short Film Incubator for Women of Color, an incubator with dedicated funding by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers for Latinx women and women of color to produce short film projects.

“’Im proud to work at a company that has brought many female firsts to life in front of and behind the camera: the first Indigenous Mexican Academy Award actress nominee; the first Korean female stand-up special; the first Black woman to direct a superhero movie; and the first transgender woman to ink an overall deal with a studio,” Bajaria wrote in her announcement. “But we’re still only just getting started. It’s why I am more determined than ever to ensure that the next generation of female storytellers has more opportunities than the women who came before them.” 
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Bajaria knows what it’s like to be the first in the door. In 2011, she became the first woman of color to run a major TV studio at Universal, before moving to Netflix in 2016. Growing up, she never felt like she saw herself in the shows she loved. 
“My first memory [of feeling seen] was Parminder Nagra was on ER in 2003 — of course, she was a doctor, but I was like, Fine, I’ll take it because at least there’s an Indian woman on-screen,” she told Refinery29 over Google Hangouts ahead of the announcement. Years later, she would pay it forward by helping to make Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project a reality. 
“You need the first to have the second,” she said. “Somebody has got to give somebody a shot.” 
The USC Annenberg study, which looked at Netflix films and series from 2018 and 2019, showed that the streaming service’s existing productions are already more diverse than their studio counterparts. Netflix outpaced the industry in hiring women, including  women of color, as directors and showrunners, and achieved gender equality in leading roles. Still, the report also showed that the company has a long way to go in terms of accurately reflecting the racial and gender makeup of the United States. Ninety-six percent of stories lacked any women on-screen identifying as American Indian or Native Alaskan. Eighty-five percent  of content studied had no speaking roles for Middle Eastern or North African women, and 68.3% had no Latina in a speaking role. LGBTQ+ characters were also poorly represented, especially trans characters. Meanwhile, characters with a disability made up just 1.5% of speaking roles in film roles, and 2.4% of speaking roles in series.
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“I am pleased Netflix have identified the lack on-screen representation of disabled people, this is something our community has known about and been fighting for for decades, although this announcement and recognition is late, it is a breakthrough and I hope other companies will follow,” disability advocate Keely Cat-Wells told Refinery29 over email, adding that “Netflix’s next challenge is to see inclusion not as a problem to be solved but an opportunity to be had and to take that opportunity with integrity. Additionally I hope they diversify behind the camera as well as in front of the camera and implement universal accessibility throughout the organization.” 
Bela Bajaria
Having more women and marginalized filmmakers behind the camera directly translates to more visibility on-screen, Bajaria claims, which is why the first $5 million is devoted to fostering more talent in that area. “Over 50% of my leadership line are women,” Bajaria added. “These female leaders are in roles in many different countries, and all have green light authority. So even though we have a lot of work to do, I feel optimistic.”
But Bajaria also stresses that beyond giving women that first opportunity, it’s equally important to help them feel supported at different stages in their careers. Netflix aims to partner with film schools to help aspiring creatives learn about new opportunities, but also create pipelines for women who have already shot their first short film or debut feature, and want to learn how to direct episodic television, or who want to make the jump from writer’s room to showrunner. 
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The initiative is also global, a mission Bajaria says reflects Netflix’s commitment to exporting local stories from all over the world, and not just Western Hollywood narratives. Other major Hollywood studios like WarnerMedia, NBC Universal, Sony, and Lionsgate have also developed diversity and inclusion initiatives in recent years, some of which include funds aimed at fostering new talent.  
For Ferguson, watching the company she works for make a tangible commitment to supporting women’s voices is similarly heartening. “It gives me hope,” she says, and a chance to bring something to the table.” 
Though she loves acting, screenwriting and directing are her ultimate goals. “I’m really working on that, even in school, I’m grinding non-stop,” she said. Her idols are Melina Matsoukas and Lacey Duke, whom Ferguson says has offered to mentor her, proving the importance of having an infrastructure in place for women to help others. 
According to Bajaria, the desired end goal of the Netflix Fund for Creative Equity is simple: In five years, the numbers released by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative — which Netflix has committed to releasing every two years into 2026 — will have increased exponentially. “What you hope is with that much training behind the camera, you have more creators, which in turn shows up in front of the camera.”
But as Ferguson points out, just having people who look like her on-screen isn’t enough anymore. “There should be more stories out there for young Black girls,” she said. “We should be leading in those feature films and TV series. It’s cool and all to be the friend of, or the daughter of, but we just need to have our chance to shine.” 

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