(Photo by Dana Hawley/FOX)
Pride Month Showrunner Spotlight: In June, Rotten Tomatoes will feature LGBTQ+ series creators and writers sharing their perspectives on representation on television and streaming, who inspired them, how the environment has improved, and where there’s still more work to be done.
Karin Gist has long told Black and female stories with her writing, starting with her work on Girlfriends. The series also introduced Gist her to her spouse Claire Conroy Brown, who she married last year after meeting Brown on the set of the sitcom.
Gist has also been a writer and producer on shows like One Tree Hill, House of Lies, Grey’s Anatomy and Star. She was showrunner of mixed-ish and had Our Kind of People on Fox this season. She created Our Kind of People with Wendy Calhoun, and the series was inspired the nonfiction book Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class by Lawrence Otis Graham. The series takes place on Martha’s Vineyard in the aspirational world of Oak Bluffs, a playground for the rich and powerful Black elite for more than 50 years. Gist also co-wrote a draft of Sister Act 3 with Regina Y. Hicks.
In her last three network shows, Gist has woven LGBTQ+ perspectives into the tapestry of the stories. They were also shows with diverse casts or entirely centered around people of color. Gist spoke with Rotten Tomatoes by phone about diversity in the shows she produces and the industry as a whole.
Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: How important is LGBTQ+ representation in entertainment today’s political and social climate?
Karin Gist: That’s an easy one: It’s essential, very important.
When we hear Justice Thomas threatening to reconsider the rights of same-sex couples and marriage, does that make presentation in entertainment even more important?
Gist: Of course, I think it’s always just as important and a lot of people are concerned about that and afraid about that. As a newlywed woman, I’m concerned about that as well. I think it’s just important to continue to humanize our stories and to make sure that everyone sees that we’re all the same. I was just on Facebook too. I have an aunt who I think may have been homophobic — that was what I was told — in the beginning, then I came out. I don’t think she was very happy about it, and now she is my wife’s No. 1 fan. She comments on my friends’ Facebook messages, and she’s just so accepting. I honestly think it’s because I lived authentically in front of her and exposed her to something she hadn’t experienced before. She just saw that people are people and love is love. As cliche as that sounds, honestly I saw it change an 86-year-old woman, so I think it’s important to keep putting those stories out there and just being as honest as we can.
That’s so encouraging to hear that can happen.
Gist: It doesn’t always but it can. Gotta focus on some of the positives.
How do you cope in the face of people who won’t see it?
Gist: Well, I have a lot of areas in my life where you’re confronted or I’m confronted as a gay woman, a woman of color. You just keep going and put one foot in front of the other. Not argue, but try to have conversations. I get angry a lot of times but sometimes the anger doesn’t really lead anywhere.
Anger mixed with action always leads someplace, so I try to make sure that I’m using my anger and using the fire that gets set inside of me on lots of different issues about otherness, to make it sameness and just keep going and telling the stories that are important to me and things that matter to me. That’s the only thing that I can do. The only thing you can control is what you can control, so it’s about just continuing on and doing what I think is right and being an example.
(Photo by Dana Hawley/Fox)
Is representation of LGBTQ+ people of color another important aspect of representation in general?
Gist: Of course, it is. I think it’s important to make sure as we are telling stories that they’re as varied as they are the same. What I mean by that is a lot of times when you have stories about people of color, stories about gay people or trans people, there’s like one story that seems to be the story. I think the more that we can add layers and add humanity and add specificity to those stories, that matters.
So if you’re telling a story about one Black queer woman, that’s not going to be the same experience necessarily as a story about another Black queer woman. I think it’s important that we continue to make sure that we’re all different. It’s the humanity part of it that makes the story universal, and we’re not just doubling down on another stereotype.
How have you seen representation change in filmed entertainment?
Gist: Obviously, tackling some of the stories; for example, the gay story on Dawson’s Creek we all remember, and it felt like a very special episode or storyline. Now, it feels like the stories that we’re able to tell get to just blend in and mix in to just the norm, so I do think that there is more of that.
One of the differences I see that pops out in my mind, I remember when you watch, for example, Friends. A lot of the jokes about gay men or queerness are jokes. I love that show, but you could not say that joke today, thank God. Just being the butt of jokes, I think that’s changed a bit, at least in the programming that I watch.
I’m thankful for that but again, that was just an example of not understanding, for it not being seen enough to not feel real enough to know that you don’t make fun of something that you don’t understand. Again, that goes back to making sure we have representation, on the screen, behind the screen, all of that.
Your last three shows had gay and trans characters. Was it ever a fight or negotiation on Star, mixed-ish, or Our Kind of People?
Gist: Thankfully, no. No, it wasn’t, and it’s just something that I just put into my work. Just again, it’s trying to have a myriad of characters and experiences and things that I experience and see and stories I want to tell. I haven’t had any real pushback, and if I had, I would push back. I would push back myself. Thank God, I haven’t had that experience.
(Photo by Netflix)
What TV series do you look for for inspiration? Or which ones do a good job representing the LGBTQ community?
Gist: Heartstopper, a new show on Netflix. I was so taken by how charming the relationship was between these two teenage boys and how real that felt and all of that stuff that you remember, whether you’re a young woman or a young man falling in love with the same sex or opposite sex. It felt just dead on and relatable. I thought that was just so charming and well done, and that really stood out to me as tackling that topic, because a lot of times we don’t want to just tell the coming out story again. They did tell that story and it was so charming.
I also love The Book of Queer. I just love tackling that from a comedic perspective and also teaching, it’s a show that teaches you about how integral queerness is to our history. I think it’s so well done, and I applaud them for doing that show. I think that show was, I believe, all queer crew and cast and writers which was fantastic.
(Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)
Is having showrunners like Lee Daniels mentor and shepherd other voices important?
Gist: Yes, I do think it’s important. Any time you have someone who has a lot of influence and is the 80-pound gorilla in the room, I think that’s important for any kind of pushing down and knocking down any doors. So I do think that’s important for us to continue to be able to to tell those stories that are important. I think that’s essential as well.
(Photo by © Buena Vista Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)
Will there be LGBTQ+ characters in Sister Act 3?
Gist: The last time I looked at it, yes.
Was that something important in doing a legacy sequel 30 years later to expand the world of Sister Act?
Gist: Yes, it was important. Again, it’s not that it’s something where I try to shoehorn anything in, but you write from your experience and what’s important to you and those things just organically, those characters, those experiences organically find their way into the work.
Thirty years later, how did you approach a legacy sequel to Sister Act?
Gist: I wrote that such a long time ago. I remember studying the movies and tried to figure out a way to retell the story, find a new way to approach the music and to make sure that diversity was still a big part of the movie. That was the way we approached it, Regina and I.
So that was a long time ago. Are you still working on it with Whoopi Goldberg?
Gist: No, I’m not working on it currently.
Are you developing other new shows with LGBTQ+ characters?
Gist: I am, but I can’t really talk about one of them right now. I am, and it’s an essential part of my development.