We'd all like to think that Hollywood reflects the diversity we see in our communities. There seem to be more people of color in movies and shows in leading roles. LGBT style families were made mainstream and approachable with shows like Modern Family. Female actors increasingly take on non-gender-stereotypical roles. Sadly, excluding the white-straight-male-type characters, most everyone else is either under-represented, or misrepresented. It's a given that people of different sexual orientations or genders and people of color are not shown enough on TV, however today I will focus on three ways Hollywood fails to satisfy when they do finally get their screen time.
By the way, my use of the word “Hollywood” refers to the media as a whole: Tv shows, movies, etc.
1. The Token Character: this type of character is thrown into a show/movie for the sole purpose of appearing to have a diverse cast.
The first type of failed attempt at diversity is something commonly known as the “Token Character,” for example, a “token black guy” or “token Asian woman”. The word token itself is a good indication as to why this type of representation is offensive. This type of character is made up for the sole purpose of attempting to have a diverse cast. They have no important roles in the show or movie, they may be in the background most of the time, or sometimes get a few seconds of highly-tokenized screen time. Its almost as if the network is saying, “Hey, look at us being all inclusive, we have this one Latina here!” If, among a sea of white people, one brown head stands out, that is a token character. Generally, this character feels out of context to the viewers. He or she has no friends or coworkers that look like them, they act like the people around them, but somehow they still can't blend in. Its extra offensive when they are devoid of any culture, because then they can be deemed as “safe” by their white counterparts. The inclusion of this type of character is an effort by the production to increase their viewer base by specific audience targeting. Also, in a world of political correctness, its something tossed in at the last minute to satisfy the masses. It is a lazy and ineffective way diversify the cast of their show.
2. Stereotypical Characters: these types of characters are very clearly defined walking stereotypes of their perspective race/gender/sexual orientation/religion and are often shown in groups.
The second type of failed attempt was one that was brought to my attention when I was in one of my classes at Eastern Michigan University. It was a reading class, and the teacher brought out a children's book and told us to observe the cover. On the cover was (very definitively) a white boy, an Indian girl, a Chinese boy, and a black boy in a wheel chair. On the surface, this may seem like the perfect picture of diverse representation- every kind of person had been shown! Or...had they? The problem here was that every child on that cover was so clearly defined as some type of person- the Chinese boy was pale faced with pointed eyes and a bowl cut, the white boy was smiling and blonde, the Indian girl was dressed in traditional garments with a bindi on her forehead and the black boy in the wheel chair sported an Afro and held a basketball (here, the teacher pointed out that the black kid was being used as a “two-fer” for being both black and disabled).
Where are the mixed-ethnicities and ethnically ambiguous characters? And possibly the most important question: why is each person shown defined so strenuously by their perspective stereotypes?
Not only are these individuals being defined by their stereotypes visually, they are also being shown as displaying those personality/mannerisms that have been attached to them. In the media, when these types of characters are shown in groups, the effect is even more harmful. For example, black men are often shown as violent gang members with a pack mentality, and tells the viewer that they are a monolith, while white men are portrayed as having their own thoughts and opinions. A similar picture can be painted with tens of bearded men yelling angrily in Arabic. Does the word “terrorists” come to mind? This is because of the relentless mental training we all unknowingly endure when watching media of any kind. This type of representation reinforces pre-existing stereotypes and clumps entire groups of people together. Stereotypes confine people they are aimed at, and close the minds of people who are exposed to them.
3. Recycled Characters
Last but not least are what I like to call “recycled characters”. There have been a sprinkling of debates these past couple years about things like comic book characters and iconic movie/TV show characters (Idris Alba for James Bond!!) being played by someone of a different ethnicity than the original. Specifically, I'd like to focus on what I now have come to define as a “cheap and lazy way to gain readers” by the comic giant Marvel. The two comic book roles that were switched up that caught my attention were that of Ms. Marvel and Captain America. Admittedly, when I first started reading about the new Ms. Marvel character, I was really excited. Not being a huge comic book buff myself (hey, manga!) I didn't know much about the original Ms. Marvel.
I did some googling, and wasn't surprised by the results. Of course, being a female comic book character (I say this with my voice dripping in sarcasm) she has completely unnatural body proportions- ginourmous boobs, a big butt, and a waist smaller than the circumference of her head (literally impossible, except I suppose if she took out a few ribs). Ms. Marvel had ruby red lips and long, thick blonde hair that fell down her back and framed her leotard-clad body. She was a typical all-American super hero chick.
The new Ms. Marvel was a boyishly shaped little brown girl with short hair. She is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants living in America and battling the line between her own conservative background and the world around her. Its almost like she was invented specifically for me to relate to! Except....that's exactly it, isn't it? Her story could be the narrative of any second generation immigrant, I am just one of many examples. Marvel clearly tried (kinda) hard to make readers feel like they could relate to their characters. However, if she is so real and likeable, why isn't she good enough to have her own original super hero identity? They simply recycled the name and powers of the old barbie doll character. That's where Marvel's efforts fall short, and my excitement for this character begins to fade.
The same story goes for new Captain America. The only differences between the new Captain America and the old one is his name and the color of his skin. The new character goes by the first name of Isaiah, which is a historically black name. His nose is wide, his lips are poofy, and his dark skin gleams. He is a caricature of a black man, like white Captain America in black-face. I can picture the Marvel conference room now...
Frantic assistant: “Sir! Our numbers show that the average rate of black boys reading our comics is falling!”
Head guy: “Hm...” *pulls out brown colored pencil, fills in Captain America* “Call him Isaiah, problem solved.”
I recognize that I mostly focused on race here, but there is so much content when it comes to women and LGBT issues in Hollywood that it will require a separate segment!
What are some of the other ways Hollywood and the media fail to represent diversity?
What types of characters would you like to see more of in shows and movies?