Disclaimer: I am approaching this topic from the point of view of a white female, living in one of the whitest metro areas in the country. Additionally, this post will primarily, but not exclusively, focus on the the representations and stereotypes of African Americans in the media (mostly because this is where all the data is).
When I studied abroad in Jordan, I overheard a Jordanian woman telling an American that Jordan has greater diversity than the United States. Considering Arabs make up approximately 93% of Jordan’s population, this is a wildly false statement. However, I can understand where this woman may have gotten the impression that there is no racial diversity in the United States: American television. American TV–particularly American reality shows–are very popular in Jordan, and our TV shows and films are widely (and cheaply) distributed in downtown Amman. And, guys? Our media tells a vastly different story from our reality.
This UCLA report, published in 2014, found that:
- Among film leads, minorities were underrepresented by a factor of greater than 3 to 1.
- Among film writers, minorities were underrepresented by a factor of 5 to 1.
- Among broadcast comedy and drama leads on television, minorities were underrepresented by a factor of 7 to 1.
- Among the creators of cable comedies and dramas on television, minorities were underrepresented by a factor of 5 to 1.
A few weeks ago, we discussed representations of women in media, but didn’t touch directly on women of color. You think that post’s statistics were shocking? Check this out:
Among the top 500 grossing films of the past 21 years, only one live action film has featured a woman of color. And while I love Whoopi Goldberg and Sister Act, the film is kind of ridiculous, and not without problematic racial stereotypes (the sequel is actually much better when it comes to representation of minorities).
The Academy Awards reflect a similar, disturbing trend:
Halle Berry is the only African American woman to have won Best Actress in a Leading Role. Not only that, but she is the only woman of color to have won the award. Only four African American men have won Best Actor (one Latino actor and two Asian-American actors have done the same). So not only are people of color underrepresented in the highest-grossing films, but there is also a distinct lack of representation in the most critically acclaimed films.
The above infographic also reveals who the largely white voters are willing to crown victor when a woman of color does win. The “Mammy” stereotype is a deeply troubling and common stereotype. Other African American women have won Academy Awards for roles as criminals, slaves, and welfare queens. All of these women are great actresses who deserve every drop of praise they have received–I especially admired Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in 12 Years a Slave–but where are the awards for women of color in roles that have nothing to do with the color of their skin? Well, as The Representation Project shows us, these roles are virtually nonexistent.
You would think this lack of diversity in big budget and awards-garnering films would imply that theater-goers are not interested in stories featuring people of color, but fluctuating television ratings tell a different story.
The 2014-2015 television season has the most diverse lineup in years. Not only that, but some of the most diverse shows on network television are also the most popular: Empire, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and Jane the Virgin are all doing quite well in a television season that has seen other shows (in particular romantic comedies) drop like flies. How to Get Away With Murder, Grey’s Anatomy, and Scandal are all ratings beasts, and all feature excellent gender and racial diversity.
However, some TV critics have suggested that this diverse line-up only exists because TV ratings are so low (and that comparatively, it’s not even that diverse). Networks are casting about for an audience, any audience, that will turn on their TVs between 7 and 10pm. And shows with minority leads are cheaper to produce, and have a wide audience. The same thing happened in the 90s–I remember the diverse lineup of shows of my childhood: Kenan and Kel, Sister Sister, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I watched most of these shows in re-runs, but they were all hugely popular when they were airing week to week. But when the networks with multicultural shows started to make more money, they started to produce more and more white (usually white male) led shows. For a more complete understanding of the situation, I would recommend reading Flavorwire’s “Are This Season’s Diverse Shows Ushering In a New Era of Multicultural Television?”
My favorite quote from Miss Representation applies equally well to the problematic representation of people of color: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Here’s the evidence:
But it goes further than a lack of jobs and political leadership. We talked last week about institutionalized racism and implicit bias–biases that are often perpetuated by the media. In the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO last summer, traditional news outlets partook in a smear campaign against Michael Brown. It was subtle, but CNN, Fox News, and other outlets chose to focus not on the tragic death of an unarmed teenager, but on Brown’s theft of cigars, stating that he was “no angel.”
In my last post, I cited a number of jarring statistics: one out of three black males will be incarcerated in his lifetime, prison sentences are (on average) 20% longer for black males than for white males (for the same crime), black students are three and a half times more likely to be suspended than white students.
Isn’t it just possible that a lack of people of color in the media, the presence of damaging stereotypes surrounding people of color who do manage to get on TV, contribute to the treatment of victims like Michael Brown, and these awful statistics? Because it couldn’t be more clear to me.
I realize I didn’t include any videos in today’s post. Don’t worry though–I’m planning a post for tomorrow that will heavily feature videos and film recommendations.