Media and film go far beyond being forms of entertainment. Through their way of storytelling, they play an enormous role in the way we understand and shape our culture. How inclusive are the current industries, and how much do they put across in terms of diversified content? Read on to find out!
In a generation with peaking technology and social culture, we’ve spent most of our time in front of televisions, laptops, and mobile phones from the day we began to walk. We’ve grown up watching and absorbing information and have built ourselves a personality from everything we’ve heard, seen, and listened to. Television shows, movies, etc. are more than just merry forms of entertainment; they’re a possible perception of what or who we can become. The representation of marginalised groups is very scarce, especially in the western media. This includes women, people of colour, body shapes, and types. LBGTQA+ community, and differently-abled persons. There has been a steady increase in diversity in media, but progress has been long and slow. Most of the time, it is inaccurate, leaving the community with fewer role models. We need a social culture that’s inclusive of people from different races, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and culture, allowing everyone to be recognised as entirely human.
Having grown up watching my mum and grandma peel peas, with their eye fixated on the television screen, keenly engrossed in the life of a fictional, young, cultured, respectable, sanskaari— Prerna. In her quest to obtain that one thing, standard in every serial, she is seen wanting the one thing “every woman” craves—the validation and love of a man. She fights her way, defeating several other women whose lives revolve around this one man, losing herself entirely, and ultimately, through sacrifices, achieves her goal. Which coincidentally happens to be the premise of every serial shown on television. Statistically, by the weekly viewership—TV audience count, Star Plus stood as the second most viewed channel from the 26th September to 2nd October 2020. We gather that the majority of the audience views such an inaccurate depiction of women in these serials.
A leap from TV serials to Bollywood, where the Bechdel test—an informal way to evaluate bias against women in films and other media, a work is said to pass the Bechdel test if it 1) had two (named) women, who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man. Although we want inclusivity, here, we are mainly focusing on the primary representation of women. Out of fourteen movies in the 2019 Bechdel test, sadly, only two manage to pass through the required criteria. While we aim to have progressive and empowered women on television, directors like Sandeep Reddy continue to make movies like Kabir Singh, having a misogynistic storyline and women solely dependant on men.
In the last thirty years, we have witnessed immense changes in the world of media. This can be seen in many forms of representation and none more than representing the LGBTQ+ community. No longer relegated to the realms of innuendo and secrecy, we now see lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people represented on television and in mainstream film. People who identify as queer see their reflections on screen in a primarily positive light: stable, employed, charming, attractive, well-liked, and successful. And yet, there remain many challenges. Some of them include stereotypes of gay men being portrayed as promiscuous, flashy, flamboyant, and bold, while the reverse is often true of how lesbians are portrayed. Media representations of bisexual and transgender people tend to either completely erase them or depict them as morally corrupt or mentally unstable. This happens not just in the Hollywood industry but all over the world. The media commonly misinterpret gay and lesbian families because society frequently equates sexual orientation with the ability to reproduce. As well, gay and lesbian characters are rarely the main character in movies; they often play the role of stereotyped supporting characters or are portrayed as a victim or villain in action movies and as the flamboyant best friend in Romcoms. LGBTQ representation lacks child-related entertainment, making it difficult for kids of a younger age to discover themselves if they feel infatuated with people of the same gender. The LGBTQ community has been targeted time and again by marketers and studios as a way to mint cash in the name of representation. They are often used as props to spice up the storyline—this is seen in various shows in recent times like Riverdale or Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Creators often tend to shy away from representing non-binary and Asexual characters in their shows. This happens because people find it very difficult to not process and conceptualise gender as performative. In this case, non-binary gender in the media attributes legibility and coherence to that concept. Since there is a lack of repetition or multiple productions of representation of non-binary gender in the media, that absence will continue until such a time when there are more repeated representations of non-binary gender in the media. The lack of asexual representation can be attributed to the fact that people often view it as a “lack” of something, making it difficult for money-minded marketers who look forward to seeing spice on-screen to give them proper representation. Therefore, when it comes down, characters who identify themselves as non-binary or asexual are often not the main characters or the focus of storylines or tend to be framed around a mindset of needing to be fixed or changed.
Seeing the people of the LGBT community in the media has brought about more acceptance. Before this, most people had rigid stereotypes and conflicting opinions on inclusivity. This caused an enormous amount of misrepresentation in film and media. Many artists have come out of the closet in recent times, making it easier for regular people struggling with their sexuality. To accept themselves and feel confident about their identities. Even with all the misrepresentation, some movies and shows portray the love trope for the LQBTQ+ community beautifully.
Racism has defined the Hollywood film industry since its birth in the early 1900s. Job exclusion and racially stereotyped roles have put the Asian community behind the Caucasian race by twenty years and the African community by almost fifty years. Asian characters in the early days of Hollywood mostly appeared in the form of racist cliches — either as mysterious, menacing villains or as laughable caricatures. Sometimes, this role was given to entirely white American actors, making it an example of Yellowface: a non-Asian person impersonating an Asian person. Though it has been decades since Yellowface has been seen on screen, the stereotypes relating towards Asians, in general, haven’t died down. We can see much of it as Asian teenagers in TV shows are usually portrayed as nerds interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields. Similarly, many Asian adults are described as store owners or people who know Martial Arts. The misrepresentation can go as far as tearing up the heritage of a nation and Asians in general.
The same kind of misrepresentation is seen when it comes to the Indian Community as well. The one question faced by Indians due to major miscommunication is the idea of Indian people smelling like curry. This question has carried on since the late 80s up to 2020. Indian misrepresentation in the media has been prevalent since Indian characters emerged in American entertainment. Indians have been continuously inaccurately represented in TV shows and movies, further contributing to false images about the personalities of Indians and our culture. Usually, a man with a red turban is seen as a taxi driver of low social standing. But in reality, it can be claimed that people with turbans are doctors more often than not. Although we have come a long way from Apu in the Simpsons, Kumail Nanjiani in Silicon Valley to Hassan Minaj having his Netflix show, and Miethrya Ramakrishnan playing Devi in Never Have I Ever, we still have a lot of stereotypes left to break down before we create a niche for actors and directors of Asian-American descent.
Like the Asian community, the African-American community has also suffered discrimination and under-representation in Western Media. The presence of African Americans in major motion picture roles stirred controversy decades before Hattie McDaniel played Mammy, the house servant, in Gone with the Wind in 1939. For years after that, Hollywood tended to avoid casting people African/American actors. Instead, they chose to use Blackface. This meant people of White descent used make-up to act as characters intended for darker skin tones, and it became a popular form of entertainment. Blackface let Hollywood use different characters without actually having to employ anyone with a darker skin tone. This craze died down in the late 1940s because of its connotations with bigotry and racism. According to Sue Jewell, an urban sociology researcher, there were typically three main archetypes of African-American women in the media. The Mammy— coddling old lady, the Sapphire— short-tempered emasculated figure, and the Jezebel— one woman who fits into the Caucasian beauty standards. According to Sue, these historical stereotypes have persisted throughout history and influenced more modern stereotypes. These new stereotypes include the welfare queen, the gold digger, and the video vixen. The first is characterised by her sexual promiscuity and schemes for getting money, the second for her exploitation of good-hearted men, and the third for her sexual promiscuity.
Today, African-American actresses and actors are more common on the screen, but they are still scarce as main characters in bigger blockbuster movies. Studio executives explain this by reasoning that African-American themes risk being too narrow in their appeal to justify investments. Nonetheless, Hollywood has shown an interest in recent years to bank more heavily on African-American actors and themes. Many actors such as Zendaya, Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey and Samuel L. Jackson have been able to make a name for themselves and bring up the representation ratio for younger actors. Even Marvel—predominantly known for having All-American Heroes is working towards creating representations. It is evident through the stellar blockbuster Black Panther released in 2018. The movie turned out to be one of Marvel’s top-grossing films of all time. The second part’s whereabouts are unknown yet, but the studio has promised to release it sometime during the mid-2020s. To this day, black men are often portrayed as scary or angry and black women as loudmouthed and sassy. If a movie features one token black character, it’s likely to be the black best friend. And, if people die in a film, the black character is still expected to go first. Even with awareness of racial stereotypes rising, Hollywood persists with these tropes.
A strong and positive representation can help fight and break down stereotypes that can be detrimental to individuals and limiting to society. It adversely affects the way others see them when a group of people is only ever represented negatively. Diverse representation also opens up new and better opportunities. For example, there is a specific lack of acting opportunities available to non-white actors simply because scripts insist on white characters. Inclusivity in scripts creates varied roles, which create more opportunities for non-white actors. And when this diversity goes a step further, beyond tokenism, it also opens the door for more exciting and complex roles for all actors and creates a safe space for every community.
Written by Ramya S Prakash and Mary Chelsea Anthony for MTTN
Edited by Suhani Kabra for MTTN
Featured image by Google Images