In this essay, writer Ava Marshall explores the power of representation, and Hollywood's dramatic grappling with a Renaissance of people of color in film.
by Ava Marshall
Representation. To be well versed in visibility. A perfect melody of both concepts of being seen and understood. In literal terms, visibility is the state of being able to see or be seen. Yet that connotation is only the beginning of an elevated understanding. See, representation behaves as a warm chicken soup, coddling those in need of its warmth. Its smooth, savory broth acts as a calming mechanism, soothing the sorrows that ingest its geniality. Representation is that warmth. Yet, so many individuals fail to experience that affability innate to a warm stew. In a world where Matt Damon’s and Tom Cruise’s reign supreme in the film and television industries, the reward of representation is neglected for minority and female creators. You see, to be present as a minority in today’s film industry, one renowned for its focus on visibility, is to be exposed to just the opposite. Minorities have no choice but to be subjected to cold, with no sultry soup to be their aid. Lack of representation for women and minorities on and off the screen in the film and television industry creates a moral crisis, as minorities have to constantly deal with the not seeing themselves on television and film, a social crisis emerges as well. One that allows for negligence of minorities and women in all spaces.
The cold experienced by those who fail to pass the white and male requirements as referenced previously is more than just a metaphor. In the film and television industry, white men hold the most representation in film, taking the throne when it comes to being imagined within films. Almost in a mirror reflection of the social climate we exist in, white men rule over the marginalized in terms of visibility. According to ABC News, whites have held over 70% of characters in the highest-grossing films from 2007 to 2017 (Donoughue). What does this mean? To be a minority is to turn the channel or scope the cinemas and only see people who look like you thirty percent of the time. It is to have to relate to white characters even in their complete dissimilarity to the experiences of the marginalized. It is to have to pretend as if all experiences are the same despite their difference in race or gender. As if the realities of these identity distinctions can be neglected for the comfort of the white, male perspective that is heightened within the film industry. To be a minority and a media consumer is to have to be a liar. Minorities are forced to lie for the sake of comfortable consumption, they are pushed into a constant cycle of compromise, while their white, male peers thrive in film and television spaces, never having to meet the disappointment of compromise. Women and the marginalized must always receive half of the effort, half of visibility, in fact, according to ABC News, Men remain at over 65% of characters in the highest-grossing films from 2007 to 2017, so women and minorities receive less than half (Donoughue). We exist in an industry where women and minorities have to perpetually play the game of the “wishbone” yet have their white, male counterparts have the brawnier grip.
I know what it is like to be a minority and female media consumer. I grew up as a black girl in love with film and television and the window into humanity they create. Yet as a black girl, I grew up watching an industry that did reciprocate my love. Now, I often find myself asking when was the first time I felt I saw myself on television, and I could have never guessed how difficult answering that question would be. When I press rewind on the history of my film and television obsessions, the early 2000’s age-appropriate content I viewed only present me with white faces. My childhood was a combination of Hannah Montana and Lizzie McGuire, where the few black women I would see where women I did not know, as they were only represented as caricatures rather than humans with a story. Yet as I look back intently, the few black characters I saw and adored, like That’s So Raven and Moesha, those were my thirty percent. So that is how I felt, as if I was only thirty percent, too black and too female to be anyone’s one hundred percent. I was stuck. The very object of my joy and idée fixes was simultaneously the object of my inadequacy and insecurity. Not to mention how it felt being an aspiring creator in a world where creators that looked like me weren’t given the time of day.
That world, one where creators of color and female creators are neglected just as their minority consumers, is the world encompassed within the film and television industry. See, this lack of representation behind the scenes is the force that produces the lack of representation within the scenes. If creators of colors aren’t allowed into spaces where art is monetized and mass-produced, then the diversity of art they avow become out-casted along with their authors. In the current state of the industry, Men dominate the creation of film and television behind the scenes, controlling the producing, writing, and directing of films. In fact, Men take up at least 75% of producer, writer, director positions in the film industry in 2018 (Tauberg). This is an appalling statistic, one which leaves women disregarded whole-heartedly. The result of this disregard is the vacancy of female voices in spaces where they are needed most. This leads to the sexualization of female characters, and the complete lack of depth to these characters. These statistics lead to a film industry, where movements like “Times Up” and “MeToo” and initiatives like “inclusion riders” are a necessity. With the reality that women make up under 10% of Hollywood’s directors and writers, with their highest margin of representation being less than 17% for female producers, the issue of under-representation starts a conversation that is bigger than a yearning for a film to reflect their realities (Tauberg). This reality paints a much more momentous picture: Hollywood is in a drought. A drought of diversity and a drought of accountability for the lack of the former. A drought that only continues to crack and crumble the opportunities at hand for minority and female creators and the diverse stories they bring.
This drought that thrives from its negligence of minorities and women is no new occurrence. Like its climate-adjacent counterpart Climate Change, it has been brewing since the dawn of the industry. Hollywood has a history with its negligence for minorities, as its prioritization of its white and male players has become innate to the culture it sets. Hollywood pedestals productions curated by white and male creators while neglecting productions of color of the same caliber. As a matter of fact, according to research referenced in L.A. Weekly, “From 1927 to 2012, 99 percent of Best Actress winners were white, 91 percent of Best Actor winners were white, and 99 percent of Best Director winners were white males”, which organizes the extent of Hollywood’s exclusive history (Romero). Essentially, Hollywood's not only neglects black, brown, and Asian art, it awards individuals entangled in that remissness. Since the beginning of its creation, the industry has viewed excellence for film and television with a white lens. Which forces non-white creations into a existence of inadequacy, as never enough for the industry. Yet this state of ineptitude is not due to the content these minorities create but rather because they fail to measure up to the “white requirement” listed within the fine print of Hollywood. With this prioritization of whiteness engraved within the industry that only prolongs the existence its passive racism, sexism, and homophobia, a representation of the social policies and paradigms that allow for these “-ism’s” to function reveal themselves.
The industry’s disregard for minorities has a history bigger than just out-casting of the “other”. Hollywood is a reflection of the prejudice that exists in America and in the ways that America perpetuates the degradation of diversity, Hollywood behaves as its partner in crime. This emboldening of prejudice sets forth the intent behind the carelessness Hollywood’s yields for the marginalized. This industry was an industry that applauded the 1915 film Birth of A Nation, a reflection of the racist sympathizer during the Reconstruction era where white men dress in “black face” and portray black men as rapists. And in the same breath, sixty-nine years later, applaud the 1984 film Sixteen Candles despite its racist portrayal of its only Asian character for comedic relief. In a more specific example, the New York Times inputs a political example of the extent of Hollywood’s prejudice, the article states, “Asian immigrants were seen as invasive and threatening to an entire American way of life...Hollywood capitalized on these fears accordingly in their creations of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. The former, a calculating villain who appeared in a series of films beginning in the 1920s (the name, invented by its British creator, is a crude jingoist rhyme, neither Mandarin nor Cantonese), is a mask of a Chinese man, always portrayed with crudely slanted eyes, eyebrows like caterpillars and a thin dangling beard” (Force). This example is one of the many that pinpoint the intersection of America’s racist past with Hollywood’s. An intersection that reveals that this is the industry that silences the marginalized, like America, is one that had become so tolerant of its intolerance that it has adopted bigotry in its procedure.
Prejudice is innate to the film and television industry, its actions a reflection of how much influence this prejudice holds. Yet, in a space that feeds off of prejudice, similar to the way’s children mirror their parents, the industry’s lack of representation for minorities concurrently feeds into the growth of prejudice among its consumers. In transition back into the lack of representation and its effect on its viewers, yet with a sociologist lens, the concept that the media yields power over the expectations and perceptions of our social bodies, and how when stories of minorities, particularly women of color with regard to this article, are neglected, society’s view and insight from those groups of individuals are neglected as well. In simpler terms, lack of minority and female representation allows for prejudices and perceived notions surrounding minority groups to be prolonged. There is even a term for this occurrence, defined by the Huffington Post as “symbolic annihilation”,“which is the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant” (Boboltz and Yam). This scrutinizes the correlation of the lack of importance of minorities and the lack of accurate depictions of those very same minorities. When white individuals fail to see accurate if any representation of non-white individuals, the biases they hold are only amplified as there lies no content to object them. Media yields power over perception, and according to Boboltz and Yam, “It can even serve as a proxy for experiences audience members haven’t actually lived, shaping their views on people of color and women ― and shaping the way those people view themselves” (Boboltz and Yam). So, like one extensive cycle, the prejudice that prevents minority films and television from reaching the audience feeds into the multiplication of that very prejudice within our social bodies.
To piggy-back off the idea that media impacts perception, the lack of representation that leads to the misrepresentation of groups of people can affect those individuals self-image. Like referenced in the examples from Sixteen Candles and in the mention of my own viewership, the lack of minorities within the writers’ rooms and directors’ chairs has a massive impact on how those minorities are seen. Although minorities remain invisible in most spaces within the industry, the few that surface in the films and television that reach the masses are often outshoots from the perceptions of non-minority individuals. What does this mean? Marginalized groups, kicked to the curb instead of allowed a voice in the rooms with influence, are not present to defend themselves or their humanity, and minority consumers are left with caricatures and not characters. On the report of a VICE article, “Black male characters are disproportionately shown as buffoons, or as menacing and unruly youths, and Black female characters are typically shown as exotic and sexually available,” the authors wrote. The TV portrayals of white boys, on the other hand, were “quite positive in nature” (Lawson). While this focuses on the disparities of black men and women in the industry, it speaks volumes surrounding the destructive tendencies the industry continues to create on instead of correct. These tendencies are the enablers of the misrepresentation that teach non-minority persons the prejudice expectations as to who their minority peers and set the limitation for the minorities forced to face those misrepresentations. Minorities have to view television that define the representation of their being as an inconvenience, they have to confront the industry that sees fit they do not even tell their own stories. In a world where “Tilda Swinton, otherworldly in her beauty, as always, but monkishly bald as the Ancient One, [can play] a character originally intended to be Tibetan, in 2016’s “Doctor Strange.” [And where] more subtle, but still just as shocking: Emma Stone — blonde and green-eyed — [can play] as Allison Ng, leaning against a kitchen island in a scene from 2015’s “Aloha” and [say], “My dad was half Chinese, half Hawaiian,” as breezily as if she were saying goodbye to someone on the telephone” (Force). Where minorities have no solace or peace surrounding the care of their stories due to the actuality that the couriers of those stories were neglected. Where minorities must always settle while their privileged counterparts can thrive. That is a world we must correct.
The industry is one enormous mirror, whose reflections only perpetuate its shortcomings and even actively work to duplicate said shortcomings. This is the answer as to why change has remained stagnant, why minorities remain in the shadows, only accompanied by their stories. The root of Hollywood’s lack of diversity is alluded to in its history of reflecting the biases within America yet still exists due to its inability to diversify those who avow for films and television shows to be created and promoted. As referenced previously, the lack of representation behind the screen in big-budgeted films and productions causes the lack of representation on the screen, negligence of representation mirrors itself. Yet, there is a remedy to this occurrence. Employ female, brown, black, and Asian creators. Allow these minorities groups to do more than just take up space but to also tell, narrate, and play in their own stories. This is the solution to the problems that be, the cure to the never-ending mirror Hollywood exists in. In an example exclusive to women, Forbes references that “The Annenberg School report found that when women were directors, writers or producers on a film, that film featured more women on screen, a larger percentage of middle-aged women and less sexualization.” Which can be applied to all marginalized groups, as when minority voices are heard, it reflects on the screen (Robehmed). In essence, when diverse groups of individuals are avowed voices in the spaces that matter, they can corrupt the white, male domination that exists. In fact, “proven by new research...which lists movies that pass the Bechdel test. (To pass, a movie must include two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.)... Their study found that movies in which women were involved in the production were far more likely to pass the Bechdel test” (Robehmed). We can erupt the cycle that feeds into the degrading of minority voices and stories. We can grant minorities to shatter the mirror that reflects intolerance and prevents the chance for their representation.
While lack of representation remains an active destruction of opportunity for minorities to be visible, there is a possibility for those minorities’ voices to be spotlighted. Yet, many claim that representation is not the remedy to the “-ism’s” that plague our nation. According to a Metro article, “Rather than humanising the masses, representation creates an acceptance of a specific personality and hinges upon the individual possessing certain celebrated traits, only approved if deemed the “model” Japanese citizen, the educated black man, or the beautiful hijabi makeup artist” (Bakar). This point of view, misdirected in its execution, states that representation or the prioritizing of representation does not grant power to groups of minorities, but rather idealizes a specific personality of those minorities. That the outrage surrounding the lack of representation for minorities feeds into the prioritization of figures within a minority groups instead of mobilizing the masses of these groups. But what this idea fails to recognize is that representation is not about being the only solution to remedy the injustices that exist in our nation, but rather about being an instrument in repressing their effects. The effects that exist in the misrepresentation of minority groups. The effects that present themselves in the white, male majority that is the face of the top-grossing films. The effects that exist in the minority drought in the behind-the-scenes aspects of the industry. These are the illnesses that are subsidized by the enabling of minority representation. When individuals view representation as a meretricious concept to addressing racism, they fail to recognize the power that that representation holds. Representation is what motivated American colonists to form their own nation in the 1770’s. Representation is what empowered the efforts of the Black Panther Party. Representation is what empowered queer individuals to mobilize around their ally Harvey Milk in the 1970’s. If that is not an action to mobilize the masses, than what is? To be visible is to be empowered, it is to be understood. Visibility makes minorities realize that they are not a burden but a blessing, and that their stories are equally as important as the stories of their white peers. And that is power.
In order to increase representation, we must uplift lesser-known minority creators and employ fresh, and diverse creators to already withstanding creators. We must grant power to the people, especially those who are deemed underdogs in the industry. We have to cook more warm, coddling soup, but not just Chicken soup. We need Minestrone. We need Clam Chowder. We need Lentil. We need Phở. We need Tortilla. We need to diversify our pallet. Because just like there is more than just Chicken soup for the soul, there is more than just white, male stories. There are minority stories that provide the same amount of warmth and affability. We just have to cook them. We must mobilize small minority creators and invest in them so we can have the ingredients to shorten to reach of the lack of representation. That is how we make diversity and equality of visibility normal. We must make these concepts boring, so minorities can feel as if their experiences matter. So young black girls like me aren’t forced into feelings of inadequacy. By investing in minority voices, we invest in a diversity of soup for the soul that feeds every soul.
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