America is one of the top 100 most culturally diverse countries in the world, but you’d never guess this from consuming our media. The American media disproportionately represents white men while not even giving minority actors the chance to play the lead. Even groups that are only minorities in the way they are treated but actually make up the majority of our country, such as women, are heavily underrepresented. The fact is that the media―whether it be television or movies—does not depict the United States’ level of diversity accurately.
It is very likely that in a highly populated area one will see men, women, people who didn’t fit into either gender, people who were thin, fat, tall, short, black, white, brown―the list goes on. With this fact in mind, the proportions at which the media features whites, men, and middle-to-upper class people is highly illogical. Women make up about 37-43% of primetime TV, while they make up over 50% of the U.S. A similar statistic can be observed with other groups. Asian and Latino men combined only make up 1.9% of primetime TV, but they make up 11% of the US population. Some may point out the fact that the gap between media representation and real-world prevalence of Asian and Latina women is not nearly as wide, as they make up 3.8% of TV characters and 12% of the population, but then one must think of how those people are portrayed. Commonly, Latinas will play a maid―for example, all the maids on the show Devious Maids are Latina, which also plays into the stereotype that Latinas are feisty and promiscuous―or they will play a “flirtatious” trophy wife such as Sofia Vergara’s role on Modern Family. Similarly, Asian women will often play mysterious sexual deviants such as Lucy Liu’s role in the show Ally McBeal, or nerdy sidekicks like Osric Chau’s role in Supernatural.
Another issue lies in the fact that even when a character could have been played by a person of color, a white person is much more likely to be cast. For example, Katniss in the Hunger Games trilogy is described as having “olive skin” and “black hair”―traits commonly used to describe Asians and Native Americans―but the casting call for the movie adaption specifically asked for white actresses . This is problematic not only because it is inaccurate to the book, but also because it completely alienates an entire demographic for casting. Some may argue that perhaps white actors are just more talented, but to that I ask: then why not give minority actors a chance? If there was no doubt that a white actor would be cast, it should not be an issue to let actors of color audition. This way, even if a person of color was not cast, at least they got the chance to try.
One must remember that in such a media-centric world, children are also exposed to the lacking diversity in media. A survey of children’s books shows that the main characters are 93% white, which gives minority children fewer characters to relate to. People could say that this doesn’t actually affect children, and that they see personalities rather than colors, but a study by the University of Indiana shows that more time spent watching television equaled lower self-esteem for all children except white boys, which clearly disproves this theory. There is research supporting the fact that children look up to characters who look like them and if there are none, it is likely safe to infer that they will not relate to any of the characters. These correlate in the sense that because main characters are often shown as powerful but also white and/or male, it leaves colored characters in minor roles, which in turn leaves minority kids thinking they can’t be powerful like the main character. The positive effect that representation can have on children can be illustrated across three generations; Whoopi Goldberg realized she could become an actress after seeing Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek, Lupita Nyong’o was inspired to be an actress after she saw Whoopi in The Color Purple, and a young girl wrote a letter to Lupita saying that she decided against buying skin lightening cream after seeing her success.
Overall, representation of minorities in American media is surprisingly lacking for such a diverse country. This is hurtful and problematic in many ways to adults and children alike, leading to problems ranging from bullying to assault. It is very important for writers and producers of movies and TV shows to keep these things in mind the next time they fail to write a person of color into their product, write a nerdy Asian, or cast a white person when a colored one could play the character just as well.
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