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White-washed Screens: the Need for Diverse Representation

March 21, 2016

When I was younger, I would spend the week in eager anticipation of Saturday mornings. And each time it came I would wait religiously in front of the television for my favourite season of Power Rangers to come on, for the simple reason that, lo and behold, out of a fearsome squad of five, two of the crime-fighters were women. What's more, one of them was actually an Asian American lady. In a world where most of the Asian characters I had come into contact with were either stuttering dim sum waiters or the physical manifestation of the punchline of a really cheesy racist joke, that very ranger served as a vital form of validation that maybe, just maybe, I could be something more.

It is inevitable that irrespective of whether or not we are aware of it, whoever that is reflected on our screen stories play an intrinsic part in shaping our lives. They influence how we craft our views on the world, perceive ourselves, and often, even who we aspire to be. Resultantly, particularly in an era where the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, diverse representation in the mainstream media is of paramount importance. Despite this, little effort to include minorities seems to have been made.

In the past few years, Hollywood and mainstream media have drawn sharp criticism for being dominated by actors, directors and even characters who are Caucasian or male, or both. Take the recent Academy Awards for instance, dubbed disdainfully by many as ‘#OscarsSoWhite’, where, for the second year in the row, only white actors took their seats as nominees — effectively excluding a bulk of the population. Additionally, lack of representation also encroaches in the sphere of gender: research shows that for every female character found in a television drama, there are two male ones, shedding light on a disturbingly stark lack of equity.

In the words of actress Geena Davis, “If she can't see it, she can't be it.” While the consequences of such lack of diversity may not seem evident, they are very present and very real, and above all, a great injustice to minorities. Based on research, white male characters in mainstream media are mostly portrayed as strong and central characters to the plot whereas females are more likely to be shown as weak, emotional and mere sidekicks or romantic interests. Additionally, blacks tend to be portrayed as either unruly or, in the case of females, exotic. This not only reinforces already pervasive stereotypes, it also has psychological effects: a study of 400 preteens in the United States found that television exposure resulted in a decrease in self-esteem for blacks and girls, while there was an increase amongst Caucasian boys. Mainstream media presents to the impressionable masses a metric that people often subconsciously evaluate themselves against, and thus serves as a precarious double-edged sword: it can empower, or it can undermine.

Consequently, there not only needs to be a paradigm shift in how we portray and the number of females and minorities in mainstream media, effort must also be made to break through the glass ceiling that has been and still is hindering women and people of colour. For this to occur, we must change our mindsets. During this year’s Oscars, host Chris Rock took the opportunity to remind the audience that the Oscars was a key part of the fight for opportunity, yet at the very same show, he brought out three Asian children and used them as props for a racist joke, adding, “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.” The irony of Rock’s crude joke being made at a night that was supposedly all about embracing diversity merely highlighted the industry’s failure to do so — not only did they effectively exclude Asians, they blatantly reinforced the negative stereotype of Asian nations having lax labour laws. In order to strive towards fair representation, we must involve all parties in the conversation and challenge the archaic fundamental notion of stereotyping.

Some might argue that since Hollywood hails largely from America, a predominantly Caucasian-inhabited nation, their lack of representation is somewhat justified. For one, this certainly does not account for the lack of women, and it is important to note that due to globalisation, these films have transcended cross-country barriers to become international hallmarks of entertainment: it is these very films that people all across the world will look to for acknowledgement and as testament to their very existence. Thus, the industry bears a certain responsibility to ensure that role is fulfilled. Even so, the U.S. itself is a vastly diverse country, and yet, the statistics do not seem to be reflecting that. In fact, if hiring indeed reflected the nation’s population, half of all films eligible for the Academy Awards would have been directed by women, and more than a third of all on-screen characters would be people of colour, which is unfortunately still far from the case.

This is a call to action: we need to push for a change in the status quo. Imagine being bright-eyed and six-years-old, but never seeing anybody who remotely resembles you in your favourite movie or television show — all the talent lost because of all the minorities who were never given the affirmation that they can. There is a need to recognise that discrimination does not merely exist in the form of deliberate malice, but in exclusion, too, and that fair representation in the media is essential to combatting that. Above all, we need to show the masses that there can be alternatives to the limited and limiting people of colour or female characters in mainstream media, in hope that all around the world, children will find their own version of my Saturday morning power ranger, too.


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  • March 21, 2016 - 9:00am (Now Viewing)

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