Throughout the history of television, many of the main characters in the general public’s favorite shows were white, with very little representation for people of color. It is most likely that if a person of color was cast, they might have been represented in a stereotypical way that gave the audience a false perception of them. Many viewers feel that it is important to ensure all different types of people are included in shows, as television plays a big role in the everyday lives of many Americans, especially teens. Some fans of TV shows prefer the inclusion of properly represented people of color not only because it could possibly change many perspectives of different races and ethnicities, but because it can also provide a depiction of people of color to individuals who are not typically surrounded by them.
Many individuals explain the importance of diversity through their own experiences watching television. Proper representation of people of color on TV shows is very important to some viewers, as this can make them feel more connected to the characters in the show. In a way, seeing “yourself” presented in a positive light can improve self-esteem, and push you away from feeling like another stereotype.
The Fordham Observer talked to several people of different races and asked them about their perspectives. One of the interviewees, Jocelyn Hernandez, spoke about one of her favorite shows, Jane the Virgin, saying, “… If I did see a Latino it would be a maid or a blue collar worker. It’s great to see her [Jane] portrayed as someone who’s gone to college, who’s pursuing writing.”
Charnelly Figueroa, a student at Academy of American Studies, is also an example of a person of color that feels some of her favorite characters are reflective of her own characteristics and personality. “The character looks like me, but they also act like me because they find their importance in family,” she explained, talking about Lena Adams-Foster, one of the main characters on Freeform’s hit series, The Fosters. She continued to talk about how diverse, dynamic characters can “help the younger generation shape their beliefs.” Figueroa also expressed her concerns about the people behind the scenes: directors, writers, and creators. She believes the reason why many shows have predominantly white casts is due to the fact that there is an overwhelming amount of white directors, and believes the change needs to happen there as well. According to a USC study, of the directors evaluated, an overwhelming 87% are white and only 13% were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.
A trend, called the #TheFirstTimeISawMe, gained popularity on Twitter where people of color remembered the first time they saw a character similar to them represented in media. This campaign was begun by Netflix partnered with Black Girl Nerds and iOne Digital’s Cassius publication, with the purpose of starting a conversation about how there is a lack of diversity and doing so by putting out several videos of black women talking about their experiences the first time they saw themselves. In one video, a woman, Joi, recalls on her experience, “The first time I saw myself,… was actually on Luke Cage in Misty Knight. She’s ballsy, she’s full of opinions, she is sarcastic, she is funny, she is layered.” These videos of different women talking about their experiences gained momentum and led others on Twitter to share their experiences.
And, because television has such a prominent effect on media, it has the ability to sway the audience’s opinions. In areas of the world where a certain group is dominant, watching a TV show that has a wide variety of people represented can open someone’s eyes to different types of people, which may not be something they’re used to.
Through the years, pop culture has been defined by shows like Friends, Seinfield, How I Met Your Mother, and Full House, just to name a few. But, the one thing all of these popular shows have in common is that they have predominantly white casts. Friends, arguably the most relevant show in pop culture, has been criticized for its lack of diversity in the setting of New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the world. Saturday Night Live has tackled this criticism of Friends in one of their “Weekend Update” skits; SNL star Vanessa Bayer plays Rachel Green, and points to one of the co-hosts (Michael Che), asking “What is that?” Che responds, knowingly, “She’s on ‘Friends,’ she’s never seen a black person.”
As TV has progressed in 21st century, so has the diversity. In the 2010s, shows like Glee, The Get Down, Black-ish, and Jane the Virgin have gained a huge fanbase, with fans loving characters such as Mercedes Jones and Santana Lopez (Glee), Ezekiel Figuero (The Get Down), Zoey Johnson (Black-ish), and Jane Villanueva (Jane the Virgin). The success of these shows has created a desire for more characters that are similar to these fan favorites.
Statistics show only 26.6% of people of color on television were series regulars, with them being slightly more likely to be in broadcasting, streaming stories, and cable stories, according to a USC study. Another shocking statistic stated in the USC study is that women of color are represented half as much as men of color, which is interesting considering women are more than half the population in the U.S.
As we progress and become more modern, diversity becomes more prevalent in today’s media. It is a hot topic; as more people are realizing how Hollywood should consider these concerns and creators/directors are more thoughtful about responding to them.
Written by Gurpreet Kaur
Photo Courtesy of Vogue.com