In case you missed all the hoopla about the movie Aloha (like here, here, here, and here), don’t worry – the 3rd blog post of the Media Literacy Series explains the lack of people of color we see on the big screen.
The case with Aloha? They made a super odd decision to cast the blonde-haired, white-skinned Emma Stone as Hawaiian, Chinese, mixed heritage Allison Ng.
Here’s what’s up.
This is a pretty classic case of Hollywood white-washing and misrepresenting other cultures, races, and ethnic groups. When we look at all forms of media, the television and movie industry has a particularly bad habit of having overwhelmingly white casts, even if the characters’ whiteness does not add to the characterizations or plotlines. In fact, a lot of characters on television could be portrayed by people of color, but that just does not happen. Instead, you get white people playing white people or passing as light-skinned racial and ethnic groups. People of color get stuck with non-series regular roles, the sidekick/best friend/less significant roles, or roles that play off stereotypes.
And this happens all the time.
These patterns are well-established. For example, African men are portrayed as inherently violent, and Indians are portrayed as nerdy or overly sexual. People of color are generally misrepresented or invisibilized in movies.
Moment of Reflection: If this is what we see all of the time, do you think this could affect how we view students of color at UNC? How could this impact the way students of color view themselves?
Why don’t directors cast people of color?
People are less likely to go see a film or watch a television series about a Person of Color protagonist. And directors fear this. They want to capitalize on the fact that audiences are drawn to productions that have the face of a (famous) white person. Even Jenji Kohan took advantage of this, and I think she did it brilliantly!
And these rules are written and institutionalized. A 2011 licensing agreement between Sony and Marvel, which share the rights to the Spider-Man character, lists a series of traits to which Peter Parker must legally conform. Despite the fact that Spider-Man is totally made up and can literally be ANYONE…this character is legally restricted to being a white, straight male.
Moment of Reflection: Would you have tuned in for the 1st season of Orange is the New Black if this was the promotional poster?
Why does this happen?
There’s this thing called reciprocal determinism which basically means that there is a dual relationship between us and our environment, in that we affect the environment that in turn affects us. So, the media shows us what they think we want to see, and by spending our money and time on their shows, we in turn tell the media what we want to see. The media reflects and reinforces societal and institutional patterns of injustice. Mostly, this act is implicit. We don’t go around explicitly stating that we love seeing white people on TV (at least, I hope not!). We are fed messages daily about how we live in a white normative and white ideal society, and many us don’t realize that or choose to ignore it! This can lead to implicit bias:
“Most of us have implicit bias that can impact our behavior and understanding. Although most of us are completely unaware of its influence on our subconscious, these biases affect how we perceive, interpret, and understand others’ actions. Because these attitudes, unrecognized on the conscious level but powerful at the subconscious level, individual and institutional discrimination can occur even in the absence of blatant prejudice, ill will, or animus.”
– John A. Powell, “Postracialism or Targeted Universalism?” Clearinghouse Review Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, May-June 2010.
Moment of Reflection: How do you see your own implicit bias playing a role on UNC’s campus or within your relationships?
Let’s revisit that phrase “unrecognized on the conscious level but powerful at the subconscious level.” We have to work against this process and deconstruct the way we think so that the messages can be recognized on the conscious level, like when we see instances of white-washing and misrepresentation – whether it’s on magazine covers, billboards, advertisements, TV, movies, etc.
What should we do about all of this?
Public Outrage!! I’m kidding, to an extent. We all do need to critically engage with media and actively recognize moments of social injustice. We also need to continue these public conversations, whether it’s through blogs, public forums, petitions, you name it! People notice when we do this. In fact, the director of Aloha issued an apology (though it’s more of an excuse/justification in my opinion…). Networks are also adding more shows with strong roles for people of color like Blackish, Fresh off the Boat, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Jane the Virgin, and Empire. Hashtag trends like #OscarsSoWhite got the attention of people in leadership and now we’re going to be seeing some real awesome changes around diversity in Hollywood because of the Academy’s effort to double the number of women and people of color by 2020!
And of course, there’s this:
The more we can show the world that we notice, CARE, and can articulate WHY all of this matters, we can reshape conversations about race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. and take steps to creating lasting change.
Niranjani Radhakrishnan received her BSPH from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill in 2013. She is currently a Program Assistant for Health Promotion and Prevention Initiatives at Student Wellness. She is also in graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill pursuing two masters degrees: Health Behavior and City and Regional Planning with an emphasis in environmental justice, health equity, and spatial analysis using GIS.