Media Literacy III: White-Washing, Misrepresentation, and Implicit Bias

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.

Image courtesy of

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.

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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?

Image courtesy of from

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?

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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:

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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.

Media Literacy Series Part II: What’s going on in ‘Orange Is The New Black’

Welcome to Part 2 of the Media Literacy blog series! Like I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, I challenge myself to think about what I’m watching, and relate these ideas back to my experience as a straight, able-bodied, Woman of Color at UNC.

In this post, we’re going to relate some media literacy skills to one of my absolute favorite shows, Orange Is The New Black (OITNB).

I am a huge fan of OITNB for many reasons. Obviously, the show is comprised of a superbly talented and diverse cast. In fact, I become so enthralled in the show that sometimes I have to step back and remind myself that OITNB is fiction —it should not be my go-to for facts about women’s prisons — the show is fiction with elements that have been dramatized for the sake of drama and entertainment. That being said, I absolutely loved this last season!

If you haven’t watched Season 3 yet, RELAX. This post contains NO SPOILERS for this season and is actually tailored for you. Read on if you want some cool tips for watching this season through a MEDIA LITERACY LENS:

promo poster

1. References to “White Culture”

This is something that usually goes unnamed; however, OITNB is not afraid of calling things what they are. Recognizing elements of white culture and whiteness is crucial to understanding privilege. In previous seasons, this included a glorious exchange about “white people politics” between Poussey and Taystee. Look for more of this in Season 3.


2. Multidimensional Characters

Let’s be real. Season 1 episode 1 started off depicting a privileged, white woman as the center of focus of the show, and we slowly started getting introduced to other characters from her perspective, often in the form of stereotypes. Now the show is more about the amazing women. The creator of the show, Jenji Kohan, has explained that she needed to do this in order to attract an audience that may have otherwise not been interested in a show about strong women of color.

The writers have created very intricate storylines to show a range of experiences around being black, trans, queer, white, etc. in a way that resonates with so many people. The show pushes against common misunderstandings that people have about social identities they do not share. For example, first they casted Laverne Cox, a trans woman of color, as a trans woman of color. This does not happen often, which in itself says a lot about media portrayals. Second, the show shatters misconceptions about trans relationships by portraying her as having been in a loving heterosexual marriage.

OITNB shows how the women’s social identities have shifted, transformed, and made them who they are today, while simultaneously debunking racial and gender stereotypes. Their back stories also might catch you off guard because it’s not what you were expecting. Notice that feeling when it happens this season and ask yourself, “What was I expecting and why?”


3. Cross-cultural/cross-racial relationships

You have the interpersonal relationships, of course (i.e., friendships, sexual relationships, etc.). But there is also the larger organizational (structure within the prison) and community level relationships. The prison itself is separated in terms of race, and it brings a lot of questions into mind:

  • What are the dynamics between and among racial groups?
  • Is separation by race good or bad?
  • What makes people feel more safe, comfortable, and accepted?

I ask these questions because on UNC’s campus, I’ve heard conversations about self-segregation. Have you ever heard someone ask, “Why are all the _____ people all hanging out together?” How often do we hear “white” in there? Not often. This show depicts some very interesting tensions, relationships, and conversations around race that mimic what people say in the real world and may provide some context (or at least a different perspective) about race relations. This might look like conversations about feeling safe and protected, highlighting moments of ignorance, or mimicking real-world conversations around stereotypes, for example. So, look forward to these conversations this season!


These are just a few things to pay attention to when you spend your Winter Break watching OITNB. This does not mean you have to be a snob and get together with a bunch of academics to critique every line of the show. It can be as simple as watching the shows as you regularly do, recognizing patterns, quickly naming it in your head, and moving on. That simple act is enough to start thinking about identity, power, and privilege. Because by critically engaging with media, 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. 

Media Literacy Series Part I: Wait, Media…what?

WELCOME (BACK) TO CAROLINA!! You’re about to encounter the best (and most challenging) years of your life, and we here at Student Wellness want to make sure that you’re finding time for yourself amidst all of that homework, professional opportunities, socializing, student orgs, and all things COLLEGE.

Seven (Wow, it’s been seven years??) years ago, I was a first-year at Carolina. I had NO idea what the next 4 years of my life would hold. Looking back, I can say that I learned A LOT. And not all of that learning happened in the classroom. One of the most important skills that I’ve learned over the past few years is media literacy (especially while I worked for Student Wellness’s Interactive Theatre Carolina peer group).

Students playing a theatre game called

That’s cool. But what is media literacy?

According to the Media Literacy Project, it “is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media… [and] takes into account history, culture, privilege, and power.” This means people with media literacy skills learn to:

  • Develop critical thinking skills
  • Understand how media messages shape our culture and society
  • Identify target marketing strategies
  • Recognize what the media maker wants us to believe or do
  • Name the techniques of persuasion used
  • Recognize bias, spin, misinformation, and lies
  • Discover the parts of the story that are not being told
  • Evaluate media messages based on our own experiences, skills, beliefs, and values
  • Create and distribute our own media messages
  • Advocate for a changed media system

What is NOT media literacy?

I watch TV for reasons like everyone else — because it’s entertaining! Media literacy does not mean you cannot enjoy what you’re watching. Neither is it a reason to judge people for watching what they do. I want to emphasize this point. You can still watch your “bad TV’ or guilty pleasure shows and feel great about it! I certainly do…

Photo that reads

But I also think about who’s being portrayed, whose stories are told, if the plot line mirrors larger societal patterns, or what stereotypes are employed for humor. I challenge myself to think about what I’m watching, and relate these ideas back to my experience as a straight, able-bodied, Woman of Color at UNC.

Now, here’s what I want to know from YOU:

  1. Think about shows or movies you watch or books you read. How do they relate to your Carolina experience and/or your identity?

Comment below or on Facebook. Good luck with the semester Tar Heels, and stay tuned for the next post in this Media Literacy blog series! (Next time, we’ll start practicing some of these skills with one of my favorite shows – Orange Is the new Black.)


5 Netflix Movies with Strong Women Characters

by Harper Owens

Living in the age of the internet has given us unprecedented access to popular forms of entertainment – in recent years, expressions like “binge watching” have become an accepted part of our lexicon, indicating how normalized extreme media consumption has become. However, just because we are saturated with media does not mean that we see equal representation of different populations. A quick glance at a list of Netflix recommendations, for instance, will reveal the not-surprising but nevertheless harmful overrepresentation of white men. Though quantity doesn’t determine quality, it is still disconcerting to see that, by and large, the media tells the stories of white males far more than it tells those of any other race or gender.

Fortunately, because the amount of material to be found online is so broad, it is getting easier and easier to find films that are more woman-centric, provided that you look long enough and in the right places. What follows is a list of a few excellent films with strong female leads, currently streaming on Netflix.

“251/365 – 09/07/11 – Netflix” by Shardayy. Flickr Creative Commons.

However, I’d like to make two disclaimers. The first concerns what has become known as the Bechdel Test. The idea is that if a film passes the Bechdel Test – that is, if it features a dialogue scene in which two women talk about something besides a man – then the film presents a fairer representation of femininity. The test originated in a 1985 comic written by Alison Bechdel, and has risen dramatically in popularity in recent years, so much so that Swedish cinemas now incorporate the test into their movie ratings.

While the Bechdel Test can be a fun tool to use on your favorite movies (it’s almost guaranteed that few of them will pass), the fact that some use it as the standard by which to hold movies is worrisome. The test has serious limitations. It is fairly useful when it comes to determining female representation in a given film, but it indicates nothing about how women are characterized in said film – a film which passes the test could still have a substantial amount of misogynist content (this complaint was levelled against Guardians of the Galaxy last year). Also, it is conceivable for a female character to be strong and complex without talking to another woman.

Some of the selected films pass the Bechdel Test, others don’t. I promise that they were each chosen with good reason.

My second disclaimer: though the selected films all feature wonderfully vibrant and complex female characters, the directors of these films are all male. The dearth of respected woman directors is a persistent problem in the film industry. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t find female voices out there – Sofia Coppola, Miranda July, and Lisa Cholodenko are three that immediately come to mind, and they each have work available on Netflix. But while Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides has something interesting to say about male perceptions of femininity, I didn’t feel that it fit this list. The same goes for Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right, which I frankly found to be juvenile in its portrayal of same-sex relationships (it validates, whether unintentionally or not, the myth that all lesbians secretly want men). And I regret to say that I have not yet seen July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know.

Frances Ha

A simply-told, well-observed portrait of twentysomething Frances as she navigates her way through young adulthood. Though coming-of-age stories are common enough, this film still carries the feeling of a story seldom told. Writer-director Noah Baumbach, with his observational camera style and slice-of-life dialogue, places attention on everyday scenes that we don’t typically get in mainstream films, and Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the film) gives an excellent performance.

Short Term 12

Another tale of growing up, this time focusing on Grace, a young counselor for at-risk children. The film handles serious subject matter with tact, and there is never a false or heavy-handed moment. A superb effort by newcomer Destin Daniel Crettin, the film pulls off the rare feat of being gripping and tender at the same time.

20 Feet from Stardom

A pleasant and compelling documentary, telling the story of several backup singers in the recording industry, who have each lent their talents to some of the most celebrated music of the last century. These singers, most of them African American women, have lived in relative anonymity despite their massive contributions to pop music, and this film finally gives them some well-deserved time in the spotlight.

The Silence of the Lambs

There are several factors which make this a compelling movie, but one of the most interesting points of conflict is Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster)’s status as one of the few females in her FBI training program. Director Johnathan Demme, using long, fluid point-of-view shots, does an excellent job of conveying the discomfort and sense of injustice inherent to being a woman in a male-dominated environment.

Jackie Brown

This was the first time Quentin Tarantino attempted to write a powerful female lead (his Kill Bill movies are also currently streaming), and his attempt is, by and large, a success. Jackie is, without a doubt, the most competent player in this caper where competency is crucial. The story, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, is labyrinthine – it’s one of those crime thrillers where, whether we think we’re following everything or not, we know the protagonist must be one step ahead of us.

Listen & Learn: Relationships in Music

by Hali Archambault

Have you ever started singing along to a song and then quickly realized that what you were singing was actually something derogatory or offensive? The use of catchy lyrics and rhythms can entrance a listener and it is difficult to distinguish how toxic the words really are. Music is such a large part of our culture and it can influence our thoughts and views, whether conscious or unconscious. These lyrics can skew individual views of what is “okay” and provide demonstrations for unhealthy relationships.

But how can one distinguish a healthy adfrelationship from an unhealthy one? One way is to view each characteristic of a relationship as a pillar that holds it together: a relationship cannot work if one of the pillars begins to crumble. So what are these pillars? We can categorize the traits of a healthy relationship into 7 pillars.

  1. Respect
  2. Trust and Support
  3. Honesty and Accountability
  4. Shared Responsibility
  5. Economic Partnership
  6. Negotiation and Fairness
  7. Non-Threatening Behavior

Music often doesn’t destruct all of the pillars– media in general is never 100% bad or 100% good– but we can look at several lyrics to identify any possible unhealthy factors exhibited in a song and how these factors can result in an overall unhealthy relationship. This is not to say that one artist’s music is all bad and you should never listen to their music, but it is important to recognize the lyrics we listen to and their influence on relationships.

  • Nick Jonas, Jealous
    • Pop music has normalized or romanticized the attitude of victim blaming. The title, Jealous, reveals a lack of trust. While there may be debate for a “healthy amount of jealousy” in a relationship, there are several lyrics that point to aggressive behaviors such as “I’m puffing my chest” and “It’s my right to be hellish.” Additionally, the song reveals victim blaming (“’Cause you’re too sexy, beautiful”) such that the pursued is too pretty and should contain that.
  • Sam Smith, Stay with Me
    • This song has a beautiful melody, but contains some concerning messages. Many unhealthy relationships go through a cycle: honeymoon stage, tension builds, and an incident. The unhealthy relationship does not necessarily go through each stage every time, but the honeymoon stage (the calm) makes it feel like everything is fine. It isn’t until an incident happens that people usually seek help. Therefore, the lyrics of Stay With Me, “this ain’t love, it’s clear to see but darling, stay with me” represents a plea the pursued may hear to stay in a relationship, despite it being unhealthy. Check out the lyrics to see how gender plays a large role in unhealthy relationships:

But there are also plenty of songs that display more healthy relationships! These songs focus on trust, equality, respect, and honesty. Here, we will look at two pop songs that convey positive messages about relationships.

  • Fifth Harmony, Miss Movin’ On
    • While this song does not portray a healthy relationship, it places emphasis on the strength it takes to get out of an unhealthy relationship, empowering those to “start from scratch.” It creates assurance that there is a way out and a way to “move on.” The inspiring lyrics can be found at:
  • Ed Sheeran, Thinking Out Loud
    • The premise of this song is a love that is long lasting, based on open communication, “I just wanna tell you I am,” and simple acts of comfort, such as “just the touch of a hand.” The healthy relationship is based on the support, trust, communication, respect and safety.

Check out this playlist that emphasizes healthy relationships on Spotify by

So what now? It is important to note that listening to media with messages you don’t love doesn’t make you a bad person — it’s okay to enjoy these songs! It would be impossible to consume any media if we said never to listen to/watch anything that conveyed negative behaviors. However, it’s important to recognize that the media you consume could be affecting your attitudes. Ask yourself: What is the message of this song? And do I like that message?

What can you do right now? Talk to your friends about these songs, or other songs you have realized are either empowering or promote unhealthy relationships.

My One ACT will be talking to my friends about the way media affects our ideas about relationships. What’s your One ACT?

Updated February 2016