The representation of POC (People of Color) in Hollywood, A Case Study

In recent years, the lack of diversity in Hollywood has become a relevant issue: in 2015, the presence of only one person of color in the nominated actors for the Oscars had triggered a wave of anger, followed by the creation by April Reigh of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite on Twitter. Although being a problem known for a very long time and inherited from centuries of racism and (real or symbolic) segregation, people seemed to open their eyes for the first time on the issue. And the reality of it is more serious than one might expect: in the 2018 Diversity Report achieved by the Social Sciences Department of UCLA, the study shows that the share of film roles by race in 2016 is 78,1% white, and that 1.3 out of ten film directors are a people of color, same goes for TV shows.

Infographics from the study of the Social Sciences Department of UCLA (2018)

Despite these alarming facts, the situation has been changing: in the last two years, more than half of the biggest hits in box-office has been films with a diverse cast, or people of color as the main leads. Including Get Out, Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asian or Hidden Figures. The success of these films has shown that it was, in fact, possible to have a film that is both inclusive in terms of representation of America’s diversity (both in ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender) and successfully profitable. For this reason, many representatives of the POC community, including Li Lai, the creator of Mediaversity Reviews, are hopeful about the inclusiveness of POC in the future.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to look at the past of this either inexistent or wrong representation of POC in both films and television in America to understand why actors of color today are finally stepping out to speak about it.
As a first meaningful example, we could mention the case of “whitewashing”: this term, although being recent, describes something that has been there for a very long time, and that we are still witnessing today. It consists in a white actor playing the role of a character who was supposed to be of color in the original material. Quite recently, these decisions of casting white people for colored characters have raised a lot of criticism from the public. In the case of Ghost in the Shell, a Japanese animation film, Scarlett Johansson had been cast for the main lead. For the role, she wore a black bob mimicking the Japanese character’s haircut. Some actors have even been made up to look more Asian, such as Jim Sturgess in Cloud Atlas, where he plays a Korean character. It is, to some, a painful reminder of a phenomenon present one century ago, called “yellow face”, or “black face”. It consisted in make up or prosthetics on Caucasian actors to make them look like another ethnicity on screen. It would often go along caricature, showing Asian or Black people under a stereotypical and racist light. By choosing white actors instead of POC actors to play people of color, it says that they are inadequate when it comes to telling their own stories.


From “yellow face” to “whitewashing”

Lack of representation is as harmful to people of color as misrepresentation. Stereotypes of POC in both films and TV shows have been insidiously damaging the way people look at certain minorities. To name just a few, we could mention: the “Magical Negro” stereotype, often endorsed by actors like Martin Freeman, where the black character is shown as wise, folksy and with magical powers, helping or guiding the white lead. But also, the “Super-rich evil Arab sheikh”, too rich to know what to do with his money and infatuated with white women, or the “Awkward desexualised Asian”, unlucky in love and unattractive. Stereotypes are problematic because they are seen so often they’re not seen anymore as a cliché, but as a reality of some sort. “Seeing is believing”, especially during childhood when people are even more exposed to medias and cinematic content. Anyone would have witnessed one of these stereotypes at least once, but probably not acknowledged them as a cliché, or worse, as damaging for these communities’ self esteem.

Advocates of the cause explained that having more actors of color is not the only condition to change the situation: It is central to have POC both in front and behind the camera. It includes writers, casting directors, producers, jurys…Quoting April Reigh: “Staffing as well as craft-services need to provide more opportunities to POC”. Only then can the system truly redefine itself. People of color’s inclusiveness has in consequence become a much-discussed issue, generating both new creations that are finally more diverse, as much as criticisms for the past biased creations of Hollywood and their consequences back then on young audiences.

Film poster of « The Problem with Apu » (2017)

Stand-up comedian and actor Hari Kondabolu made a splash with the documentary he directed in 2017, called The Problem with Apu. Apu is the well-known Indian immigrant that runs the local convenience store in the animated series The Simpsons. Kondabolu explains in his film how, as a child, he was fond of this fictional character because he was the only figure of South Asian descent to appear on mainstream TV. While growing up, he then realised while talking to other American-Indians of his age that Apu was used as a racial slur on them when they were children. While looking deeper on the subject of Apu, the director discovered that his voice actor was a white man, Hank Azaria. To quote Kondabolu, “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father”. The accent used for Apu is exaggerated, to make fun of the way Indian immigrants of the first generation sounded like. Despite people defending the humoristic and irreverent aspect of The Simpsons to justify Apu’s character, it still raises troubling questions.

In consequence of the success of The Simpsons and the birth of this stereotyped vision of Indians from America, many actors have been asked during castings to deliver lines in the style of Apu. Even though these young actors have been living in America all their lives and obviously don’t have their parents’ accents, they’ve still been asked to perpetuate a biased and offensive perception of their people. As expected, the film had a great impact, to the point where people asked to kill Apu’s character to make him disappear from the series. This provoked a lot of anger from both pro and anti sides, as Apu had become not just a stereotypical Indian man but a loved and recurrent character in the series. On an episode released at the beginning of 2018 called “No Good Read Goes Unpunished”, the writers of The Simpsons answered the controversy. Marge Simpsons discovers a book she used to love as a child, but happens to have elements now considered offensive. Lisa comforts her mother by saying: “Something that started decades ago, is now politically incorrect, what can you do?”. Kondabolu declared being disappointed in the fact that they reduced his documentary’s message as “Apu being politically incorrect”, while it’s more about the consequences of such a stereotyped character on POC’s lives. Matt Groening himself dismissed the criticism, stating: “I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended”. In fact, the rise of these problematics in the public debate has generated several mocking words for people pointing at the issue of representation: “social justice warrior”, or “snowflake”. These words show how it is still difficult to be heard and respected while talking about these issues in today’s America.

The cast of Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

On a more positive note, inclusive films have been released recently, potentially contributing in changing POC’s place in the Hollywood landscape for good. We could first mention Black Panther, the first super-hero film with exclusively black characters as the leads. But we’re going to focus on another more recent success, the romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians.
The film, based on a best-selling novel from 2013, was directed by Jon M. Chu,and featuring Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat) and Michelle Yeoh (Tiger and Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha). It tells the story of an ABC (American-born Chinese) who meets her boyfriend’s family in Singapore. Besides being extremely wealthy, his family relies on traditional values that confronts the main character’s Americanized vision of the world. The film’s synopsis clearly aims at an Asian-American audience and was the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature an all-Asian cast in a modern setting. Unexpectedly (or was it?), the film was a huge hit. With 35 million dollars generated in its first week, it was the most effective way to show film executives that inclusive films are attractive to people and deserve to be bet on. And yet, finding a production company for the film was no easy task: Many producers that were interested in the project asked to change the main character into a white woman. The film was saved from being dropped out due to an US-based Asian investment group, Ivanhoe Pictures, and ended up being the most profitable American romantic comedy of the last ten years.

The film does fit the clichés of the rom-com genre, and the Western esthetic standards that goes with it. For example, male characters are represented with very muscular bodies, even though to an Asian audience, an attractive male body would have been much slimmer. But probably for the first time, Asian characters in an American film were introduced not only as the leads, but also as normalized, beautiful and funny characters. They don’t fit the stereotype of the nerdy best friend, the cold yet sexy scientist, but simply humanized and realistic characters who are more than what their ethnicity tells about them. Two years ago, Korean-American actor John Cho had created a humoristic hashtag onTwitter: #StarringJohnCho, where he would photoshop his face on blockbusters’posters (with white leads, obviously). Meant to be funny, it made a lot of Asian-Americans react: it seemed impossible to see in real life. In 2018, John Cho was the main actor in the thriller Searching, and Crazy Rich Asians was a success.

By saying that it matters to have an accurate representation of POC, one could ask, “why?”. Underneath the obvious answer that it’s the “right” thing to have, there is asocial aspect to the representation in the media, and a psychological impact linked to it, that deserves to be looked at on a deeper level.

Today, images are everywhere: whether it be social medias, entertainment, videogames, and so on. Increased exposure leads viewers to believe that what theywatch is an accurate reflection of reality. Visual media teaches us how the world works and our place in it. In the case of a complete lack of representation for people of color, researchers have defined its consequence as“Symbolic Annihilation”: In fact, if one individual never witnesses in medias people that look like him, it will tell a message: that he must be somewhat unimportant and not valued by his own society.  

« Mammy » in Gone with the Wind (1939)

Biased representations bears consequences as well: the social psychologist Claude Steele introduced the notion of “Stereotype Threat”. This threat belongs in thepossibility of disidentification by POC: It consists in “an individual adapting their behaviour in order to avoid the domains in which individuals might conform to a negative stereotype about their group.” As the study states, the individual doesn’t necessarily have to have witnessed the cliché to act that way, just to know it exists.
Negative stereotypes often go along a sense of comparison: for example, white characters in fictional entertainment will often have financial and social stability, whereas POC will be represented as criminals, lazy, violent or living in poor conditions.

Michael Morgan, a retired professor from the University of Massachusetts, directed a research on “television’s effect on self esteem”, focusing his work on itseffect on children. To him, they internalize clichés: “If children (of color)are only aware of the negative on-screen portrayals of POC, they begin to regard themselves in the same antagonistic light.”
In 1940, a psychological test was developed by Afro-American researchers Kenneth and Mamie Clark, called “The Doll Test”. Children (from all ethnicities) would be asked to chose between two identical dolls, different onlyin their skin tone: one black, the other white. All children would have a preference for the white doll. The test was originally conducted to prove the impact of discrimination and racial segregation on children. But to many researchers, it is still accurate today.

Viola Davis with her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (2017)

In 2015, Viola Davis became the first woman of color to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama.  In her speech, she said “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else, is opportunity. You cannot win a role for an Emmy that is simply not there.” Since her 2015 speech,she won an Oscar in 2017 for Best Supporting Actress in Fences. She, as well as many actors of color, spoke of the arduous endeavour of breaking into an industry composed by ¾ of white people. Of feeling invisible or that their stories lack significance, that they will never be told. Until recently, films existed in a skewed version of the word that didn’t represent reality. And it doesn’t stop at America: Hollywood films get broadcasted all over the world. People of color from France, UK, Canada and other countries with a diverse population get affected as well by the way they’re represented in American films. Since 2015, things have been changing for the better. But, as Constance Wu said in an interview in 2016: “Better doesn’t mean it’s good enough”. There’s still a lot of work to be done so that in ten years, children from all ethnic backgrounds may be able to grow up while identifying themselves to fictional characters that will look like them. Thus, they will feel valued, considered by society, and might grow up into adults who will get the chance to write, act or produce inclusive content. Because then, it will be the obvious thing to do.

Lilas Fournel

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