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Difference cannot be written in without a plot point or a character motivation.
The Need for Diversity in T.V.
That's a huge problem. The institutions training the future makers of our media-- television, video games, movies, etc.-- assume the standard lead is white, and had my friend not been a female artist, that would be a white man, not woman. In a new study by Nicole Martins published in Communication Research, girls, regardless of ethnicity, and black boys who watched a significant amount of television had marked decrease in self-esteem. In white boys who watched television in the same amounts, an increase of self-esteem was found. The study, which surveyed approximately 400 pre-adolescent students, controlled for age, body image, baseline self-esteem.
So by assuming this standard white male lead in our movies and our television, young white boys have access to images of themselves as all sorts of types of people with respect to their character, their morals, their professional choices, the kinds of friends they might have, and even physical appearance. Those who are female often get the one-dimensional, decorative positions, usually with one body type and three hair color options, that serve to reenforce to girls that their value lies only in their appearance. Those who are not white, particularly black or Hispanic often are portrayed as drug dealers, hoodlums, or general miscreants. Anyone brown enough to pass as Indian or Arab usually gets the option of playing a convenience store clerk or a terrorist. Many characters of Asian descent, which I do not lump together but our media does, are either martial arts experts, token nerds, or get the opportunity to say a few cutely malapropos lines in an adorable accent.
And worse still, as demonstrated by my friend's conversation with her profession, we must have a reason to make our lead characters black or female or handicapped or whatever other difference from the standard they might have. Difference cannot be written in without a plot point or a character motivation. A character cannot simply be themselves, whatever ethnicity or gender that might be, without having a purposeful reason, a teachable moment, a 1990s sit-com lesson.
We never question a character's right to exist as white. But we endlessly pick apart whether or not a character should or should not be a woman, should or should not be black, should or should not be representative of an entire ethnic group. That a persons ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation affects the way they experience and interact with the world is unavoidable; that a character on T.V. must explicitly and constantly address this experience in order to be anything other than white and male is a travesty.
I had a professor in college explain this situation thusly: when you get a rubber duck, the standard duck is male. If you want the duck to be a girl you add eyelashes or a bow. If you want the duck to be a child, you make it smaller, though, remember, without a bow that's still a little boy duck. The standard duck for all of our media consumption is a white, straight, cis-male. Any other character is a deviation that must be explained: with eyelashes or a bow.
In order to be literate consumers of media we must be aware of this' that every lead character we see on the screen who isn't white or male has been questioned. And if we want the content to change, we have to start throwing our own questions right back.
Aminah mae Safi, Contributing Writer: Aminah Mae Safi is Texas transplant based in Los Angeles, where there is an unfortunate dearth of barbeque and queso. She wishes people would stop thinking of cooking as a chore and that feminism would stop being a dirty word. If she could start over again, she'd skipped school to become an action hero. When compiling a heist team to rob a Vegas casino, she would recruit Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Russell, Mathilda Wormwood, and Gertrude Bell. She's probably... (more...)