Culture

Whitewashed

Tiphany Adams
Tiphany Adams
The Sundance Channel launched Push Girls in June 2012, a new reality series following five women living with paralysis. Though all five are wheelchair bound, the show demonstrates their lives are just as full and complicated as anyone’s, and includes a woman named Tiphany Adams who dates both men and women. | Photo: The Sundance Channel | Tiphany Adams, The Push Girls, Reality, Bisexual, Wheelchair, Paralysis,

The Need for Diversity in T.V.

An art student friend of mine recently told me about one of her projects, in which she was drawing character sketches for a T.V. show. She-- a young, white, future creative professional-- drew a young, black girl as her main character. Her teacher, upon my friend's submission of her initial ideas, asked why she had drawn her character black. My friend simply said she had thought of the lead as black, without feeling she needed a specific driving character or plot point to make her lead a black teenage girl. Her teacher instructed my friend to change the character back to the default setting-- white.

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.

Captain Kirk and Nyota Uhura
Captain Kirk and Nyota Uhura

Nyota Uhura is a character in Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Animated Series, the first six Star Trek films, and the 2009 film Star Trek. The character was portrayed by Nichelle Nichols in all but the 2009 film, in which a younger Uhura was portrayed by actress Zoë Saldana. There's also that other guy, Kirk something. | Nyota Uhura, Captain Kirk, Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols, William Shatner,

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.

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Updated Apr 22, 2017 9:06 AM EDT | More details

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