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Copyright © 2006 riceNpeas
In a world where the media permeates every aspect of our daily lives, the power of characterization is undeniable. How does the portrayal of minorities size up in this monster media machine?

Even with the expansive selection of media – basic and public networks, regular newspaper publications, cable networks offering hundreds of channels, television and radio that’s available via satellite and internet – there are groups that still feel there has yet to be a satisfactory representation of minorities in the media.  Entertainment and news media says a lot to viewers about who counts in society. The concern is that portrayals of minority characters in entertainment and news media affect the ways that people, children in particular, see themselves and others, which inevitably affects the ways in which we judge and treat each other. Every group can file a complaint about casting a wider net of representation.  In a 2006 study conducted by Harris Interactive, nearly two thirds of Americans say they believe that most TV programming and advertising is targeted toward people under 40. More than 80 percent of adults over 40 say they have a hard time finding TV shows that reflect their lives.  “I'm not saying that every show, every network should re-shape, but that’s an awfully high level of dissatisfaction among the largest generation group of all time,” said Ken Dychtwald, a psychologist who worked with Harris Interactive on the study. Youth-obsessed media is a perennial gripe, but the folks who tend to get the proverbial short end of the stick are members of the under-represented groups.

As we move into 2007, we can boast a definite difference in the ways black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, indigenous, gay, plus-size, elderly or disabled people have been seen in mainstream entertainment.  They have moved beyond being the pimps, prostitutes, gardeners, martial arts villains, bomb-setting terrorists, and comic relief, and have been elevated to courtroom drama lawyers, emergency room doctors, private investigators, and boardroom movers and shakers.  Yet even with this progression, there is still criticism.  Though it became one of the most popular and successful shows of the 80s, Bill Cosby’s The Cosby Show met its fair share of criticism depicting a successful black family presided over by an obstetrician/gynecologist father and attorney mother living in a multi-bedroom brownstone in Brooklyn, New York.  The criticism was that this was not an accurate representation of black life in America. The show won the hearts of a devoted fan base for eight years, addressing issues that plagued many family structures like discipline and learning disabilities.  Mexican-American comedian George Lopez followed suit ten years later with him at the helm of a Mexican-American family moving through the events of family life.  Many have said that this is simply a white show with Hispanic actors. The history-making success of George Lopez as a Latino comedian, actor, radio personality, and producer has endeared him to many and his show continues to be a success.

When Sesame Street debuted in 1969, children were not only introduced to a variety of lovable creatures and a plethora of numbers and letters, but also to a cast of racially diverse characters who lived in the neighborhood. By modeling diversity, Sesame Street helped pave the way for other shows to follow suit, and today there are many children’s programs that reflect the rich ethnic and racial diversity of the world in which we live. Yet the diversity that young people often see in children’s programming during the day and on Saturday mornings is not regularly found at other times, especially prime time, the most popular viewing time for children. According to a recent study by Children Now, the 8 to 9 PM television-viewing “family hour” is the least ethnically diverse. In 2002, only one of eight American programs had a mixed cast. Prime time remains overwhelmingly white, with people of color appearing largely in secondary and guest roles. The lack of minority representation sends a message about diversity in America to viewers, especially children.  Even our most beloved characters, like in many animated Disney films, vilify characters of color and make foolish sidekicks of black and ethnic-voiced characters. The villains tend to be darker, overweight and are disfigured in some way.  The main (hero) characters (even the ethnic ones) are usually fresh-faced, doe-eyed, and voiced by white actors.  Children who view this media without an informed adult explaining these inaccuracies may form negative biases and prejudices. This can be hard to monitor when many adults depend on the entertainment of television and movies to free themselves from children for a few hours.

Entertainment has the benefit of creativity.  Every story can be told through drama, sit-com or song.  It can represent the most pristine of minority life and the decay of white society on the canvas of poetic license. But what of the news?  There is little room for creativity when the goal is to report the news as it is. Of course, the fundamental nature of news and news reporting is that ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’ Minorities are often times at the center of these dramatic reports. Tragedies, conflicts, and crises get reported; success stories rarely do. But the end result is that a mainstream audience may come to the conclusion that minorities are a troubled, plagued and contentious group. By either ignoring minorities or ‘casting’ them in the role of villain, journalists unconsciously tell us stories about who is important, who is trustworthy, and who is a troublemaker.  The news media has the power to shape the consciousness of a society. Think of the heightened alert surrounding Middle Easterners and Arabs after September 11 or the emergence of HIV/AIDS as a public health issue in the 1980s.  Coverage became more intense and media coverage often portrayed gay men as a serious risk to society.  There becomes the growing need to recruit minority journalists in the mainstream media at all levels of the editorial process.

Perhaps the most forgotten portrait of existence is that of indigenous peoples.  Aboriginal, First Nations, Native Americans and Indigenas have suffered the blows of outright omission in mainstream and news media and have further been reduced to the wise pipe-smoker, mascots, symbols, caricatures, and namesakes for non-Indian sports teams and businesses – think Washington Redskins, The Atlanta Braves and their famous tomahawk chop; the Cleveland Indians with their smiling Chief Wahoo; and the Edmonton Eskimos. Canadian Ojibway playwright Drew Hayden Taylor states, “Should any major league team decide to name their professional team, regardless of the sport, after another ethnic group or culture, there would be a public outcry. Teams with names like the Montreal Haitians, Toronto Jews, Vancouver Sikhs or the Winnipeg WASPs would be rightly rejected out of hand. But Aboriginal people seem to be exempt from such consideration.” Native people are singled out as the only visible minority to be depicted in this way. Some may see this as harmless, where some Native people feel it renders them unreal, like cartoon characters. Author Cornel D. Pewewardy, (The Deculturalization of Indigenous Mascots in U.S. Sports Culture, 1999) states: “Indigenous peoples would never have associated the sacred practices of becoming a warrior with the hoopla of a pep rally, half-time entertainment, or being a sidekick to cheerleaders.” Common as it may be, the use of Native imagery can be seen as insensitive because it reflects no knowledge of, or interest in, Aboriginal traditions, culture or history.  In film, the concept of the “Indian Princess,” who is friendly and sympathetic to the white man’s quest, is common.  Native American writer Joseph Riverwind states,"The Indian princess is strictly a European concept.”  Most stories are conveyed through the lens of the European experience. A common device used by Hollywood has been to use a white character as narrator (Dances with Wolves, Thunderheart). While this treats the Native Indian sympathetically, the reality is that the people are robbed of a voice.

While in places like Toronto, the first city in the Western world in which the majority of inhabitants are people of color, indigenous people (part of that make up) are still relatively absent from the news and other media.

Despite contributing greatly and making up significant portions of Latin populations, blacks in Latin American countries experience extreme discrimination and are scarce in representations of media. A March 2006 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report revealed pervasive discrimination against women, indigenous people, Afro-Ecuadorians, and homosexuals in the country of Ecuador. Afro-Ecuadorians make up 5 to 10 percent of the country’s population; black Venezuelans make up approximately 10 percent of the country’s population; Afro-Colombians make up approximately 26 percent of the country’s population; Afro-Cubans make up 15 percent of the country’s population, while 60 to 70 percent of Cubans are mulatto (of mixed African and European descent); of Dominicans, 9 percent are pure blacks and 75 percent are mulattoes; Afro-Mexicans at one point during the 16th century made up 71 percent of Mexico’s population because they had important roles in Mexico’s military and helped gain its independence from Spain.  Though not publicly touted, the song ‘La Bamba’ by Los Lobos (earlier Ritchie Valens) was originally a song sung by African slaves as they worked in Veracruz.  Bamba is the name of an African tribe in Angola. Mexico employed more African slaves than any other nation in the western world.  The inequities in Latin countries tend to be economic based. With the exception of athletes and entertainers, blacks tend to be the poorest and least respected citizens in the society. The abolition of slavery in the 1800s was not followed by any policy that would give the former slaves social conditions to improve their lives.  So even though they are not in bondage, blacks and indigenous peoples in Latin countries tend to be politically, socially and economically marginalized which of course, puts them on a lower list of considered audiences to be represented or catered to in news or even the ever-present novela (soap opera) which is a mainstay in Latin television. 

This has been recognized in Brazil.  With one of the largest populations of people of African ancestry in the world, around 61 percent of Brazil’s 180 million people are Afro-Brazilians, with another 39 percent mulatto; Brazil now has its first black-owned TV station and magazine called RACA.  Criticized for featuring solely black presenters, having programming specifically made for black audiences with 50 percent of its employees black, it has recognized the need to represent a population of ignored people.

Reflecting the real world: How British TV portrayed developing countries in 2005 is a research study released in April 2006 by VSO, an international development charity. It showed that, “despite the high level of developing world coverage on TV over the last year, there has been no sign of a positive shift in public attitude. TV viewers associated the developing world with famine, disaster and corruption and people’s initial image was very often of starving babies with flies around their eyes.”

The research highlights that news coverage and charity campaigns have also contributed to a feeling that the developing world is a hopeless cause. News reporting of the Asian Tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake brought people’s attention to poorer countries but reinforced a doom-laden view of them. Even the Make Poverty History campaign and the Live 8 concerts, which encouraged awareness, unintentionally confirmed a stereotype of Africa as a continent of ‘victims’ and added to a sense that nothing has changed over the last 20 years.

The ‘Reflecting’ study revealed strong sentiments that TV coverage of developing countries is too negative. Viewers expressed a desire to see the positive side of life in the developing world and experience the progress being made. They wanted TV programs that were positive and transforming, challenged their perceptions, and contained human-interest stories, real-life issues, and characters they can relate to.

There will always be criticism of the media because different people have different needs and different expectations of what the media should deliver.  Do we want to sit down and escape reality or do we want the clearest reflection of it to feel validated? Because of the advances in multi-media systems, the mainstream will, most times, see the glass as half full for the simple abundance of choice, even if the choice is 27 channels of coming-of-age ensemble-cast shows with angst-ridden 20-something hotties.  It seems as though minorities don’t care for extreme assumptions being made about their lives.  If they are portrayed in roles that cast them as working class, there is offense that they are being stereotyped; if they are cast as glossy, sexy and attractive, there is the criticism that they are being eroticized; if they are portrayed as wealthy and successful, then the criticism is that they don’t represent a real or broad enough existence of minority culture.  Audiences want it all and everything in between.

For as many representations of minorities and under-represented groups there are, there are just as many permutations of different lifestyles within those cultures.  Can we ever satisfy every representation of the black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, indigenous, gay, plus-size, elderly or disabled experience?  With the abundance of media outlets, yes.  Will we? It remains to be seen.  For as many gripes there are about enough fair representations, there are enough television shows that cater to an aesthetic of beauty and lifestyle to match it.  So even though art doesn’t represent life in its entirety, the production of it certainly is based on what sells.

1st December 2006
Minorities in the Media
By Desi K. Robinson