By: Yasmeen Amjad
August 7th, 2023
As a minority, having representation in the media is all one could ever ask for—that is until the same roles and expectations are assigned to your community time and time again. At that point it’s doing more harm than good.
Opportunities for people of color and other minorities are limited in the film and television industry—from the roles they play, to their jobs behind the scenes to perceptions in the media. Minoritized folks have been neglected in the industry, simultaneously underestimated and held to higher standards, making any action outside of those expectations a swift return to racial and gender-based stereotypes.
When this is done repetitively it becomes typecasting, which Merriam-Webster defines as “[casting an actor] in a part calling for the same characteristics as those possessed by the performer” or “[casting an actor] repeatedly in the same type of role.”
Since its beginning Hollywood has negatively portrayed people of color, who have quickly fallen victim to this pattern, encouraging heavy stereotypes about their community and the perception of the actor’s ability. One of the most prominent examples being “Birth of a Nation,” which utilized Blackface and pushed Black actors into subservient roles such as slaves, maids and butlers, and pushed the idea that Black people were inherently violent. The film’s depiction and treatment of Black people encouraged white viewers to treat Black people horribly and caused Black viewers to beg with officials to ban the film. Despite the negative impacts, these were the only roles available to Black actors. So, in order to succeed at all in the industry, falling into a caricature was simply a matter of time.
The continuous production of movies that depict slavery and the oppression of minority groups can take a toll on the communities that are being represented. By providing a constant reminder of the trials and tribulations that both previous and modern generations have endured, it promotes the idea that people should always feel sorry for oppressed groups. It promotes the idea that these groups are always in need of help, rather than take accountability or educate themselves on these matters. Though based on history, actors and viewers can begin to feel crammed in this space, and the production of these movies can’t fully grasp the horrors endured by Black people at the time.
This isn’t the only example of actors of color being crammed into a specific character arc. Early Hollywood films and those from the 1950s and 60s often misrepresented people of Asian descent. An example of this includes the beloved film, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, which reflects an anti-Asian standpoint through the portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, a whitewashed character that reinforced eurocentrism. During this time some actors, such as Anne May Wong, had to fit certain tropes of their culture. Wong specifically had to take on roles that fulfilled the “dragon lady” and “China doll” caricatures associated with East Asian women, as these were the only jobs offered to her.
More recently, in the 90s and early 2000s many films put male African American actors in dresses for their films. Well known examples of this include Martin Lawerence’s performance as Big Momma, the Wayans brothers in “White Chicks” and the renowned Madea, played by Tyler Perry.
For many comedians, this became the turning point in their careers, putting them above and beyond the level of fame they had before playing a woman-presenting character—almost ritual-like as comedians approached their turn for such a role as their fame escalated.
Though the intentions of such a role are meant for comedic purposes, it does more harm than good. It perpetuates stereotypes of Black men and women through the overemphasis of Black men being “macho” or strong and intimidating to breaking them down to make them more approachable through the performance of femininity. It also makes those who wear dresses and are masculine-presenting the butt of the joke, showing viewers that people who have traditionally masculine features should not be in such an outfit, that it is unacceptable and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Eventually when a community’s representation harbors the same role and characteristics, one can begin to feel hyper-aware of the subtle implications of representation. This is the case for Loren Safta, a student at Wayne State University, who notes the following, “As a Jewish person it’s really not hard to pick up on subliminal messaging but to the general public I see how it’s easier to overlook some of those things because it’s not like an in your face kind of utilization of Jewish stereotypes in media.”
She states this after explaining the depictions of the goblins in the Harry Potter franchise, which are contingent on negative stereotypes of the Jewish community, such as having a hooked nose and being good or stingy with money. This depiction contributes to long-running anti-Semitic stereotypes such as Jewish people being in control of money and the banks or holding significant and impactful roles. On the rare occasion that Jewish people are included in the first place, the majority of depictions for the community in film and television, lead to tokenizing these traits in Hollywood.
Such narratives surrounding the Jewish community exist despite “the founding producers of the film biz [being] Jewish, most of them Eastern European immigrants, excluded and ostracized from virtually every other industry in America,” as Marina Saval writes for Variety. Hollywood can feature Jewish culture, but it can’t be too Jewish.
Regardless, niche genres have been created, allowing for more representation of communities that have been casted aside in the industry. Examples include the recent uptick in Jewish representation in television, with shows like “The Marvelous Ms. Maisel,” “The Goldbergs” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Such a category has featured a Jewish family or main character as the front runner and unapologetically proud of their background.
Another example and phenomenon of niche groups in the industry includes Blaxploitation, a genre created in the 1970s featuring African-American casts and crews creating storylines geared towards Black audiences. The movies in this genre touched on controversial topics like drug use, prostitution and other political conversations, which reflected the climate of the times. Some films, such as “Shaft,” gained so much popularity that audiences from different backgrounds found themselves in theaters waiting to watch the newest film from the Blaxploitation genre.
Though the genre has since faded away, movies made with specific audiences in mind are still being created, such as Tyler Perry’s “Madea” films. Productions like this still harbor stereotypes of minority groups, as did the Blaxploitation genre, but have still gained popularity with people of many backgrounds. The only difference here is that the film is created by someone from the depicted culture who is aiming to create satire for his audience.
Movies now are beginning to include race without weaponizing it and negatively perpetuating biases. For example, “Crazy Rich Asians” involves race, but certain characters aren’t demonized; it’s simply a story of celebrating love and culture. To simply exist in a film or television show without negatively focusing on someone’s ethnicity—as seen in Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” or “Black Panther”—is becoming the new norm.
Though the journey to accurate and positive representations of minorities has been a long one, the door to opportunities for minorities to bring their perspective and talent to an industry that has been overlooking them for so long is opening.
Yasmeen (Yazzy) Amjad is a senior pursuing degrees in psychology and professional and public writing. She hopes to use her knowledge of rhetoric and psychology to effectively edit and write stories. Yazzy is passionate about all forms of storytelling. In her free time, she enjoys baking, watching movies and TV shows, listening to podcasts, and reading for hours on end.