Depiction of Race: Other “Other” Races: Middle Easterners and Asians

What is the first image that comes to mind when you think of Middle Easterners? Did you picture a Muslim terrorist? Is this image often repeated and reinforced in the media?

We now see some Muslim heroes. NCIS: LA now features two Muslim agents, including series lead LL Cool J’s character Sam Hanna. Special Agent Omar Adom “O.A.” Zidan on FBI is also a practicing Muslim. But these few heroes are still far outnumbered by the Muslim terrorists who continue to be hunted on these and many other crime and spy shows and movies.

When you think of Indians or Pakistanis, do you think of convenience store owners?  Do you think of Apu? The 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu called out The Simpsons for this stereotypical depiction:

Many would claim that The Simpsons has always been an “equal opportunity offender,” making fun of each and every group of people in society, so it’s unfair and “PC” to complain about any one stereotype in the show. But does a recurring stereotypical depiction on such a popular show carry more weight because there are so few other media depictions of this racial/ethnic group in American media? (White actor Hank Azaria decided to stop voicing Apu after 30 seasons.)

What comes to mind when you think of Asian men? Kung fu fighters and tech nerds?

Tech nerd and good at math don’t sound so bad. Aren’t those good traits? Are positive stereotypes okay, or are they just as reductive as negative ones, promoting the idea that everyone in the race is exactly the same?

And what about Asian women? Are they often stereotyped as Dragon Ladies and/or sexy and “exotic”?

[Warning, this video is especially obnoxious; the band later claimed the controversial video was meant as parody, but few bought this explanation.]

Of course these stereotypes often come together in the many media depictions of Asian women who are victims of sex trafficking. Do these depictions exploit the scantily clad Asian women on the screen even as they purport to be appalled by the women being exploited within the narratives?

And again, American media blends many distinct Asian cultures, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc., as one, never acknowledging the differences between them, or the diversity within each. Also, what does it say that we refer to western Asia and Egypt as the “middle east” and Asia as the “far east”? East of where? Is this yet another reminder that European culture sees itself as the center of the world?

But what happens when White artists adopt elements of other cultures in their performances?

Is this homage or exploitation? Are they appreciating their sources or appropriating them?

Victoria’s Secret has often been accused of appropriating other cultures.

Does the issue of appropriation take us back to the “two worlds” question from last week? Must mainstream White culture now “ask permission” to interact with and engage in the experiences, fashions, culture of “others”? Must they now at least acknowledge and credit their sources? And in doing so, must they first recognize there is indeed more than one world?

Depiction of Race: Other “Other” Races: Hispanic/Latinx

Do we in the U.S. tend to think of race mostly in terms of Black and White? Does this further marginalize the members of many other races living in the nation?

According to the United States Census Bureau’s 2019 estimates, this is the current racial breakdown in the U.S.:

  • White alone, 76.5%
  • Black or African American alone, 13.4%
  • American Indian and Alaska native alone, 1.3%
  • Asian alone, 5.9%
  • Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders alone, 0.2%
  • Two or More races, 2.7%
  • Hispanic or Latino, 18.3%
  • White alone, not Hispanic or Latino, 60.4%

As you can see, Blacks are no longer the largest minority in the country. Hispanics/Latinos passed Blacks some years ago.

But are Latino and Hispanic the same?

Do all Latinx (the increasingly common gender-neutral term for Latino and Latina) share the same culture, though? Or are there clear distinctions between, say, Mexican and Peruvian culture? Regardless, do U.S. media tend to bulldoze these differences and lump all Latinx together with the same stereotypes?

What are those stereotypes? One of the oldest and most common Latinx stereotypes is that of “lazy Mexicans” or the “Mexicans who steal our jobs” (for a very funny SNL sketch involving this stereotypes, go here; sorry, I couldn’t embed it). I guess we’re not supposed to notice that these two stereotypes contradict each other.

Are stereotypes expected to make sense or even be consistent? Does repetition lead us to accept stereotypes without thought.

Another longstanding Latinx stereotype is that of the bandito. The Frito Bandito would never be accepted on TV today:

But has he found a new incarnation in the modern day narco?

Notice the bandito in past media and the narco in current media both offer the same “silver or lead?” choice.

And then there are the Latin-American gang members who populate many a crime show, especially those set in Los Angeles. Do these repeated depictions lump all Latinx together as criminal, “illegal”?

The Fox TV show Deputy walks a fine line when it comes to the depiction of Latinx. Many of the bad guys are members of Latin gangs. However, the first episode of the show opens with the title character, the deputy soon the become acting-sheriff, refusing to cooperate with ICE sweeps in order to build trust with “undocumented” citizens of L.A.:

Of course, this character is more than a bit of a “White Savior”:

Not only him, the now acting-sheriff, but also his deputy who decides to foster the two children of a gangbanger he killed:

Are we again finding that in the media, the lives of “others” are too often relegated to their supporting role in the lives of White characters?

Might the depictions be different if, say, a Texan with Mexican roots told a story about immigration that featured a Mexican-American as the hero?

Is the issue of depiction of Hispanics and Latinx further complicated by the question of language? Do Spanish-language networks like Telemundo and Univision allow the major networks to rationalize they have no responsibility to Hispanic viewers because “they” are already served by “their own” networks? (Of course, these networks are U.S. corporations; Telemundo is owned by Comcast/NBC.) Do these “separate, but equal” Spanish-language networks raise questions about race and assimilation?

Which leads us to the difference between the “melting pot” and the “multicultural” models of integration/assimilation.  In the “melting pot” model, the US is supposed to be a single, homogeneous nation with the same values “from sea to shining sea.” Any immigrants entering our nation (whether they came willingly or their ancestors were brought here in chains) are supposed to assimilate, to “fit in.” They are supposed to learn “our language” and “our customs” and become as indistinguishable as possible from those who already lived here. Yes, elements of the entering culture may enter the mainstream, especially in regard to “ethnic dining,” but the overall culture remains unchanged.

However, according to the “multicultural” model, each entering culture retains, even celebrates its heritage, and we will all benefit from this, learning from and sampling the best of all of these cultures, embracing our differences as much as our commonalities.

Could these, perhaps, be stages in the depiction and acceptance of different races/ethnicities in the media (and society)? First, members of the group are depicted with a small handful of negative stereotypes. As the group stands up and gets more respect, an assimilated image begins to replace (or at least balance) the negative stereotypes. And finally, if true acceptance comes, then a race or ethnicity’s distinct cultural traits can be shown in a positive way as a heritage worth celebrating?

Depiction of Race: Quantity vs. Quality of Depiction

What exactly would “equal representation“ look like in media? Is it when there is an equal number of characters of every race? Is it when the percentages of various races in media equal those within society?

But is equal representation just a matter of quantity? Or does quality of representation matter as well?

In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award when she was honored as the Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mammy in 1939’s Gone with the Wind.

In 1947, McDaniel became the first Black woman to star in a radio show when she was cast in the title role of The Beulah Show, again portraying a “mammy” figure serving a White family. She continued to play the Beulah role when the radio show became a TV series (1950-1952), making her the first Black woman to star on a TV sitcom.

She was the star of the show, but the role she played was subservient to the other characters.

Things have obviously improved since then, but how much?

  • We now see Blacks and Whites in TV shows together, but how often do we see Black leads with White sidekicks relative to the reverse?
  • We now see Black bosses in TV shows, in charge within the narrative, but how much screen time do they get relative to their White “subordinates”?

Are we still asking the same question: Which is more important, the quantity or the quality of minority roles?

  • If it is quantity, should it be measured by the number of characters, amount of screen time or both?
  • If it is quality, what is the ideal remedy for poor representation, replacing negative depictions with positive ones or supplementing the negative with a wide variety of depictions, some good and some bad, so no one image represents an entire race?

It was not until 2015, 75 years after McDaniel’s Academy Award, that Viola Davis became the first African American woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama.

In her acceptance speech, Davis highlighted the continuing relative lack of opportunity for actors of color:

Who ultimately controls those opportunities?

Who ultimately decides whose stories are told and who is granted the opportunity to play the roles within those stories?

Who ultimately decides how “others” appear in media?

Who owns the media?

ABC pushed to have Connie Britton cast as Olivia Pope on Scandal.

Producer Shonda Rhimes insisted upon casting a woman of color.

But for the most part, Rhimes employs “colorblind casting,” which has led to a much wider variety of depiction in the shows she produces.

Some might call her casts diverse, but Rhimes hates the word diversity.

But are Rhimes’s shows, especially those with Black leads, like Scandal or How to Get Away with Murder, “Black shows”?

We will examine the concepts of “Black shows”  in “What Is a ‘Black Show’?”

Depiction of Race: Seeing Race in Black and White

What color is this?

Band-Aids were once advertised as“flesh–colored”:

Did this send a message that there was just one officially approved color of skin in our culture?

Did it make it seem like anyone with a different color of skin did not belong?

This touches on the concept of the “other,” which came up in past classes.  Basically, anyone who is different from the upper middle class, straight White male standard in our society is recognized first and foremost by the trait that makes them different. So, in the case of race, anyone with a skin color other than White is viewed as different from the norm.

Finally, in 2014, an alternative . . .

. . . acknowledged the wide variety of human skin colors depicted in Byron Kim’s Synecdoche:

photo by Tracy Smith

And in 2017, Rihanna launched Fenty Beauty, greatly expanding the skin tone palette of make-up, reinforcing further that there is not just one “flesh-color.”

Or should I have said “Peach” instead of “Flesh”?  That is what Crayola renamed its “Flesh” crayon in 1962.

As much importance as we sometimes place on skin color, genetics teaches us that our society’s racial distinctions really are only skin deep. Most geneticists no longer even label by race, preferring geographic area of origin. They have also documented that there is far more genetic variety within what we think of as Black or White than there is between Black and White.

Does this imply that much of what we think of as racial difference is actually cultural, not biological. If so, where do we learn these differences?

Are media depictions among the sources from which we “learn” about race?

Are media major carriers and reinforcers of our cultural constructions regarding race?

And in those social and media constructions, don’t stereotypes and skin color often become synonymous? For instance, don’t sitcoms often derive humor from a White character “acting Black” or vice versa? And even if we don’t agree with those labels, aren’t we all aware of what they mean? Does this imply we define race as much by behavior and fashion as skin color?

Do we notice race more when it triggers a stereotype? There are actually far more White criminals on TV than Black ones (same as in real life). Think of all of the White criminals on the Law & Order, NCIS and CSI shows. But when we see one, do we think all Whites are criminals? No, because that is just one of a wide variety of ways in which Whiteness is depicted.

So why does it have racial implications when a Black criminal is shown, especially as a drug dealer or a pimp? Because it gains substance and weight by building on already strong stereotypes?

On the other hand, there are plenty Black doctors, lawyers and police officers on TV. But are they seen as depicting their race, or as exceptions? Does race have less weight when a character is complex, when race is no longer the sole determining trait?

This also brings up a central issue in the debate over stereotypes: Which is a better remedy, replacing negative stereotypes with positive depictions or with a wider variety of depictions, so no one image depicts an entire group?

We’ll take that up in “Quantity vs. Quality of Depiction.”

Baby Don’t Hurt Me

At the beginning of the second episode of Whiskey Cavalier (mildly diverting mindless spy dramedy), they hacked a car’s onboard computer to lock their target’s bodyguards inside their lead vehicle. The hacker also took over the car’s sound system to blast Haddaway’s “What Is Love”:

This was clearly meant to be an annoying “screw you” to rub in their humiliation, but I’ve always liked that song.

However, the truly bizarre aspect of the show was how they identified the assassin who killed the guy they were trying to kidnap. She was a striking black woman, but they constantly identified her as “the blonde” because of her dyed hair. By the end of the episode they were just calling her “blondie.”

I completely get not identifying people’s races when it is not directly pertinent. The Associated Press Stylebook directly addresses this issue:

AP Style holds that you can identify by race when it is pertinent. AP Style gives these guidelines for pertinence.

In biographical and announcement stories that involve significant, groundbreaking, or historic events, such as being elected U.S. president, being named to the U.S. Supreme Court or other notable events. . . .

For suspects sought by the police or missing person cases using police or other credible, detailed descriptions. Such descriptions apply for all races. The racial reference should be removed when the individual is apprehended or found.

The assassin was being sought by this team of spies throughout the episode. Which would be the more unusual and therefore more useful trait to find her in Prague, her blackness or blondeness?

Rapping along with ALL of the Words

Neither Kendrick Lamar nor the crowd was having it when a white fan invited onstage rapped along with all of the words of “m.A.A.d. City”

Delaney may not have suffered the same fate as B-Rad for her faux pas, . . .

. . . but she clearly needs a refresher course in “who can can say it, who shouldn’t and why”:

J.D. knew enough to ask permission:

Denied!

Amy Schumer: Out of Formation?

Apparently, a lot of people are upset about Amy Schumer’s video of Beyoncé’s “Formation”:

They claim it is disrespectful, that Queen Bey is, or should be, exempt from parody. But what makes this a parody? Parody is defined as exaggeration for the purpose of humor. There is no exaggeration in this video. Nor is there any humor. Just because Schumer is a comedian does not mean everything she does is comedy. The audio track is the real song, not some Weird Al rewrite. And the video, which Schumer labels a “tribute,” is just a bunch of women on a film set dancing to a song during their downtime.

Mostly white women.

Is that the video’s real “crime,” that it most prominently features Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn, two white women, two blonde white women dancing to the song? Does this render the video cultural appropriation, unlike the thousands, literally thousands, of other YouTube “dance cover” videos featuring black fans dancing?

Has cultural appropriation expanded from condemning white artists for “stealing” and profiting from black musical styles to condemning white fans for consuming and enjoying black music?

Granted, the issue is a bit more pointed with the song “Formation,” which directly addresses the sad, and too often deadly, state of racial inequality in the United States, but for me, the video’s true crime is that it is boring. It would never pass muster on Lip Sync Battle.

Wait, is that an example of gender appropriation?