Media makers must consider racial representation

By Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

Works of art can seem diverse on the surface but have deeper flaws within, and media makers should carefully consider the effects their work will have on viewers.

Artistic liberties, creative freedoms and free speech all play a role in creating influential art, but so does awareness of culture, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. For example, the long-running TV drama “Grey’s Anatomy” has received both praise and criticism for its diverse cast and characters. The show is progressive because head writer Shonda Rhimes casts men and women of different races and sexual orientations in equally important roles. However, “Grey’s Anatomy’s” use of scripted diversity without exploring realistic cultural differences can seem forced.

Artists use creative freedoms to make their work meaningful, but media makers must consider how their portrayals affect real people. Lena Dunham’s HBO show “Girls” has been scrutinized for exclusively highlighting the homogeneous lives of upper-class white girls in New York City. Dunham responded to this criticism in a May 7, 2012 NPR broadcast, defending her work by saying the show is based on her personal life and experiences. Dunham claimed that she cannot write characters who come from backgrounds that differ from her own because they would seem unrealistic. However, ignorance is no excuse.

It has been said that writers should write what they know. Dunham identifies as Jewish, noting her mother is Jewish although her father is not. Even though several of her characters are written as Jewish, they do not portray the culture effectively and she is therefore missing an opportunity to connect with the Jewish community in a poignant way. Only portraying one tiny facet of life in her fictional stories does a disservice to underrepresented groups that face prejudice.

Alternatively, Mindy Kaling is one of a few Indian-American actresses currently playing a lead role on network television, which places a lot of pressure on her to give an accurate representation. She combats this imbalance by referencing her race throughout her Fox show “The Mindy Project” while refusing to write a role for herself in her show that would typically be typecast for an Indian-American woman, therefore empowering Indian-American women in a subtle but powerful way. Dunham could maintain the feminist essence of “Girls” and showcase New York City’s undeniable diversity by writing in subtle mentions and anecdotes about being a part of Jewish culture to truly represent and connect with the Jewish community in a way that could combat stereotyping.

A 2007 study conducted by Texas A&M University professor Srividya Ramasubramanian and Pennsylvania State University professor Mary Beth Oliver suggests that media portrayal of stereotypes of both blacks and Asians increased prejudices among the viewers studied, showing that viewers easily accept such stereotypes and internalize them.

Lena Foote, undergraduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researched the negative impact of iconic Disney princesses on young black girls in 2011. Disney’s only black princess, Tiana of “The Princess and the Frog,” further perpetuates stereotypes through the way her hair, body and attire are depicted as well as through her ostensibly limited vocabulary, which Foote concluded leads to low self-esteem in black girls.

This issue also extends into other children’s movies. Georgiana Dumitru, marketing manager at St. James Group in the United Kingdom, published a 2010 research paper titled “Socio-psychological Impact of Media on Children,” which found that children learn primarily by observing, concluding that children emulate many of the behaviors they witness on-screen that earn positive reactions.

In the recent “Despicable Me 2,” the villain, distastefully named El Macho, encapsulates all the stereotypes of a Latino man wrapped into one character. The fact that “Despicable Me 2” is a children’s movie is precisely why the overt stereotyping seen through El Macho is problematic. Dumitru’s study suggests that children subconsciously soak up messages in the media they consume, and media makers must remain aware of this.

By definition, art pushes boundaries and often makes viewers uncomfortable. Artists should aim to make their work as genuine as possible but should not lazily regress into familiarity. Instead, they should push the boundaries and try to connect to all cultures.

Drawing on personal experiences can add to an artist’s work, but media makers must be mindful of the wide spectrum of perspectives if they want to produce effective art. Artists need to demonstrate a broad understanding of the world’s various cultures to create positive change and effectively communicate with a realistic and diverse audience.