Women in the Media Pt 2: Getting Intersectional

When she came to ask for a part on Star Trek, Whoopi Goldberg was asked why she wanted to be a part of the movie so badly.  She explained that when she was growing up and watching Star Trek (the TV series), she was struck by the presence of Uhura on the Bridge crew, and recalled saying “Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!”  Looking back, she commented that “I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

The media helps inform us of what is achievable and what is acceptable.  I said this in my last post.  But today, I want to really highlight the importance of people of color and especially of women of color in television and film-~-because these groups are severely underrepresented, and the roles in which they are cast can be limited, and consequentially, limiting.

When Whoopi Goldberg was growing up, African-American women were shown on TV rarely, and when they did appear, they were cast as maids or caretakers, never really revealing a spectrum of career possibilities.  When this is all that girls see, they internalize the message that this is the goal, this is the best they can do.  But that doesn’t have to be the case.  Today, many TV shows have taken real strides towards putting women, and women of color, in more diverse roles, showing that there is a greater range of possibilities for those people.

Take for example the show Grey’s Anatomy: the cast includes several strong female characters, a number of whom are women of color.  Dr. Cristina Yang, Dr. Callie Torres, and Dr. Miranda Bailey are all prominent women of color on the show, though their race only comes up in certain episodes (for example, a couple of seasons ago Dr. Bailey had to save a white supremacist’s life).  But all of them are highly successful surgeons who have complicated lives that they are living, and none of them appear to be held back by their race.  (I’ve previously also written about the show’s sex-positivity and portrayal of homosexuality)

You can see another example in Scandal, which stars Kerry Washington as a Olivia Pope, a smart, powerful and successful Washington, D.C. “fixer”.  The show has gotten criticized for the fact that Washington’s character has an affair with the President of the United States, as people claim that this paints the primary woman of color on the show as a homewrecker and a slut.  That’s an argument that can be made, but the flip side is that the show focuses heavily on a biracial couple-~-something too-often absent from television.  Just as networks have incorporated LGBTQ characters into their shows and this has helped to normalize the idea of gay relationships, greater visibility of same-sex couples would make them seem that much more normal as well.

Fox’s Bones does have a number of women of color, but their representation of women went down hill several seasons in.  Although initially all of the women on the show were hard-core scientists (more on this issue later) who were career-oriented and very focused, once babies were introduced to the picture, they suddenly became obsessed with their offspring, lost site of their jobs, and in one episode smuggled their babies into the lab.  Ridiculous.  Show women who are capable of balancing their lives.

But that said, there are plenty of shows that do little to showcase women of color.  Bunheads, which I believe was actually recently cancelled, had a serious lack of diversity, and was criticized for this accordingly-~-actually, by Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal (so a lot of my credit-giving today apparently goes to her-~-worth noting, other networks and other producers have done this, just not quite as prominently).  Girls has also gotten slammed for a lack of diversity, and though they’ve received less attention for it, shows like Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother deserve to be called out for the lack of racial representation.

And don’t even get me started on films.  Remember the last time I brought this up and I was talking about romantic comedies?  So many of them fixate on white women alone (see: 27 DressesThe Wedding DateMusic and Lyrics, etc.)  Even movies that I have previously given a thumbs up to on representing women have a diversity issue (see: Legally BlondeFirst Wives’ Club).  (You can read a past critique of movies I like here.)

The result of this sort of media is whitewashing-~-making whiteness look more prevalent, more the baseline norm than it actually is.  Minorities in the United States actually constitute a significant proportion of the country.  Add this to the fact that women in general are underrepresented in the media, and we have a real problem.   The National Organization for Women (NOW) reports that, at least in television targeting children, male characters appear twice as often as female characters, less than 30% of speaking characters in G-rated movies are female, and four out of five narrators are male as well.  To top it off, about 85% of characters in media targeting children are white-~-even though white people do not constitute 85% of the population.  The result is that women in general, and women of color in particular, are left without media representation that they can connect with, or that is applicable to them.

That’s an easy enough problem to fix, but maybe the first step is to get more women behind the scenes: more female directors, more female producers, more female casting directors who may care more about representing women and women of color.  It’s time for the media to start showing the world as it actually is-~-not whitewashing it so it’s all a mess of vanilla that viewers can’t even connect with.

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~ by Randi Saunders on July 7, 2013.

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