Racial representation in media Is an actor’s personality truly enough?

In Media by Ismael Miranda

In all forms of media, fiction is grounded in reality. Unless otherwise stated the audience will assume that the fictional world works the same way our own does. Observing the characters in most forms of media would lead one to believe that the world is full of people who are primarily White and the most noteworthy events and narratives happen to them.

Researchers at the University of Southern California Annenburg, School for Communication and Journalism, studied the 700 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014, excluding 2011, and analyzed the race and ethnicity of more than 30,000 characters to reveal diversity in film.

Data gathered from researchers at the University of Southern California Annenburg, School for Communication and Journalism

The findings were a bit disheartening and revealed that in that span of time virtually no change in varied character portrayals was made. In the numbers gained from the top 100 films of 2014. 73.1% were White, 12.5% were Black, 5.3% were Asian, 4.9% were Hispanic/Latino, 2.9% were Middle Eastern, <1% were American Indian/Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 1.2% were from “other” racial and/or ethnic groupings.

Across various forms of media, the underrepresentation of non-White characters falls mostly on Latinos. Among more than 10,000 characters whose race could be identified, proportions of White, Black and Asian characters were rather close to population figures in the US according to Census Bureau data. When it came to Latinos despite being about 17% of the U.S. population, only around 5% of characters in media are Latino. In terms of numbers of American population to media depictions, this disparity is odd as the three other major racial categories, namely Whites, Blacks, and Asians are fairly accurate.

There is another vein of importance here when it comes to racial representation in media. The role and portrayal of these characters is just as important. Leading roles, interesting backstory, character dynamic, and plot inclusion help cement characters as memorable. The way this is handled in regards to race matters just as much. Even if the numbers of characters in media were split evenly among all races, if the important roles are kept from non-white characters it does little to help.

A lot of this is dependent on the content creators as well as the individuals in charge of green lighting projects. A small section of the population is in control and holds this power When the people in question are primarily White this leaves room for underrepresentation.

Content creators and companies should aim to fix this situation in terms of media. Many people feel that characters should stand alone on their personality and not their racial background. After all, if all people are equal, a character’s skin or ethnic background should not matter. Achieving greater diversity in media is about more than just putting non-White faces in stories, it is about changing what is normal. The “otherness” of people should not feel like a cliché, a novelty, or a celebration. One’s “otherness” should be normalized. A Black, Asian, or Latino main character or lead should not be a rare exception but another normalized facet of storytelling.