The American Story: Pop Culture's Problem In Plain Sight And Sound

We have a white supremacy problem in America. The term “white supremacy” elicits images of Neo-Nazi groups (often called the “Alt-Right”) and cowards in white hoods, but in reality- in a culture with institutionalized white supremacy- white supremacy can be upheld by white “moderates” and white liberals who claim not to be racist, even in popular culture. The stories we tell are more than just a way to pass the time, they reveal who the villains and the heroes are in our society. Pop culture exposes what we value and what is disposable; it explores what is human and what is alien to us. So long as the lens of whiteness is the primary perspective of which we understand american life, everyone else will struggle to be seen.

To understand american pop culture we must take snapshot of America, and look to see who are the “entertainment consumers”. If all things are equal, the representation in media should be similar to the demographics. Hold your breath, there’s going to be a little bit of statistics here, but I promise it’s worth it.

According to US Census Data in 2016 there were over 323 Million Americans in the United States. 50.8% of them are women; ethnic breakdowns were 17.8% Latinx, 13.3% for African Americans, 1.8% for Native Americans, 5.7% Asian, 0.2% for Pacific Islanders. The remaining 61.3% Identified as “White Alone”. Gender expression and sexual orientation weren’t recorded in the Census, but Gary Gates of UCLA's Williams Institute estimates that 3.5% of the American population is out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual; with 0.3% of Americans identifying as trans. 0.3% may not seem like a lot, but if every trans person in America lived in one town, it’d be roughly the same size as San Diego with over 1.3 Million people. While we’re on the subject, more millennials are identifying as LGBT+ than ever before. A GLAAD- Harris Poll states that 20% of its millennial respondents identified as LGBT, and 12% of Millennial respondents identifying as either trans or non binary.  

If all things were equal, we could imagine a tv show based in a generic, representative city in 2017 with 10 characters. Half of the characters would be female. 6 would be white, there’d be at least one African American and one Latinx character, and the remaining two would be Asian, Native, or Pacific Islander. If it was about Millennials, 4 of them would be LGB and one of them would be trans. The Ralph J. Bunch Center for African American Studies at UCLA released a report looking at the 2014-2015 scripted television shows, out of 123 Lead roles 88.6% were White, and 64.8% were male. GLAAD found that out of 125 films released in 2016, only 23 (18.4%) had LGBT characters, and nearly half of those 23 films included less than one minute of screen time for their LGBT characters. 80% of those LGBT characters were white, and only one of those films had Transgender characters.

In 2015, April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite because, aside from a Best Picture nomination for Selma, and a Best Director win for Alexander Iñarritu for The Revenant, no people of color were nominated in any of the major categories that year. Two Years later, she is still explaining that #OscarsSoWhite wasn’t just about Black actors. “AGAIN I say that #OscarsSoWhite was about more than just Black people. How has it ended w/ no films reflecting other marginalized groups?“ In 2017 Dev Patel became the first Indian actor to be nominated in 13 years for his work in Lion and became the 12th Asian actor ever to be nominated in the 89 years of the Oscars. “There is a lot more work to be done, and until all groups are properly and sufficiently represented in films and in entertainment generally, #OscarsSoWhite will continue.” .

When featured, PoC and LGBT actors often serve as supporting characters in white-focused narratives. Before we continue on to the type of roles that available for these groups, we must first quickly look at the importance of representation on society’s perspective of marginalized groups. (This is the last of the stats, but they’re crucial.)

Recent studies estimate that 75% of white people in the U.S. have "entirely white social networks without any minority presence." GLAAD states that, “84% of Americans continue to learn about transgender people through the media," If ¾ of white America doesn’t have a person of color as a friend, and 84% of American’s only exposure to trans people is on tv, the portrayals of these groups in pop culture will profoundly shape society’s view of these people. When marginalized people get roles, it’s not often that they are portrayed as fully developed characters with complex stories of motivations. In these stories marginalized people serve to reinforce stereotypes, serve the needs of the protagonist, and only have character development because of the protagonist. These characters often behave in ways that reinforce prevailing racial stereotypes, for example as the “sassy” side kick, the magical servant, or the exotic lover.

While hiring more actors is important, April Reign explains why that that’s not enough, “#OscarsSoWhite is about all facets of filmmaking and the entertainment industry in general. This year we've seen some tremendous firsts but it's unfortunate that we're still talking about firsts in 2017. So it's not just about who gets to portray the story in front of the camera, but also who gets to tell the story behind the camera.“. In a now viral video, Matt Damon, who can be described as a hollywood liberal, angrily explains to Producer Effie Brown that when it comes to selecting directors, it should be done on the basis of merit, and that "When we talk about diversity — you do it in the casting of the movie, not in the casting of the show,". This issue of “Merit” and finding the “best person for the job” is often a refrain we hear in this industry as the reason for the divide in opportunities available to PoC and LGBT persons. The implication is that the best people for the job are always white, and that the lack of diversity is because these marginalized groups “just aren’t good enough”. This is a disingenuous claim to make, because when the people who are writing, directing and casting the show are looking for “a leading man”, the societal loop they’ve created suggests that will be a white man.

Directors often claim that if movies feature predominantly POC they won’t make as much money. Ridley Scott director of the movie Exodus said, “if my lead actor is Muhammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” it won’t get funded.  Sometimes not hiring PoC is a “preference or stylistic choice” which justified Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan. The most common claim is that when a cast isn’t all white then it’s not as relatable, and will not perform as well in the box office.

The reality however, is in direct contrast to most assumptions about diverse movies. Girls Trip, featuring an all-Black female cast, opened at $30M (ahead of Bridesmaids), The thriller Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele, has the Highest Grossing Debut Based On An Original Screenplay, and is the Second-Biggest R-Rated Horror Movie Ever. Not to mention the fact that diverse films do better in domestic and global markets. Viola Davis said it best, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win awards for roles that are simply not there.“ When LGBT and POC are allowed to opportunities to create and perform, and are not held back by those who would continue a system of white supremacy, they shine brighter than anyone else in the game. The lack of representation in pop culture is not an issue of merit, but an issue of choice by people to uphold racist ideals.

Sometimes when there is an opportunity to tell a story about POC or LGBT people the characters are portrayed by white or cisgendered/heterosexual actors. While there’s a long history of this, current examples include Jared Leto’s Trans character in Dallas Buyers Club, Emma Stone’s as a half Asian woman in Aloha, and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. This whitewashing (and cis- and hetero- washing) is problematic because marginalized groups that normally aren’t offered lead roles are not being considered for roles explicitly written about them, which they should have the opportunity to perform.

Other times Hollywood completely revises history, eradicating the diversity of the period in favor of a more monochromatic and heteronormative setting. History however, contradicts the Hollywood narrative that everyone was hetero or white. For example: Stonewall Riots were not led by a white gay men, they were led by Queer Women of Color Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, There were Black and Latinx cowboys, Trans people served in the American Civil War, Black Soldiers and Sikh soldiers were a vital part of WWII, and Black people have lived in Britain since the Romans lived there. The lack of diverse storytelling is a conscious choice that does not reflect history.

If there were an award for most creative reason for lack of diversity in films sci-fi, action and fantasy directors would win for the excuse that “it’s not realistic for PoC to be there.” or “We don’t want to change the established norms of the universe.” Whether that’s the idea that one of the sexiest men alive is “too street” to play the fictional spy James Bond, or the complaints about a Black Johnny Storm; people would have you believe it’s possible to suspend disbelief for a fantasy world where dragons speak, but an Asian hobbit is just a step too far. Of course sometimes Hollywood and white audiences can understand some creative changes. Disney recently created a white character for the new live-action movie Aladdin not seen in the original 1992 version. Aladdin you will remember is set in the mythical land of Agrabah, a place so ethnic sounding that 30% of GOP voters favored bombing it earlier this year. The change to include a white sidekick in Agrabah is an understandable, but the idea of a half Asian “Iron Fist” played by the infinitely talented Lewis Tan was just too hard to swallow.

Erasure and Black / yellow face isn’t only limited to film and TV, We also see it in the in the music industry and other areas of pop culture as well. (The Rolling Stones, Adele, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne, The Harlem Shake, Thug Kitchen, digital Black face in gif replies, use of the word “On Fleek”)

The lack of diversity, and erasure of POC in pop culture continually frames society's point of view through the lens of whiteness. In movies like The Help, (and many others) the stories focus on a white protagonist within a larger story about PoC’s struggle. Throughout these movies, the audience views the world through the main character’s eyes, relates to and sympathizes with them and the plot does not move forward without them. Even if the story is focusing on a villain, they become an “anti-hero”. We are interested in the motivations of their crimes and often times sympathize or root for them compared to how we would traditionally view villains (Breaking Bad, the Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Pirates of the Caribbean, Dexter). When we look at news coverage, the lack of diversity in our entertainment storytelling affects the way we tell news stories. This can be easily shown by the way white crime and Black crime are portrayed on the news, or how white rioters vs Black protestors are covered.

While platforms like EFNIKS lead the way in changing how PoC and LGBT people are represented, it is not enough just for marginalized groups to create their own spaces. Allies must stand up against white supremacy, even when it seems innocuous and subtle. Small actions like Actor Ed Skrein turning down a white washed role for the movie Hellboy add up. Resisting white supremacy allows us to shape society and tell a more interesting and accurate American story.


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