Diversity in television

Madison Li and Mayanka Dhingra

70 percent of 127 students who responded to a Record poll believe there is a lack of representation of people of color in television.

“Whether we are conscious of it or not, so much of what we learn growing up and our subsequent views of the world around us comes from what we see on television,” Alex Nagin (9) said.

Because television has such tremendous influence in society today, it is important for young people of all identities to see themselves represented in TV shows to send the message that being gay or being a person of color is normal and accepted, Nagin said.

Diverse perspectives in media can serve as a window to an experience that’s different than your own and also as a mirror in salient moments of universality, Co-Director of the Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity (ICIE) John Gentile said.

Nshera Tutu (10) sees a correlation between diversity in television and the advancement of social justice, she said. “Diversity not only makes for more authentic and interesting TV, but it also allows audiences to experience the lives and cultures of those they don’t know firsthand.” By diversifying TV casts, we increase representation and that can foster cultural tolerance, which is so important in this time,” Tutu said.

“When you have entertainment that isn’t reflective of the world, in terms of human population, it becomes science fiction in a bad way,” Gentile said. “What entertainment has the capability and the capacity to do is to create possibilities for people to see themselves in.”

ICIE associate Sharina Gordon believes depicting a multiplicity of stories to share via television is also really important. “Sometimes, flat caricatures can be more dangerous than having any representation at all, because this puts out a false narrative of certain groups of people that can be hurtful and marginalizing. If this is a person’s only access point to understand different cultures, it can become damaging. At the same time, it is possible to unlearn these ideas and to create space for new, more complete and authentic narratives,” Gordon said.

This is true to some people, but not representative of an entire community,” Associate Director of College Counseling Frank Cabrera said. He believes that a more productive narrative on television would be one in which one’s sexual orientation itself isn’t the core of person’s character, but rather is just one part of their multifaceted identity. “It would be nice to find out mid-season that a character is gay or part of the LGBT community.”

Aside from its comedic appeal, Modern Family sends a great message that shows audiences that one can be gay,  of different races, and share love for one another, Nagin said.

Gregorio Florentino (11) said he has experienced a similar frustration with the stereotypes about the Latino community present in shows like Breaking Bad. “Sadly, the narrative that is presented way too often is that Latinos are drug lords, rapists, or murders,” Florentino said. “Who is always present in these storylines? It’s Mexicans, Colombians, and Latinos in general.”

While not primarily about ethnicity, Florentino believed that Jane the Virgin celebrates aspects of Hispanic culture in a refreshing way, he said. “The show has a very familial theme to it, emphasizing the roles of the mom, Jane, and the grandma as strong women while depicting a value of extended family in a way that is very true of Hispanic cultures,” Florentino said.

For Josh Benson (12), as a white male, his experience was slightly different because “growing up there was always the understanding that I could find people who looked like me on TV,” he said. While Benson is able to find physical resonance with characters on TV, he believes an accurate representation of his Jewish culture is missing, especially during the holiday season when Christmas specials are typically featured instead of ones for Hanukkah, he said.

For example, Benson feels as though in shows like the Big Bang Theory, Jewish people are often portrayed as “impish, conniving, and really greedy,” he said. Benson believes the most important thing TV can do to counter problematic stereotypes is by representing the varying different degrees and shades of that experience.

Ashley Dai (11) didn’t realize that she was underrepresented in the shows that she watched while growing up until middle school, where there were more conversations regarding diversity and media representation, she said.

“When I was growing up, I saw all these white kids living their lives on-screen, and it’s nice to finally have myself represented in shows like Fresh Off the Boat,” Dai said. “Seeing people who look like me on TV makes me feel more validated because it’s a reflection and validation of my identity.”

“When there’s a hero in a show that doesn’t look or sound like you, you never think that you could be the hero or that you could do what they’ve done,” mathematics teacher Charles Garcia said. For this, “to see yourself represented in a hero is really nice, because I want to know that I can do what they did. When it’s done naturally and well done, it feels good.”

By seeing trailblazers like Shonda Rhimes, who created an empire of shows where women of color were the focus of their own stories, young people can see what they accomplish and imagine going beyond the scope of what has already been achieved or create something that they feel is missing, Gentile said.

Growing up with immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic, Cabrera was exposed to telenovelas in addition to American TV, but felt that his identity did not fully align with either one he said. Cabrera believes that it was for this reason that he latched on to the hip hop and R&B culture in his Harlem neighborhood. “It felt comparable because the culture was around me, but again was not my own experience,” he said.

Cabrera said that while he doesn’t find many shows that speak specifically to the Dominican community, there are more shows that speak to the broader Latinx community. “It feels like a start,” he said, “In the Latinx community, while there are certainly differences across the diaspora, you do find similarities that at least make it feel like someone is speaking to your narrative or lived experiences.”

Aside from representation within the cast, the notion of who owns the entertainment draws upon the question of who the writers, creators, and producers of a show are, ICIE associate Candice Powell-Caldwell said. “It is so important that there is a greater diversity of representation in the folks on that end of entertainment. Who is behind the camera, hiring the actors, and writing the script is equally as important as the actors represented on-screen.”

“What entertainment has the capability and capacity to do is to create possibilities for people to see themselves in, because if you feel like you aren’t reflected, then it’s as if you don’t exist in the world,” Gentile said.