“Why does it matter if it’s another white guy?”

Hollywood has an obvious history of whitewashing and disproportionate casting of straight, white, cis-gendered actors in their films, more often than not in the lead roles. We’ve mentioned Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings before on the blog, featuring an all-white main cast despite the show being about Egyptians in Africa, as well as the The Last Airbender movie adaptation of the animated series, where casting calls, according to Racebending.com, listed preference for Caucasian actors for the leads and people of color for the villains, supporting characters and extras, despite the original source material featuring a clear multiracial, non-Caucasian cast.

Exodus and The Last Airbender both ultimately ended up with generally unfavorable reviews, and these are the considerably more obvious examples of the stereotyped discrimination in the entertainment industry. Progress for diversity in representation and casting has been an upward trend, more especially in television though much less so in films. But really, why does it matter if the lead of your new favorite movie is another white (and probably straight, cis-gendered) guy?

Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘The Prince of Persia’.

There’s long been the argument that as long as the acting was good and race wasn’t an integral part to the character or the story, it didn’t matter who the actor was. There’s a subtler, more pervasive form of stereotyped discrimination for the actors of color in the entertainment industry, though – after all, we can’t have Will Smith and Denzel Washington playing every black lead ever.

According to a 2012 study done at USC, three-quarters of characters with speaking roles in top-grossing films were white. The same study also found that ironically, 44% of movie tickets that were purchased that year were by people of color. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) has stated the difficulty ethnic-minority actors face in finding high-profile parts that weren’t stereotypical clichés or the same tired, typecast roles on the big screen: “There are so few roles out there…it’s not just black people. It’s Asians, it’s Hispanic people if you’re not Salma Hayek…it’s hard to get films funded. It’s a business thing, and you have to change the mindset of people around here.”

There’s another point she brings up in The Guardian article: “Little kids need to be able to turn on the TV and see real-world representations of themselves,” she said. “It’s very important. You need that representation.” Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o attributed her inspiration to become an actress to seeing Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah in The Color Purple; subsequently, Goldberg was inspired by Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek.

Representation, diversity in casting and telling stories is important to accurately reflect the changes in what has become the ‘new’ mainstream American society. TV and film are fantasy, true – people often watch movies and shows to escape reality’s problems, not to look at a mirror portrayal of real life. But to the younger audience, it’s an acknowledgement of existence that is powerful, and they are the ones that will be impacted, socialized through, and shaped the most by what they see on the screen.

-Angela Shen

The ‘GBF’ and ‘Token Minority Friend’ Trend

Will and Grace, Sex and the City, and more recently Girls have displayed a seemingly harmless pop culture trend: the presence of the Gay Best Friend, risen in part because of an increasingly accepting society and expanding visibility for gay men – but the trend is also representative of more than just another stereotype reducing the multi-faceted identities of individuals down to a ‘type’. It reflects on previous similar minority tropes that have trended into popularity (such as the Sassy Black Woman) where it seems the TV network is testing the waters for new levels of acceptable portrayals of these groups. The 2014 movie G.B.F. highlights the bizarre associations of the trope through a group of girls’ pursuit of the idealized Gay Best Friend (seen in the video below) where by the end, realize how reductive these stereotypes are no matter how well-meaning they may be; it’s ultimately a criticism on the idealized, illogical depictions of gay men in pop culture and media as the style gurus, throwing sass and shade when needed, and existing only to comfort or complement their female friends.

Moze Halperin in Flavorwire sums up this ‘GBF’ phenomenon best: “Gay villainy had been a major cinematic trope long before gay people were given the luxury of getting to throw constructive shade at their girlfriends’ spaghetti straps. Villainy was funneled into the less offensive category of pure sass.” Like the ‘token minority friend’ trope faced by many minority characters on television who are there to fulfill some invisible diversity quota, creating characters not solely represented by their race, sexuality, or any one defining feature is hard. So how do we get out of the trap of these destructive trends that really do more harm than good?

Luckily, the platform for new voices, especially on TV, is growing. LGBTQ media activist Cathy Renna says, “The LGBT community could very easily — and increasingly is — be better represented in our culture in two ways: more diversity and more depth.” The same can be applied to ethnic minorities. Remembering that there is no ‘one’ way or ‘correct’ way to represent or define one race, culture, or identity, in whatever trend  pop culture or the media have deemed to be ‘socially acceptable’ or trending at the time, is important. We’ve gone through the Sassy Black Friend, the Strong, Independent Woman, the Gay Best Friend (and more), using these stereotypes with good intentions but with seriously reductive misrepresentations, check-marking inclusions into popular shows like Modern Family, while there is so much more to these characters than the one way they’ve been traditionally represented or their stories told.

Show us the humorless, fashion-ignorant queer men, the heroine whose strength isn’t chalked up to her masculine traits and lack of emotions, the minorities of all identities who don’t come from well-adjusted families or histories. Entertainment doesn’t have to mirror reality, but it has significant power in changing and influencing the perspectives of what is accepted and visible, and it doesn’t have to set any sort of agenda to do so – it just has to be honest.

-Angela Shen