It was like any other Friday night. Senior Selena Lam and her friends sprawled out on the couch with a bowl of Funyuns and a remote in hand. Netflix’s red logo popped up on the TV screen. As “The Office” theme song played, her friends gushed over their love for Pam and about how much they relate to Michael, characters on the show.
It wasn’t until she was in that conversation about “The Office,” one of her favorite shows, that she realized not a single character looked like her.
But they did look like her friends.
“I usually watch ‘The Office.’ I don’t think there is an Asian character in there. I think there’s an Indian character, which I guess is an Asian but I don’t identify with that,” Selena said. “I don’t see Vietnamese people that often. There’s a few minorities in sitcoms, but not my kind of minority. They’re not my ethnicity.”
Selena is not the only person from an ethnic group who’s not being shown. In recent years, different cultures/minority groups have spoken out about the lack of representation in movies and television. Because of this discussion, entertainment media has become more diverse by casting a wider range of actors.
The emphasis on cultural representation in entertainment is not just about who is on television and movies, it is about their impact on who’s watching.
“It’s nice to see. It makes me feel good about myself. I think that this could be me and I could relate to this person, regardless of the theme or the topic of the movie,” junior Caley Burnside said. “This person is being presented as an equal member of society, not just white people.”
People who do not see themselves in movies or television sometimes have to search for content that includes them.
“As an African-American female I do see myself being represented in media because I personally geer myself towards media that has people like me in it like ‘Dear White People,’ the Netflix series or movies like ‘Black Panther,’” Caley said. “However, more specifically as a mixed female, I don’t really see mixed girls being represented. It’s mostly just dark skinned black women, which is great, but light skinned black women exist too.”
Younger viewers have less choice in what they watch, which gives them fewer opportunities to see someone who looks like them.
“When I was younger, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me,” Caley said. “I was obsessed with Disney princesses and for the longest time my favorite Disney princess was Cinderella because Tiana hadn’t come along yet. When she came along, I bought everything that had her face on it.”
Film production companies such as Walt Disney Studios are taking a step towards more diverse movies, especially with the casting of Halle Bailey, a black actress, who will play Ariel in the upcoming reboot of “The Little Mermaid.” This casting marks the first time Disney has selected a woman of color to play a traditionally white princess in one of its live-action adaptations.
“I’m happy because it’s showing young girls from this generation that they don’t just have to be white to be pretty,” sophomore Lizbeth Silva said. “Most of the Disney princesses are white and there’s only a few that aren’t but this will be the first live action princess girls like me will have to look up to.”
Just being represented isn’t the whole issue. Being represented as a stereotype is another problem.
“For awhile, the black female was like the loud, ghetto friend, but nowadays she’s the smart one. The pretty one. The nice one. The popular one. I can relate to that,” Caley said. “Not saying I’m smart or pretty or popular, but it’s nice to see something other than the ratchet, I had a baby at 16 and am still living with my mom working a minimum wage job.”
The way a character acts on screen can give viewers expectations on how people in real life are supposed to act.
“People are watching these movies and movies have stereotypes. Like I was saying about the ratchet, loud, black friend, people expect you to act that way and when you don’t, they don’t get it,” Caley said. “I hear it all the time. People tell me, ‘you act white. Your voice is too proper.’”
The use of these stereotypes have encouraged those who are being misrepresented to change the way they act.
“In movies they use stereotypes as jokes and I don’t want to act like a joke because people are going to laugh at me just like they did the movies. And if they do laugh at me, of course, it’s going to lower my self-esteem,” senior Anthony Mejia said. “Movies, they either try to tell you that this is what you should do, or since people do it already we should make it known
However, everyone is affected by these stereotypes.
“Movies tend to romanticize things. All ethnicities, even white people, I don’t think they’re accurately represented because there’s only a few characters in a movie. They may represent a few key emotions, but I don’t think they can represent everyone possible because everyone’s different,” Selena said. “In my ethnicity there’s a ton of different people. You can’t categorize Asians. You can’t categorize everyone.”
Even when there is diversity in entertainment media, some students feel like the casting can be forced.
“They [movie producers] do make more movies using who the media says they should use,” Anthony said. “I see that they want to make everyone happy, but then it just gets to the point when it doesn’t make an actual good movie. They’re just looking for what they think should be made, it just has no story or sometimes purpose.”
For some students, the stereotypes are more than jokes that warrant a few laughs. Instead, they end up being labels for who they are supposed to be.
“Not many people talk about the Mexican culture. They think they know what we’re about and then they make a movie about us,” Anthony said. “Since they made a movie about what they thought they know, then it just makes everyone else think they know Mexican culture.
“When people see me the first thing they have to ask is, ‘do you play soccer?’ I don’t get offended by it. I know some people who do, but it all circles back to how movies make stereotypes about you and people taking that away from the movie. Now it’s who you are.”
Instead of learning about minority groups from movies, Caley suggested looking beyond the stereotypes presented and get to know other people.
“With me being an amalgamation of different ethnicities and regions, I try to learn a little bit about each part of myself, which entails knowing a lot about different cultures,” Caley said. “I try to be friends with people who aren’t like me, so learning about myself and them gives me a leg up on knowing about different cultures. But if you don’t have any friends of different cultures or ethnic backgrounds, you can always take the decency and the time to learn about them.”
Selena doesn’t get her role models from entertainment media. She may not have a Disney princess that she can look up to, but she does have her parents. They invite other Vietnamese people around the community to retain all their traditions.
“My parents went through a lot to get to America. They were immigrants and I’m a first generation. They went through a lot of hardships to provide what I need and to have a better future,” Selena said. “I don’t need to look towards media to find my ethnicity. I can find it by myself in my family.”