Taking a look at when representation goes wrong.

By Uma Ribeiro


Image source: imdb.com

With the start of quarantine came more time to find new TV shows and movies to watch, or to re-watch some old ones, too. Sometimes it is the case that re-watching a former favorite will lead to liking said movie or TV show even more. But it is more commonly the case that doing so will lead to the realization that those former favorites are either not as good as remembered or are problematic in one way or another. In many popular TV shows and movies, ones that are known on national scales and others which were once Friday night go-tos, an incredibly inaccurate and more often than not, offensive depiction of people of different ethnicities, and specifically Brown people, was a recurring theme. 

Offensive Portrayals and Their Negative Impact

Taking a look at obviously offensive portrayals of BIPOC in media. 

Pictured above: Max Minghella in brownface, playing Divya Narendra in The Social Network | Image source: YouTube

As of recently, blatantly offensive portrayals of Brown people seem to be becoming more known as offensive to the general public. Such portrayals are nothing new, and yet only in recent years have some realized the dangers of them. 

Some examples of these offensive depictions include Apu from the Simpsons, which was called out in comedian Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary film The Problem with Apu, and Raj (played by Kunal Nayyar) in the comedy series The Big Bang Theory, whose racial identity was used as the butt of many jokes based on inaccurate and idiotic stereotypes.  

Even in children’s TV, such as the Gen Z favorites Phineas and Ferb and Disney’s Jessie, offensive portrayals of Indian culture and racial identity exist. The Phineas and Ferb character, Baljeet, is coated in Asian stereotypes. The character of Ravi in Jessie is also built on stereotypes, and despite actor Karan Brar not having an Indian accent himself, the character of Ravi does. Baljeet is also voiced with an Indian accent despite it being assumed that he has grown up in America with his white counterparts. 

These TV shows are targeted towards young kids, and yet they are filled with insulting stereotypes and racist “jokes.” Indian culture is mocked and generalized in Jessie. Young children then, in turn, learn to laugh at and make a joke out of different cultures and nationalities. 

It should not have to be explained that any and all brownface is wrong and offensive. Brownface is defined as a term “used to refer to the practice of wearing makeup to imitate the appearance of a nonwhite (especially South Asian or Latin American) person, typically as part of a performance. This practice is generally regarded as offensive.” 

Not only is the history of blackface and brownface a disturbing one coated in racism and hate, but brownface in the media, in which white actors in brownface makeup portray Brown characters, takes away opportunities from actual Brown actors. It also contributes to an inaccurate representation of characters and events. 

The fact that The Social Network, a movie which was released as recently as 2010, included brownface, with actor Max Minghella, of Italian and Chinese Descent, playing Divya Narendra, an Indian-American man, shows just how far Hollywood has to go in reversing its problematic and offensive history.  

The Problem with Grouping “Brown people” Together

Taking a look at sneakier versions of inaccurate or inappropriate representations in the media, and why they are, in many cases, just as offensive. 

When someone plays a character of their own race, but of a different nationality, it often goes unnoticed. In some cases, such casting does not interfere with the plot of the tv show or the accuracy of the characters being portrayed, as seen with shows like Jane the Virgin, with a 100% rotten tomatoes score, in which Latina actress Gina Rodriguez, (of Puerto Rican background) plays Jane Villanueva, a Latina woman of Venezuelan background. This show, as many viewers agree, does a fantastic job with representation. 

However, other times the attempt at proper casting goes wrong, as seen in the character of “The Genie of Agrabah” in the popular 2011-2018 series Once Upon a Time. The show, which delves deeper into the stories of Disney characters, cast actor Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) to play the Genie. Esposito, who is of Italian and African-American descent, plays the character from Disney’s Aladdin

The 1992 animated film, in which the character of the Genie originated within the realm of Disney, has been argued as problematic itself, with offensive stereotyping of Middle Eastern cultures and discriminatory depictions of Arab culture. Even the name and creation of the fictional land of “Agrabah,” which is described as “violent,” is harmful and based on stereotypes of the Middle East.

While the characters in Aladdin are racially ambiguous themselves, often just said to be “Asian” or “Arab,” the casting of Esposito and the odd, unidentifiable accent he attributes to the character of the Genie in Once Upon a Time, as well as the “costume” design in which he wears a turban, is simply uncomfortable to watch. 

A much more obviously harmful and offensive portrayal is seen in the revival of the popular 2000-2007 series Gilmore Girls. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life was met with much criticism for its offensive material, and rightfully so. Perhaps the most offensive aspect of the revival was the character of Berta, Emily Gilmore’s maid. For starters, the fact that no one can understand Berta’s “accent” or knows what country she is from becomes a running “joke.” 

Image source: tumblr.com

The fact that Berta is from a foreign country (again, where is not made known to the viewer, but the characterization is typical of Latinx and Hispanic stereotyping) and does not speak English (what language she speaks is also made purposely unclear, but Spanish words are thrown around) is used as the entirety of her characterization. 

This racist and offensive stereotyping is present throughout the revival, which was released in  2016, and as the episodes progress, the wealthy, white, and privileged Emily Gilmore adopts Berta and her children, typical of the “white saviorism” trope and the stereotype that immigrants are incapable or dependent on the white and wealthy. To make matters worse, actress Rose Abdoo, who plays Berta, is of Lebanese and Dominican descent, and plays another character in the show, Gypsy. 

Grouping people of different ethnicities together as a one collective “Brown people” and making caricatures out of immigrants and people from different countries is blatantly offensive, wrong, and problematic. It depicts white and American-born as superior, erases individual cultures and marks them as unimportant, and equates a person’s character with racial and cultural stereotypes.  

Accurate and Healthy Depictions and Why They Matter

The importance of accurate representation on screen and representation behind the camera 

Image source: imdb.com

After taking a look at some of the more problematic depictions of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities, it is important to note the rare occasions in which representation is actually done right. 

Perhaps the most refreshing TV show with the best representation of Indian-Americans seen in a while is writer and director Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. The first two seasons of the comedy follow Ansari’s character, Dev, as he navigates his life and romance in New York. The season one episode, “Indians on TV,” does an especially amazing job of calling out the bigotry and stereotyping within the media industry. 

Master of None also does Black and queer representation right, with the character of Denise, Dev’s best friend (played by Lena Waithe, a Black and Lesbian screenwriter, producer, and actress), becoming the main character of season three. 

Other shows with well-done representation that are worth the watch include Jane the Virgin and Never Have I Ever as well as Parks and Recreation

What do most of these shows have in common? They were written, produced, or directed by those of the same race or cultural identity as the characters being portrayed on screen. And the characters are portrayed by actors who are actually of their same race or ethnicity. 

Image source: imdb.com

Also, what makes representation in these series successful is that the storylines are not solely about the main character’s race or ethnic background. In fact, most of the shows mentioned have main plots and storylines dedicated to other topics. 

While some of these shows may touch on the all-too-real and ever present racism and bigotry people of color still face today, “struggle stories” and storylines surrounding racial identity alone are not present. Racial and ethnic identity is neither ignored nor made into the sole focus of a character’s life, because one or the other would simply not be accurate. 

Hollywood still leaves much to be desired when it comes to telling stories in a way that is fair and accurate, which is why it is so important to pay attention to the stories that are told the right way, with BIPOC writers, directors, and actors leading the way and people of color finally seeing themselves represented on screen.