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“Is that racist?”: Stereotyping in TV and Hollywood

ByThea Nawal

Jan 31, 2018

From Apu in The Simpsons to Gloria in Modern Family, the long-standing and ever-present use of racial caricatures in television often raises eyebrows and murmurs of the question, “is that racist?”.

After coming under critical scrutiny in recent years for failing decade after decade to represent people of colour (POC) in television, Hollywood has almost frantically created a slew of roles for POC actors. TV shows such as Jane the Virgin, The Good Place, and Black-ish are few of the many to score highly on Mediaversity’s currently limited, but slowly expanding index of racial diversity. The shows portray POC characters exploring complex interpersonal issues, some of which involve their ethnic and cultural identities, some of which do not. Yet many TV shows that feature POC actors in prominent roles score low on the index, such as Modern Family and Silicon Valley, demonstrating how the gradual incorporation of well-developed POC roles into TV has not diminished the popularity of racial caricatures, that is to say, characters defined by stereotypes of their race.

While Sofia Vergara might have succeeded in painting an intricate tapestry of Latin culture on the small screen when playing Gloria in Modern Family, her character is still reliant on an archetype of Latina women being seen as highly problematic and the character compromises complexity for laughs. Felix Sanchez, chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundations for the Arts, criticizes Vergara in the Huffington Post for “[creating] an updated version of Charo, the ‘cuchi-cuchi’ 60s and 70s sexy and ditzy Latina persona”. Vergara however, explains how she is inspired by her mother and aunt when playing the role: “I play her the way I see my mother and aunt behave as Latin women,” she told Time magazine. “And now the writers know more about Latin culture than when I started doing the show, and they know me better, too. So at this point I pretty much follow the script.”

Dong on Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a Vietnamese immigrant working as a Chinese food deliveryman who is good at maths and scared of being deported, recalling typical xenophobic Asian stereotypes without seeming to subvert them in any way. However, Titus Burgess who stars on the show as the failing Broadway actor Titus Andromedon claims that the relationship Dong has with the show’s central protagonist Kimmy Schmidt defies the stereotype that white women don’t like Asian men. “Kimmy doesn’t choose the white man, she chooses Dong,” Burgess explained to Huffington Post. Despite being commendable for its albeit minimally intersectional focus on the central theme that “females are strong as hell”, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is staunch in its two-dimensional depiction of Asians, mocking the outrage of a group of Asian activists towards Titus when he puts on a play starring him as a geisha he believes he was in a past life.

It goes without saying that considerable progress has been made in terms of racial representation in Hollywood, with more POC characters on TV than ever before. But ultimately a significant amount of these characters are not as developed as their white counterparts, and serve as token minorities in some cases, or are often defined solely by stereotypes of their ethnicity — a tested method through which to garner laughter. Gloria is hilarious and lovable, but shouldn’t she be defined by more than a set of stereotypes?

Image: MWDesignCologne via Pixabay.

By Thea Nawal

Winner of the TV & Radio section's best writer award in March 2018.

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