It is an undeniable fact that the Western media does not reflect our multicultural reality. I have long awaited the arrival of representations of people of colour in Western media. It is certainly refreshing to see the tide begin to turn, to witness the rise of media that does represent minorities and focus on their experiences.
However, what dampens the arrival of minorities on screen is the lack of valid and authentic representations of people of colour on screen. Many of the existing representations in the Western media struggle to portray people of colour as individuals. These representations are either highly reductionist or portray people of colour through a Westernised lens, as representatives of a homogenous group.
Representations of people of colour in the media are not trivial, they are far more important than one might assume. Representations of minorities in the media can often give voice to underlying prejudices and power dynamics and reinforce and legitimise them.
However, it is important to understand that while the media has reflective power, it also has transformative power. While it may reflect inherent issues in society, the media, as the shared public sphere, also holds great potential for challenging oppression. For this reason it is essential to engage with misrepresentation and stereotypes.
While stereotypes are an issue in themselves, problematic representations of minorities also include what has been conceptualised as the ‘cultural annihilation of race,’ which encompasses criteria such as ‘absence, omission, or even an inclusion that is not so obviously problematic.’
It is essential to critique existing stereotypes in the media but also important to take note of omission of people of colour from the media. It is also important to dissect existing representations which may seem inclusive or positive. It is only be doing this that we can truly move towards authentic representations of people of colour as individuals that do not amplify the ‘otherness’ of people of colour. Nadia and Leila Latif, in an article for the Guardian have devised a racial equivalent of the Bechdel test, originally used to determine the authenticity of female characters on screen. Called the DuVarney test, it aims to outline criteria that can be used to determine whether people of colour are being represented as individuals or if they are just props in a primarily Westernised narrative.
‘Are there two named characters of colour? Do they have dialogue? Are they not romantically involved with one another? Do they have dialogue that isn’t comforting or supporting a white character? Is one of them definitely not magic?’
Other criteria that I think hold relevance are; whether they are playing a highly stereotypical role? Are they relying on the denigration of their own culture for humour? Are they perpetuating the white saviour complex? Are they being overtly sexualised or fetishized?
I want to critically examine some of the existing representations of people of colour in the media using the DuVarney test as well as my own criteria.
1. Game of Thrones
I will begin with the most problematic example that will be discussed in this article. Game of Thrones does not have an issue with diversity, it is downright racist. All people of colour in the film are portrayed as slaves, inferior to a primarily white cast of characters. The fact that they are liberated by Daenerys Targeryen plays directly into the white saviour complex. Danenerys is portrayed as the liberator and the ‘breaker of chains’ but she is just as power hungry as the rest of the protagonists. Her benevolence is merely a tactic to exploit the labour of people of colour in the show.
It could be argued that Game of Thrones is dealing with a fairly restrictive narrative. After all, it a show based on George Martin’s books. However, even if the narrative is restrictive, the representations still leave a lot to be desired. All people of colour in the film, including the unsullied and the Dothraki are portrayed as primitive and incapable of complex emotion. This is highly apparent in the case of Khal Drogo. Even when the unsullied are liberated, the emphasis is always on this physical abilities, they remain emotionally primitive. Furthermore, Greyworm and Missandei, the only two central characters of colour, are romantically involved.
Ultimately, all characters of colour are there to prop up the narratives of the white characters. They are inferior, they are exotic, they are primitive and ultimately they are expendable tools to be utilised in a white conflict. Not only does Game of Thrones reinforce power dynamics, it is unable to image a fantasy world where people of colour are intelligent individuals with autonomy.
Representations that further enhance power dynamics are counterproductive and problematic. Media, especially successfully media like Game of Thrones has an immense amount of power. People who consume media like this, especially people of colour, are repeatedly conditioned into viewing minorities as inferior, a view that is already present in society.Needless to say, Game of Thrones does not pass the test.
Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, would have a field day with Disney’s Aladdin. The entire film is classic Orientalism, a homogenised construction of the East viewed only in opposition to the West and thus attributed exaggerated and inaccurate qualities.
The opening song of the film goes, ‘I come from a land…where the caravan camels roam…where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric but hey it’s home.’ While these words were later altered to be more politically correct, the original words make it clear that East is exotic and magical but also barbaric and villainous. It may be a wonderful place but it exists as undoubtedly inferior to the West.
Similarly the protagonists, Aladdin and Jasmine, are given America accents while villains in the film are given Middle Eastern accents. Evil in the film exists in direct opposition to white supremacy.
Princess Jasmine is an overtly sexualised doll, she is clad in skimpy clothing, especially in comparison to other Disney princesses. She is a white male fantasy of a woman of colour, sexual, attractive, detached from her culture and lacking agency or freedom.
While Aladdin a fairly antiquated example, its popularity has meant that its presence is still prevalent today. There has been research to suggest that children as young as six years old begin to form strong preferences towards their own race at the expense of characterising other races as the ‘other’. This is particularly apparent when there is no educational discussion of race. Instead, many children form their understanding of race through social interactions and the media.
If this is the case then Aladdin tells children that people of colour are barbaric and uncivilised, except when they are Westernised props that support a white fantasy.
Aladdin most definitely does not pass the test.
3. Fear of a Brown Planet
One of the few examples of diversity on Australian television, the show features the comedic duo Aamer Rahman and Nazeem Hussain. It is certainly refreshing to see a platform where issues of race can be satirised and used for comedic benefit.
The show uses humour as an effective mechanism to address issues of race. The issues that they tackle include reverse racism, colonialism and white privilege. The show provides a platform where awareness is brought to issues that people of colour face in a non-confrontational, humorous manner.
While the presence of this show is a definite positive, the omission of people of colour from other media is problematic. There have definitely been more examples of diversity in the Australian media such as the film Australia and the show Neighbours. Circumstances are also changing with reality TV shows like Masterchef showcasing an increasingly diverse cast.
However, there is no doubt that Australia still has a long way to go. People of colour are highly underrepresented and when they do appear in the media, the representations are often tokenistic or stereotypical. It is essential that people of colour are represented in the media as not just comedians, reality TV contestants or stereotypes but as individuals.
4. The Simpsons
The Simpsons is a show that relies on overly exaggerated racial caricatures. Almost all its characters are hyperbolic stereotypes, most of all Apu, the convenience store owning immigrant with an infinite number of children.
The Simpsons is based on exaggerated caricatures and satirises everyone. But power dynamics mean that there is a difference between caricaturing an obese, beer drinking white man and poking fun at an Indian immigrant. By ignoring the very real prejudice that people of colour face, it trivialises minority experiences and denigrates people of colour.
The main issue with The Simpsons is that, especially when I was growing up, there were no other representations of people of colour in the media. The omission of people of colour from other forms of media made Apu the primary role model for many people of colour. It reduced people of colour to convenience stores, funny accents and procreation.
Apu is dangerous because he tells people of colour the prescribed roles that they are allowed to play in society. Apu can act as subconscious justification of for oppression or racist behaviour.
Apu works as a funny tagline but does not pass the diversity test.
5. Master of None
Aziz Ansari’s show not only deals with the issues of racism in the television and film industry, it portrays people of colour as individuals. It is refreshingly humorous without being derogatory of one’s own culture and sweetly reflective of the issues that minorities face. The most positive aspect of the show is that it is about more than the life of a minority character, it is about an individual. By addressing the issues of race, the show manages to transcend race and focus the individual protagonists, a cast of diverse characters.
It would be highly accurate to say that Master of None passes the test with flying colours.
Perhaps the reason that Master of None is so effective is because it is created by a person of colour. This leads us into a more important question: On whom does the onus lie to create diversity in film and television?
When Lena Dunham was criticised for lack of diversity on her show Girls, she responded by saying that she felt that there was a ‘specificity of experience that she couldn’t relate to’. There is validity to her argument. After all, shows created by white people are more likely to misrepresent people of colour and the issues they face.
I believe that a balance can be struck between whitewashing and misrepresentation of people of colour.
However, I would argue that because people of colour are minorities, the onus must lie on all members of the industry to ensure more diversity. Everyone has a responsibility to provide opportunities to and accurately represent multicultural sections of a society that we are all a part of. Similarly, people of colour have a responsibility to engage with misrepresentation and to make their voices heard.
Ways to counteract the issue of misrepresentation would be to have a requirement that people of colour are consulted about any representations on screen and that media that is not acceptable to them is modified and changed. We must respond to allegations of lack of diversity and misrepresentation.
It would be wonderful to see the media make fixed public goals for change which might include diversity in hiring practices, a commitment to writing a set number of diverse characters, consultation with people of colour and focus groups that generate feedback regarding existing diversity issues in the media.
As individuals we can be critical of the media that we engage with and give constructive feedback to the media, boycott highly problematic media and create a dialogue with people about race and its portrayal in the media.
It is essential to remember the transformative nature of media. Oppression is, of course, enforced through political systems and social structures. But politics and culture are inextricably linked in a symbiotic relationship. Focussing on changing the media could be one of the ways in which we can take a step towards greater inclusivity and equality.
Image: Pablo Garcia Saldana
Since Neha Mulay’s recent graduation, when she not being consumed by existential angst, she is observing, reflecting and writing. She has been published in Demos Journal and Woroni. She has performed poetry at several events and hopes to publish her poetry one day. Through her writing she aims to capture the complexity of human experience with an emphasis on women and migrant experiences as well as mental health issues. While she writes because of an innate need to do so, Neha hopes to publish her writing to help alleviate the sense of isolation present in modern life.