Award Shows Celebrating Diversity in Film and TV — and What Gets Lost
Mary Beltrán / University of Texas at Austin


Selenis Leyva and Dascha Polanco

Selenis Leyva and Dascha Polanco accepting the ALMA Award for Special Achievement in Television for Orange is the New Black

Dascha Polanco, who plays Dayanara Diaz on the series Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013- ), is quoted in press material announcing its award for Special Achievement in Television by the 2014 ALMA (American Latino Media) Awards: “The diversity that we represent [on the series] is becoming the face of America. The show is very real and focuses on real issues.” She continues more somberly, “The fact that it is such a big deal that there are six Latinas on a hit show is an indication that there is more work to do.”1

The unbridled optimism of the first part of Polanco’s quote is an apt illustration of the usual tone of the awards show, which celebrated its “Quinces,” turning 15 with its October 15 broadcast on msnbc. In addition to Orange is the New Black, this year’s show recognized the film Cesar Chavez, rapper Pitbull, and Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro for their contributions presenting or promoting progressive Latina and Latino images. Sponsored by the National Council of La Raza, the largest U.S. Latino advocacy organization, the show is similar to the NAACP’s annual Image Awards in celebrating actors, directors, and other notable media professionals, as well as films and television series that have enhanced Latina/o American representation in the prior year.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmMIoi61Xb4[/youtube]

2014 Alma Awards promo, featuring clips from previous years’ shows.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the ALMA Awards, since my late mother and I got to attend the show in 1998. Decked out in hastily purchased but still-elegant evening gowns for the occasion, we basked at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in the close proximity of the likes of Constance Marie, Edward James Olmos, Rita Moreno, and then up-and-comer Jennifer Lopez and caught unforgettable performances by Celia Cruz and Lalo Guerrero. But as I’ll elaborate on below, I think it and similar awards shows have limitations as forums for promoting greater and more meaningful inclusion of Latina/os or other marginalized groups in film and television.

Jennifer Lopez

Jennifer Lopez receiving the 1998 Alma Award for her role in Selena.

On the plus side are the shows themselves. In the case of the ALMAs, it’s a festive celebration of Latina/o achievements, a party for the hard-working members of Latinowood that have pulled them off, and an entertaining treat all of us who get to eavesdrop on the event through the broadcast. As a slickly produced media event (co-host Eva Longoria underwent an impressive ten wardrobe changes during this year’s show), it’s accessible to viewers of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. Clearly, it aims to raise awareness of issues of Latina/o marginalization in the media and to do so in an upbeat, entertaining manner. This is no small thing. But what gets lost if such events are the only method of Latina/o media advocates hoping to improve the “quantity and quality of representation that Hispanic Americans receive in the mass media”?2 I would argue that an oversimplification of the politics of Latina/o representation can be the unintended downside.

First, awards shows, in their emphasis solely on a handful of successful projects, actors, and media producers, neglect to educate viewers about the more complex dynamics of the typical exclusion of Latina/os and Latina/o communities from most film and television narratives (and therefore from the American imaginary) and of Latina/o representation that still excludes many Latina/os—those too brown, too poor, too Spanish-speaking—while making stars of a select few. While the NCLR has honored actors, films, and television shows that highlight the diversity of American Latina/os, with Orange is the New Black and Cesar Chavez useful illustrations, the performers recognized on Latina/o media awards shows such as the ALMAs too often reinforce Hollywood paradigms of ethnicity and casting that have dictated the casting of fair-skinned or comfortably bronzed and fully assimilated Latina/os almost exclusively over the decades.

Second, shows such as the ALMAs can give the false impression that there is no more work to be done, that Latina/os have gained employment and status at all levels of decision making in film and television production, and that we can now just sit back and enjoy the fruits of this progress. Sadly, that scenario is far from reality today. As researchers at Columbia University found in a 2013 study, Latina/os are still dramatically underrepresented as lead actors in television series and films (none were found in 2013 prime-time series or in the top ten films of the year) and as media professionals, despite making up 17% of the American population.3 From 2010 to 2013, Latina/os comprised 2.8% of television directors, 0.4% of television producers, and 1.7% of television writers. In film, they were 2.3% of working directors, 2.3% of producers, and 6% of writers. Among the top 53 radio, television, and film executives in the media industries, only one (of 1.88%) was Latina.4

While there clearly is a dire need for it, Latina/o media activism and other advocacy for underrepresented groups is no easy task, particularly in this era in which many Americans think we’ve graduated to a post-racial and post-feminist media culture and no longer need to fight for egalitarian representation and in which media advocacy organizations operate on shoestring budgets. Scholars of ethnic media advocacy such as Kathryn Montgomery, Chon Noriega, the TeleVisions Project team (led by John Downing and published as Mary Beltrán, Jane Chi-Hyun Park, Henry Puente, Sharon Ross and John Downing), and Scott Wible have also noted the challenge that media advocates face with respect to keeping their mission interesting and timely to the news media and public.5 Wible noted in a study centered on advocacy encouraging viewership of the Showtime series Resurrection Blvd. (2000-2002) that Latina/o media advocacy has had to evolve in the last decades based on FCC and market shifts; media advocates are now expected to approach viewers as “consumer-citizens” who enact progressive change through their remote controls and their pocketbooks as opposed to through former tactics of sit ins, boycotts, and protests targeting studios and networks.6

Resurrection Blvd

The cast of Resurrection Blvd., which aired on Showtime from 2000-2002.

With this in mind, awards shows and annual “report cards” given to each major network regarding their employment and representation of specific groups are some of the primary tools used in recent years by ethnic media advocates such as the National Hispanic Media Council, which spearheads Latina/o efforts targeting the television industry. Notably, both of these strategies can become limited through rewarding “positive” but at times unsubstantial progress, such as in the casting of recent TV roles with actors and actresses of Latina/o and partial Latina/o descent paired with characterizations and storylines that included very little or no acknowledgment of Latina/o cultural identities or communities.

Finally, these awards shows also can reinforce the misleading dichotomy of “positive” and “negative” images, sidestepping more complicated but potentially enriching discussions of meaningful inclusion, narrative importance, and the ways in which Latina/o culture and communities are valued or not within Hollywood narratives and thus within the American imagination. And who gets to decide? Ultimately, notions of positive and negative are subjective to each of us. Too often, these notions also get simplistically paired with ideas about class, in relation to promoting the myth that poor characters are always negative stereotypes and that conversely, “positive” images always present a group aspirationally with respect to profession and income. The one-dimensional Latina lawyer with no connection to her cultural heritage then might be viewed as a more desirable image than a working class Latina maid with dignity and intelligence who takes pride in her identity as Latina and who is connected to and fights for her Latina/o community. I don’t think the NCLR has fallen into this trap this year, with its recognition of a series about women in prison and a film celebrating the leader of the Chicano farm workers’ movement. But it’s an issue to be aware of when awards shows aim to decide on the most “positive” images and narratives of the prior year.

I’m still drawn into the pomp and exuberance of the ALMA Awards and the stars who participate in and are recognized by them, but I believe the awards should be paired with efforts to introduce these more complex issues to audiences as well.

Image Credits:

1. Selenis Leyva and Dascha Polanco accepting the ALMA Award for Special Achievement in Television for Orange is the New Black
2. Jennifer Lopez receiving the 1998 Alma Award for her role in Selena
3. The cast of Resurrection Blvd., which aired on Showtime from 2000-2002.

Please feel free to comment.

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  1. “Special Achievement in Television: Orange is the New Black.” ALMA Awards 2014 program pages, http://www.almaawards.com/alma-awardees-2/. []
  2. National Council of La Raza. This is how the NCLR describes its mission on the web pages for the ALMA Awards. http://www.almaawards.com/mission/. []
  3. Frances Negrón Mutaner, with Chelsea Abbas, Luis Figueroa, and Samuel Robsen. Latino Media Gap: A Report on the State of Latinos in U.S. Media. Executive Summary. New York: Columbia University Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, 2013, 4. This study was commissioned by NALIP, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, and the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. []
  4. Negrón Mutaner, et al. Latino Media Gap, 4. []
  5. See Kathryn Montgomery, Target: Prime Time: Advocacy Groups and the Struggle over Entertainment Television. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1990; Chon Noriega, Shot In America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000; Mary Beltrán, Jane Park, Henry Puente, Sharon Ross, and John Downing, “Pressurizing the Media Industry.” In Representing ‘Race’: Racisms, Ethnicity, and the Media, John D.H. Downing and Charles Husband, eds., 160-193. London: Sage, 2005; and Scott Wible, “Media Advocates, Latino Citizens and Niche Cable: The limits of ‘No Limits’ TV.” Cultural Studies 18:1 (January 2004): 34-66. []
  6. Wible, “Media Advocates, Latino Citizens and Niche Cable,”34. []

2 comments

  • This piece offers some great critiques of the strategy of using awards shows for activism — certainly these kinds of shows are worrisome (GLAAD’s media awards in particular have always been criticized), and we ought not encourage activists to utilize them as the only form of advocacy in the industry. Yet I’m confused about why you would raise this as a potential problem, since there is no danger of this happening. Representatives from La Raza and the NHMC still meet with executives from the networks every year, as per their 1999 MOUs with the networks. They sometimes take a break from the yearly report cards since those have become less effective, but there is certainly no shortage of outrage when a problematic image hits the airwaves.

    I think it’s important to always contextualize the awards shows. In my ethnographic work on media activists, they will be the first to say that the reason awards shows were started was because they provided a counter to the work that they are always doing of criticizing. If all you do is criticize, your relationship with media professionals can deteriorate, and you lose the ability to raise concerns in a proactive way. So there’s a need for what I like to think of as “good cop/bad cop” activism strategies — the yearly meetings, the protests, the hashtag campaigns, all serve the role of “the stick.” The awards shows stand as the lone “carrot.” People love winning awards, so it gives media corporations something to strive for rather than to always be avoiding the criticism of the minority activists.

    And as you mention, they do so much more than that. They give the community something to rally behind, they highlight rising minority stars, they celebrate “progress,” limited though it may be. While I definitely think that your criticisms are fair, I think there is a lot more context that needs to be considered. There are so many other media advocacy efforts that need to be recognized as being part of a much larger strategy — in which the awards shows play only a small role.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Lori. I agree that the awards shows are important and helpful as the “lone carrot” that advocacy groups can wield to encourage and celebrate greater and more complex representations. However, the general public often is unaware of the other efforts that advocacy groups undertake in order to try to push, for instance, for training and employment opportunities for media professionals of color or for the ability to provide feedback to the networks on projects in development. As the only televised aspect of advocacy efforts, I wish awards shows would do more to educate their viewers the complexity of the politics of representation and the often continued exclusivity of the worlds of television and film production in Los Angeles.

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