Reflections on the New Diversity in Television
Mary Beltrán / University of Texas at Austin

Empire cast

Empire cast members Bryshere Gray, Jussie Smollett, Trai Byers, Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard at FOX’s 2015 Winter Television Critics Association press tour

It’s an exciting time for those of us interested in greater racial diversity in television—not just in the form of background characters that add local color to the stories of the usual white leads, but in series with lead characters of color and narratives about non-white families, work spaces, and cultural communities—with the recent, rising success of such series as Empire (Fox, 2015- ), Fresh off the Boat (ABC, 2015- ), black-ish (ABC, 2014- ), Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2014- ), and How to Get Away With Murder (ABC, 2014-). As Empire has in the last few months become the most viewed broadcast drama in five years and seen its audience expand substantially each week, journalistic coverage is rife with stories proclaiming “diversity the new watchword in television,” as the Los Angeles Times declared earlier this month. (( Meredith Blake, “With ‘Empire’ diversity becomes the watchword in television.” Los Angeles Times (Feb. 2, 2015). ))

This is no small development for U.S. network television, which just a few years ago was rejecting series pitches and pilots that did not center on a mostly white or on decidedly multi-ethnic casts. When I interviewed a diversity executive at one of the major networks around the time of their spring 2011 upfronts, a PR event at which networks showcase their new series and potential series to major advertisers, I was told that “ethnic” sitcoms were definitely out; advertisers at the time didn’t want to take a chance on them. When I interviewed then-Director of Diversity for the Writer’s Guild, Kimberly Myers, a few months later, I heard a similarly pessimistic report, that writers of color were struggling vainly to pitch new series or just to get hired on current show’s writing teams. No more than a handful of writers of color were show runners for prime-time series at the time. These writers were Shonda Rhimes (then with Grey’s Anatomy [2005- ] and Private Practice [2007-2013] on ABC), Tyler Perry (then executive producing House of Payne, syndication 2006, TBS 2007-2012), Mara Brock Akil (The Game, the CW 2006-2009, BET 2011- ), and Veena Sud (The Killing, AMC 2011-2013, Netflix 2014).

Fresh off the Boat cast

The cast and executive producers of Fresh Off the Boat, inspired by the humorous memoir of chef Eddie Huang, in red, at Disney| ABC Television Group’s Winter Press Tour.

So what has happened in the last four years? Shonda Rhimes, for one thing. Her series Scandal, a soapy drama starring Kerry Washington as a hyper-capable PR “fixer” working in the world of DC politics, made a dramatic splash when it began airing in 2012. A quick hit with the first African American female lead in television since Diahann Carroll in Julia (NBC, 1968-1971), it proved that series starring non-white actors in compelling, well-written roles and narratives could in fact be smarts bets. Nielsen’s Twitter TV ratings documented when it became the top-tweeted series; most recently, it averages over 300,000 tweets per episode. (Ironically, it lost the Twitter crown to Empire, which soon topped Scandal and has broken all records since. Empire garnered over 2.4 million tweets during its two-hour season finale last week, according to Variety, reporting statistics gathered by Nielsen Social Guide). Show runner Ilene Chaiken, who executive produces Empire alongside series creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, has credited the success of Rhimes’ series Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder with convincing network executives to try more shows featuring non-white actors in lead roles. (( Elizabeth Wagmeister, “Empire Showrunner: Women Creating TV ‘Are Doing It Fabulously.’” Variety (January 21, 2015). )) After Scandal, series such as Empire and Fresh Off the Boat were likely considered smaller gambles to the ever-risk-averse television industry.

And while the ratings juggernaut that is Empire is a Fox series, much of the credit for the relative boom of non-white-led shows belongs to ABC, which airs the Shondaland series Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, and Grey’s Anatomy, in addition to launching the sitcoms black-ish, Cristela (2014- ), and Fresh Off the Boat and the drama American Crime (2015- ) in the last year. Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and the CW’s Jane the Virgin, while exciting new developments for the streaming media outlet and cable network, don’t represent the clear commitment to change evident from ABC. Paul Lee, ABC’s entertainment president, promoted the network’s decisions at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in January. He explained that they viewed their greenlighting of diverse series as a matter of choosing “great series” that just happened to be created by nonwhite writer-producers. (( Jason Lynch, “ABC’s Success With Diversity Comes From Focusing on Creators, Not Just Stars: ‘It’s Our Job to Reflect America.” Ad Week (January 15, 2015). )) A particular effort to support series creators rather than just actors of color clearly has been a successful new formula for the network.

Regardless of the motivation on the part of the networks, these new series are a sea change for those of us looking for TV characters and narratives to which we can personally relate. The anecdote that sticks out from my research on the new series is one written by Jeff Yang, cultural critic and father of Hudson Yang, who plays the funny and sweet young hiphop wannabe Eddie Huang in Fresh Off the Boat. In his regular column for The Wall Street Journal, under the byline Tao Jones, Jeff Yang describes a small party he helped plan to screen the first episodes of FOTB for their friends and family in a Koreatown bar in Manhattan. Without any effort on their part, the family party mushroomed into a must-see event; ultimately about 1000 people happily crammed into the space, while countless others had to be turned away. As Yang describes, the people who came clearly wanted to share with other Asian Americans as history was being made by Fresh Off The Boat, the buzzed-about, second-ever show about an Asian American family.

FOTB viewing party

The impromptu Fresh Off the Boat viewing party at a Koreatown bar in Manhattan

“We had to see this together,” he notes, “with as many others of us who’d shared these experiences and the twanging hunger for them to finally be explored in the spotlight.” (( (‘Fresh Off the Boat’: A TV Dad and Hundreds More Cram Viewing Party,” Wall Street Journal, Speakeasy, Feb. 6, 2015. )) Similarly, both FOTB and Empire have inspired viewing parties and panel discussions sponsored by cultural organizations around the nation. These celebratory communal viewing events and group discussions underscore how rare it is even now for television narratives to center on non-white American individuals, families, work places, or communities, and how important each rare example (and its success or failure with audiences) can be to future opportunities for representation.

Empire viewing party

A radio station in Atlanta hosed one of the countless Empire viewing parties around the nation.

We’ll need to follow these shows and their successes to see where they take us. However, I believe there are several takeaways for media scholars and fans even at this early stage. First, I believe it proves once again that the lives of ordinary Americans of color (and not just those making hiphop music) are relevant, interesting and eminently watchable. In fact, viewers nowadays are often ordinary Americans of color ourselves. And we want to see ourselves as the heroes in the narratives we’re watching, as Gina Rodriguez noted in her acceptance speech when she recently won a Golden Globe for her role in Jane the Virgin.

It makes a difference to have substantially diverse writing teams as well. Fresh Off the Boat, under show runner Nahnatchka Kahn (who is Persian American, and also was creator of the very funny The B- in Apartment 23 [2012-2013]), hired a writing team that includes several Chinese and Asian American writers, among them Kourtney Kang, Sanjay Shah, Jeff Chiang, and Ali Wong. Empire’s writing team boasts six writers of color among its writing staff of nine. In contrast, the arguably less inspired series Jane the Virgin and Cristela include only a few Latina/o writers among their writing teams. I believe it takes members of a particular cultural community to know what’s compelling, what’s important, and what’s funny within that community – and also to be knowledgeable of interesting stories that might be drawn from it that would speak to viewers of all backgrounds.

Finally, I hope that the success of these new race-specific shows will clarify once and for all: We’re not really post-racial. Our racial, ethnic, and cultural histories and perspectives actually matter to us, and are a large part of what makes us interesting. Given that the ratings are the real news here, I believe viewers are demonstrating that we appreciate programming that respects unique cultural perspectives and shines a light on the fascinating diversity of American lives.

Image Credits:

1. Empire cast members Trai Byers, Bryshere Gray, Jussie Smollett, Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard at FOX’s 2015 Winter Television Critics Association press tour.
2. The cast and executive producers of Fresh Off the Boat, inspired by the humorous memoir of chef Eddie Huang, in red, at Disney| ABC Television Group’s Winter Press Tour.
3. The impromptu Fresh Off the Boat viewing party at a Koreatown bar in Manhattan.
4. A radio station in Atlanta hosed one of the countless Empire viewing parties around the nation.

Please feel free to comment.

Late Invites to the Party: What’s Still Not Working for Latina/os and TV
Mary Beltrán/ The University of Texas, Austin

Gina Rodriguez at the 2015 Golden Globe Awards

Gina Rodriguez at the 2015 Golden Globe Awards

This year’s Golden Globe Awards, which aired Jan. 11, included a notable achievement for Latina representation when Gina Rodriguez, the Puerto Rican star of the CW breakout dramedy Jane the Virgin (2014+), won Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series-Musical or Comedy. Clearly surprised to have won, Rodriguez accepted the award with a poignant speech that underscored the importance of her starring role while Latina and Latino characters are still often left out of U.S. television story worlds. “This award is so much more than myself,” she told viewers. “It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.” Rodriguez expanded on her comments to the press backstage, noting that her win allowed Latina/o viewers “to see themselves invited to the same party” of American television.

While I find Rodriguez’s win and Jane the Virgin’s critical success hopeful signs, the snail’s pace growth of Latina/o visibility in television is otherwise discouraging. A 2014 study by Frances Negrón-Mutaner and other researchers at Columbia University found there were no Latina/o lead roles in scripted television series in 2013. ((See Frances Negrón-Mutaner, et al. The Latino Media Gap: A Report on the State of Latinos in U.S. Media. New York: The Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, Columbia University, 2014. From this perspective, Jane the Virgin and Cristela, both launched in 2014, are signs of progress, but only from invisibility to—slight visibility. The number of Latina/os at the Golden Globes to hear Gina Rodriguez’s speech also is telling. Aside from the Jane the Virgin cast and the glamorous Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek, both of whom served as presenters, the only Latinos to be seen were Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inárritu and his fellow Birdman (2014) writers, who won in the Best Screenplay category, and Louis C.K., nominated for his performance in Louie (2010+), who largely ignores his partial Mexican ancestry. Where are the Latino John Hamm and Wes Anderson, the Latina Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham? Not invited yet.

While it was not the first time a Latina or Latino actor was recognized at the Golden Globes or Emmys for a recurring role in a TV series, the number in this esteemed club is woefully small. America Ferrera won both awards for Ugly Betty (2006-2010) in 2007, as did Edward James Olmos for Miami Vice (1984-1990) in 1986, while Jimmy Smits won an Emmy for L.A. Law (1986-1994) in 1990 and a Golden Globe for NYPD Blue (1993-2005) in 1996. These are the only Latina/o actors recognized for recurring roles in the 66 years since the first Emmy awards show in 1949. Keeping in mind that acting accolades are the result of not just performers’ abilities but also the creation of compelling characters and television narratives, what can we make of the relative absence of Latina/o actors in the television VIP club? In this essay, I ruminate on five of the primary reasons why Latina/os are still often left out.

1. First, in my assessment, Latina/o characters and storylines are still not taken seriously by many television creatives, executives, and advertisers. There is a dearth of Latina/o characters even in this New Golden Age of television, which has brought us such complex and unconventional series as Breaking Bad (2008-2013), Girls (2012+), and Transparent (2014+). This is not for lack of good intentions, however. As scholars such as Martha Menchaca have documented, the de facto segregation of cities in the Southwest in the last century has resulted in most Latina/o and non-Latina/o Americans living very separate lives. ((See Martha Menchaca, The Mexican Outsiders: A Community History of Marginalization and Discrimination in California. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.)) In Los Angeles, the hub of television production, upper-income white Angelenos typically know Latina/os as their nannies and gardeners, not as their neighbors, friends, or coworkers. Hollywood tradition also has trained American viewers (even Latina/o viewers) to expect narratives of white heroism, wit, and beauty, and of Latina/o comic relief and marginalization. This contributes to a tendency for many television professionals to consider Hispanic-driven narratives too culturally different to draw in American viewers, even as Latina/os constitute 17 percent of the potential viewing audience. Arguably, a series pitched today that includes a Latina/o hero or heroine won’t make the cut or will be green-lit with such a low budget that it will quickly fall flat. Vibrant, engrossing series such as Jane the Virgin, Hulu’s East Lost High (2013+), and NuvoTV’s reality series Los Jets (2014) are still exceptions to usual standards of practice.

Los Jets

NuvoTV’s Los Jets

2. Another reason for the lack of award-worthy roles for Latina/os is a dearth of great writing for the few characters that do appear on network television. When characters and narratives are underwritten, stereotypical, or don’t give the actors that play them a chance to show their chops, why would we identify with and follow them? See in relation to reason #1 above: Funding with such a low budget that a series will quickly fall flat. It’s also useful to consider that Latina/o narratives have typically been relegated to the situation comedy genre, while the critically acclaimed series of the last decade have overwhelmingly been dramas and dramedies. Audiences, especially young adult viewers, clearly crave the greater complexity and nuanced characterizations possible with dramas.

3. Moreover, recent Latina/o roles arguably are often uninspired because of their genesis in series remakes rather than in original narratives. A number of Latina/o-focused series of the last decade, such as Ugly Betty, Jane the Virgin, and Devious Maids (2013+), have been remakes of popular telenovelas. These series’ lead characters thus are not the personal, original creations of their writers. For example, as much as I enjoy Jane the Virgin and Gina Rodriguez’s performance, I find the novela-inspired narrative and characters too predictable for my taste at times. The networks’ overreliance on novela remakes likely is related to confusion about what else Latina/o viewers will watch. While studies repeatedly document that over three-fourths of American Latina/os consume both English and Spanish-language entertainment media, ((See for instance Mark Hugo Lopez and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, “A Growing Share of Latinos Get Their News in English.” Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project (July 23, 2013). Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. U.S. television producers and advertisers still often appear unsure of how to appeal to them with original programming.

4. These last two reasons are related as well to the lack of Latina/os at the table when it comes to writing and producing television. It makes a difference that Jill Soloway, creator of Transparent, grew up with a transgender parent who came out to the family as trans late in her life. Similarly, Carlos Portugal and Kathleen Bedoya, the creators of East Los High, have been instrumental to crafting Latina/o teen characters that feel authentic even while the series works within the confines of the prime-time soap genre.

East Los High

The cast of season 1 of East Los High at a benefit for the Hulu series in July 2013.

However, few Latina/os worked as television writers prior to the 1990s, and their numbers have barely grown since. The Columbia University study found that Latina/os comprised only 2 percent of writers, 1.1 percent of producers, and 4.1 percent of directors of television series from 2010 to 2013. They comprised none of the series showrunners. ((Negrón-Mutaner, et al. The Latino Media Gap.)) This scarcity arguably leads to depictions that fail to capture the diversity and richness of Latina/o experiences. Complicating this issue, Latina/o writers who get opportunities to create series may need more experience to first develop their craft. Without being hired for other writing positions in television, they have few opportunities to gain this experience.

5. Finally, fear of stereotyping arguably has also had a chilling effect. In response to media advocacy efforts, network executives appear apprehensive about presenting characters or stories that are strongly culturally marked or set in working class neighborhoods, for fear of portraying Latina/os in a manner deemed non-aspirational and of turning off viewers or advertisers. As a former student of mine who interned in a major network’s development department once told me, pilot scripts that posit a Latina/o or African American working-class protagonist will always get an automatic “pass” for this reason. While Latina/o characters with exaggerated characteristics such as broken English, heavy accents, and colorful costumes are less often seen in TV story worlds, ((A notable exception is Modern Family’s Gloria Pritchett, a character that has made Sofia Vergara the highest paid actress in television. However, Gloria’s popularity is heavily linked to the character’s complexity and the show’s excellent writing, which has been recognized with numerous Emmys, Golden Globes, Television Critic Awards, and Writers Guild of America Awards over the years.)) less assimilated, working class, and darker skinned Latina/os also are rarely present. The range of roles and story possibilities has sadly diminished even while Latina/o televisual representation is seemingly more “positive” in recent years.

Gina Rodriguez’s Golden Globe win and the critical and popular success of Jane the Virgin are hopeful signs that Latina/os are in fact beginning to be taken seriously by networks and streaming television outlets. I think they point in particular to rising awareness of the grave need for networks to do so for their own survival. I believe it’s inevitable that as tomorrow’s television creators and stars, Latina/os will become welcome guests and hosts of the party. But the invites are nevertheless overdue.

Image Credits:

1. Gina Rodriguez at the 2015 Golden Globe Awards
2. NuvoTV’s Los Jets
3. The cast of season 1 of East Los High at a benefit for the Hulu series in July 2013.

Please feel free to comment.

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.” (( “Special Achievement in Television: Orange is the New Black.” ALMA Awards 2014 program pages, ))

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.


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”? (( National Council of La Raza. This is how the NCLR describes its mission on the web pages for the ALMA Awards. )) 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. (( 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. )) 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. (( Negrón Mutaner, et al. Latino Media Gap, 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. (( 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. )) 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. (( Wible, “Media Advocates, Latino Citizens and Niche Cable,”34. ))

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.

Meaningful Diversity: Exploring Questions of Equitable Representation on Diverse Ensemble Cast Shows
Mary Beltran / University of Wisconsin – Madison


The cast of Glee, season two

It’s that time of year. As the networks promote their new fall series, artful publicity photos seem to be everywhere, constructed to maximize not only the attractiveness but also the rainbow of skin tones of the casts. Diversity clearly has cachet, lending a youthful and hip tone and cosmopolitan flavor to shows even before their premieres. The networks are simultaneously engaging in public relations efforts in sharing information with ethnic media outlets and advocacy groups that details the diversity of their new casts, such as when shows have hired Latina/o actors or when African American characters are included among the series regulars. ((Such news can be read in the on-line industry trade journal Latin Heat,, or in African American-oriented newspapers such as the Los Angeles Watts-Times,, just to mention two examples.)) Even for viewers who don’t follow such news, the networks’ promotional emphasis on the diversity of their casts may contribute to the belief that television is a now equal-opportunity playing field for actors and in series narratives.

The inclusion of actors and characters of color, and absence of images that are clearly denigrating, is not necessarily tantamount to equitable representation; however. Such emphasis on the corporeal and on “positive” representation overlooks the more central and ultimately powerful dynamic of focalization, as described by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, ((Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge, 1994).)) regarding which characters we are meant to identify with, whose stories are being told, and which communities’ perspectives and ideological discourses are privileged. As Kristal Brent Zook aptly put it, “The stakes here are about more than entertainment. They’re about who we allow to dance inside our imaginations and why.” ((Kristal Brent Zook, Color By Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 64.)) Such dynamics are thus important to keep central in analysis of the racial politics of contemporary television series.

Diverse ensemble cast series, while a boon for promotion to the increasingly non-white audience, offer considerable challenges to writers and producers, in part because it’s not easy to develop a large number of characters and keep their storylines manageable within the time constraints of a television episode or feature film. It also may feel risky to challenge Hollywood cinematic traditions of white heroism and centrism, even with the possibilities offered by an ensemble cast. With this in mind, the following questions, explored in the case examples of Glee (2009+), Friday Night Lights (2006+), Lost (2004-2010), and other series could aid media producers and scholars who wish to begin to interrogate the racial politics of diverse ensemble cast shows.

1. Are the characters of color fully realized individuals? This may seem simplistic, but it bears stating. Given how rare protagonists of color have been in Hollywood narratives, we may not always notice when characters of color are utilized primarily to lend a hip tone to a setting and in support of the white lead characters’ development. When in doubt, it can be useful to ask questions about the various characters. Whose families, home life, or inner worlds do we get to know? Whose motivations and development are we meant to follow? And if it’s a musical, who do we actually hear sing?

Glee, despite the United Colors of Benetton™ visual display of its high school show choir (as Sue Sylvester once groused), was problematic in this regard in its first season; it developed the white (or in the case of Rachel Berry, ambiguously white) characters much more than the characters of color and often reinforced this imbalance in its musical numbers. Viewers’ witnessing of the family lives of white male students Kurt and Finn also underscored their primacy in the narrative. Friday Night Lights, about a football-obsessed Texas town, similarly developed its white characters to a degree that it did not for its African American or its few Latino characters, even after African American actor Gaius Charles’s storylines were critically acclaimed. Lost, on the other hand, in its first seasons was particularly successful in developing its diverse characters in unique and often surprising ways through its narrative structure, which regularly included flashback sequences of characters’ home lives and childhoods.

2. Do the writers and producers appear knowledgeable about and interested in the worlds and perspectives of the non-white characters? Again, this might be assumed to be a given, but the history of underdeveloped characters of color makes evident that this continues to be an important question to explore. Considering again the example of Friday Night Lights, a series that I admire for its intimate and realistic portrayal of white Texans, I’ve wondered how the series might have been enriched by a Tejano or Tejana writer who could have revealed the Mexican American facets of the town of Dillon. (Strangely, when a few Latino characters were introduced, the writers went to pains to establish that they were not of Mexican heritage, adding to their unrealistic and “tacked on” feeling).


The cast of Friday Night Lights, season three.

This is where I have to bring out that old saw, the need for more writers of color, given that they may have personal knowledge of potential characters and stories that white writers do not, and thus can make a unique contribution to vibrant, realistic, and compelling storytelling built around a diverse cast. Strangely, accounts point to writers of color having a harder, not easier time, finding work in television in the last few years as integrated ensemble casts are becoming the norm; ((Jennifer Armstrong and Margeaux Watson, “Diversity in Entertainment: Why is TV so White?” Entertainment Weekly (June 12, 2008).,,20206185,00.html.)) statistics gathered by the Writers Guild of America West indicate that only 9 percent of employed television writers were non-white in 2007. ((2009 Hollywood Writers Report: Rewriting an All-Too-Familiar Story? (Los Angeles: Writers Guild of America, West, 2009).)) Writers of all ethnic backgrounds, with in-depth experience or who have conducted in-depth research on a city or neighborhood also can construct true-to-life, empathetic, and narratively compelling characters that elevate a diverse ensemble cast series from one which engages in diversity window dressing to one which builds on its cast’s ethnic, class, and other diversity to entertain and educate its audience. David Simon’s experience with The Wire (2002-2008) serves an apt case in point. The creators of Lost also stand out as unique in this regard, for casting several actors of color, including Jorge Garcia and Yunjin Kim, because they found them talented and engaging, and creating roles for them that uniquely showcased their abilities.

3. Does the diversity of the cast appear natural? Given that cities and neighborhoods still are racially divided in the U.S. more often than not, giving every white lead a best friend of color without realistic explanation typically comes across as unrealistic and gimmicky. On the other hand, the right setting can offer worlds of story possibilities and interesting, believable characters of various ethnic backgrounds. (Whether these settings will appeal to advertisers is a different matter, however). The Wire and Friday Night Lights, set in Baltimore and the fictional town of Dillon, respectively, are two series that come to mind as presenting unique and engaging stories of Americans who normally are not shown in prime-time television and their interactions across race and class lines (although as mentioned above, FNL neglected its opportunity to include Mexican American characters).


The cast of Lost, season two.

Of course, school settings and work places have long been deployed by writers as sites where individuals from diverse backgrounds might naturally interact. Community (2009+), set at a Colorado community college, has a promising premise in this regard. And Lost provides perhaps the best-case example, with its premise of a jet on an international flight that crashed on a mysterious island, forcing an international and multi-ethnic group of survivors to learn to work together and form a community.

4. Finally, do the series or film producers exploit the natural diversity of a story’s setting or subject matter? This could take the form of populating the cast in accordance with the diversity of the region or of the career the characters engage in, for example. I’m always surprised when realism-enhancing character and story possibilities – and possibilities of reaching a new audience demographic – are overlooked by producers, whether because of lack of adequate research or lack of interest. Friday Night Lights, for instance, had a prime opportunity to include Tejano (Texan Mexican American) characters of varying types among the team and townspeople, yet has largely failed to do so. Roswell (1999-2002), a science fiction drama about teen aliens in Roswell, New Mexico, went so far as to change the Latina, non-alien female lead from the novels it was based on to a white character, perhaps in the belief that this would be more appealing to white teen audiences. Again, this is a facet of media storytelling that will be enhanced by a diverse group of men and women around the writers’ table, all of whom can offer differing glimpses of the characters and stories waiting to be brought to life.

Image Credits:
1. Glee cast
2. Friday Night Lights cast
3. Lost cast

Please feel free to comment.

The Harnessed Mob: Where’s the Glee, When Flash Mobs Have Network Sponsors?
Mary Beltran / University of Wisonsin, Madsion

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Glee’s Safety Dance

As a “Gleek”, a fan of the Fox musical comedy Glee, I have many favorite moments from the first season of the series. None, however, rival a musical number from the episode “Dream On,” in which Artie, the New Directions member who is in a wheelchair, daydreams about being able not only to walk, but dance with finesse. (It goes without saying that the representational politics of the number are problematic, as is often the case for Glee). The number, Glee’s version of Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance,” is set in a busy indoor shopping mall, and the dancers that back up Artie, including some of the series regulars, spontaneously pop out of the mall crowd to join him. The virtual fourth walls between the series and its fans and between the show’s stars and its extras drop away as shoppers are suddenly dancers and others in the crowd enjoy the show, taking pictures and shooting video of the dance on their phones, with the scene in fact edited with that video footage included so that the fans’ POV is momentarily made central.


The performance is dynamic, surprising, seemingly spontaneous, and fun. Then after the last words of the lyrics are uttered, it ends, just as abruptly as it began. The dancers slip back into the moving throng of shoppers, Artie is back in his wheelchair, and it’s as if it never happened. In other words, the number is a brilliant flash mob dance and nod to the show’s fans, a truly gleeful surprise.

At the time I was already aware of Glee flash mobs popping up around the globe, but my appreciation for “Safety Dance” brought me back to explore the phenomenon. As readers may already know, flash mobs are described as such because they appear spontaneous, involve large numbers of people, and are “anonymous and playful performative interventions” ((Johanne Ejbye-Ernst, “Contemporary Urban Performance-Intervention: An Aesthetic Perspective.” Limits of Aesthetics (May-June 2007). that pop up suddenly in public locales, then disappear just as quickly. While they have historical roots in performance art and community-based ritual, the origins of the modern-day flash mob are often traced to Manhattan in 2003, when an underground group known as the Mob Project, using cell phones and other social media, organized a number of seemingly spontaneous, often absurd performative moments in public locations (hundreds of participants breaking into seemingly random applause, making bird sounds, or pretending to be frightened of an animatronic dinosaur in a toy store, for instance). ((CNN, for instance, appears to have reported on flash mobs for the first time in August 2003. See Sandra Shmueli, “’Flash Mob Craze Spreads,” (Aug. 8, 2003). Available online:

As news reports and videos posted on YouTube publicized the trend and web sites and Facebook have been utilized to solicit and organize participants, larger and more elaborate flash mobs have emerged. While some still focus merely on surprising moments, as in the case of a light saber-fighting flash mob and “freezes” (in which participants act as if they’re frozen in time, a stunt originated in Grand Central Station and later recreated by thousands of participants in Sydney and later Paris), ((Mashable, “15 Fab Flash Mob Videos on YouTube.” Mashable/Video column, (June 20, 2010). in recent years they have at times involved participants engaging in song and dance, such as in the case of flash-mob performances of songs from The Sound of Music and of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” a clear flash mob favorite.


In this regard, Glee’s feel-good music and premise of underdogs forming a community of performers make it appear tailor-made for inspiring flash mob dances and theatrics, and in fact videos on YouTube and elsewhere document Glee flash mobs performing in such disparate and far-reaching cities as Seattle, Columbus (Ohio), Dublin, Madrid, Rome, Tel Aviv, and Kuala Lumpur since the series debut in the U.S. in 2009.


What’s the flash mob craze all about? For one, flash mobs seem to appeal to the individuals who participate in and witness them, as noted by dance arts writer Doug Fox, because of “the compelling nature of spontaneous collective action”. ((Doug Fox, “Crossing Flash Mobs and Site-Specific Performances,” Great (April 24, 2006). I wish James Carey were still here to talk about his take on the rise of communal performance in this regard and the sense of community, if fleeting, forged among flash mob participants. While journalists and scholars often critique the lack of focus of flash mobs (as in Selina Schepers’ description of flash mobs’ “power of many, in the pursuit of nothing”) ((Selina Schepers, “The Power of Many, In Pursuit of Nothing: Flash Mob Communities on YouTube and Beyond.” Cultures of Arts, Science, and Technology, 1:1 (May 30, 2008). Eds., Janneke Brouwers, et al. Maastricht, CAST at Faculty of Arts and Sciences.; others have countered that while not directly political in focus, flash mobs illustrate that citizen resistance can quickly be organized and model one type of communal organizing. ((See for instance Thomas Marchbank, “Intense Flows: Flashmobbing, Rush Capital, and the Swarming of Space.” Philament: An Online Journal of the Arts and Culture, Issue 4 (2004).)) I also believe that flash mobs can reaffirm a sense of connection to one’s community and of the nurturing power of communal performance for performance’s sake, such as Carey (and the writers of Glee) might argue.

Admittedly such utopic notions don’t completely capture the nature of flash mobs today, however. Lost spontaneity aside as flash mobs increasingly involve rehearsal and pre-production planning, what about when flash mobs have been spearheaded by networks or companies with something to sell? It turns out that many of the Glee flash mobs that have taken place outside the U.S., including those that took place in Spain, Italy, and Malaysia this spring, were in fact organized by the FOX network affiliates in those cities to publicize and promote the series debut in those countries. ((Rob, “Glee flashmob in Spain.” (March 13, 2010). How does that change the meaning of these performances, for participants or for observers?


And in other instances networks and film studios have now used flash mobs or at least borrowed some of their strategies for promotional purposes. FOX, for instance, organized a publicity stunt that they called a “stache mob” in early June to promote their series The Good Guys: actors in fake mustaches to resemble Guys star Bradley Whitford’s mustachio’d Dan Stark appeared at a busy Los Angeles intersection and in Penn Station in New York City, giving out coffee and doughnuts in the spirit of imagined notions of police officers, while flash-mob dancers performed in Times Square to promote the release of the film Bollywood Hero last year. Fans of the NBC spy comedy Chuck could perhaps be viewed as closer to an actual flash mob when they surprised crowds in several U.S. cities in April dressed as Nerd Herders to promote the renewal of the series. But it was arguably already the beginning of the end of the flash mob when the organizers behind a flash-mob performance of “Single Ladies” in London’s Picadilly Square in April 2009 were revealed to in fact be Beyonce Knowles and Trident, and when Suave staged a flash mob-esque, “hairography”-heavy dance performance in Times Square in March to promote their hair products.

So what separates an actual flash mob from its ideologically hollowed out, though perhaps equally spectacular facsimile? Of course spontaneity, but even more it would seem that a true flash mob is necessarily driven by individual, rather than corporate drives and goals (whether that individual goal is to get a thousand people sneezing at once or to surprise and entertain in a more substantial way, of course, might widely differ, however). In the case of Glee flash mobs that have posted video clips online, it was initially difficult to accept that many had not sprung up naturally, so to speak, because of fan enthusiasm for the performances and ethos of the series – which after all, is about the joy of performing and coming together as a community to do so. But can we blame networks and corporations for wanting to harness the joyful potential of the flash mob? What better way to inspire individuals to believe, like Artie, that what we see in our dreams might at times actually become reality – if only for a performative moment.

Image Credits:

1. Glee’s Safety Dance

Please feel free to comment.

What’s at stake in claims of “post-racial” media?
Mary Beltran / University of Wisconsin – Madison

Morgan at Golden Globes

Tracy Morgan at the 2009 Golden Globes

Tracy Morgan, comedic actor best known for his role as comedic performer Tracy Jordan on the NBC series 30 Rock (2006+), trumpeted America’s supposed post-racial identity at the Golden Globe Awards in January 2009. When 30 Rock was awarded Best Musical or Comedy Television Series, he gleefully snatched the statuette from Tina Fey, creator and star of the series, quipping, “Tina Fey and I had an agreement that if Barack Obama won, I would speak for the show from now on.” He continued, “Welcome to post-racial America! I am the face of post-racial America. Deal with it, Cate Blanchett! We’d like to thank the Hollywood Foreign Press … especially me, ’cause a black man can’t get no love at the Emmys. I love you, Europe! That’s what’s up!”

At the time I took note of Morgan’s speech as an example of the increasing rhetoric of a “post-racial” turn in entertainment media, which has accompanied the entrance of the term into the American lexicon. The election of mixed race President Barack Obama in 2008 in particular spurred countless news commentaries on the rise of post-racial and “Obama-era” America, while more recently pundits and scholars are weighing in on how those predictions have held up. In the realm of media studies, scholars such as Ralina L. Joseph, LeiLani Nishime, and this author have taken up the term in critical study of how contemporary media texts and practices are at times being held up as uniquely eliding or transforming former racial paradigms in American media culture. ((Ralina L. Joseph, “Tyra Banks Is Fat: Reading (Post-) Racism and (Post-) Feminism in the New Millennium.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol. 26 No. 3 (August 2009): 237-254; LeiLani Nishime, “Racing Down the Fab Lane: Kimora Lee Simmons and the Performance of Race.” Conference presentation, Console-ing Passions 2010; Mary Beltrán, “The Racial Politics of Spectacular Post-Racial Satire: Ugly Betty and Glee.” Conference presentation, Console-ing Passions 2010.)) To what end, however; what’s actually at stake in looking for and studying so-called “post-racial” media culture? What practices and trends are illuminated through scholarly deployment of the concept? Would scholars agree that Tracy Morgan is a “face of post-racial America,” and what does it mean if he is?

Obama Election Night 2008

A “post-race” Obama-era?

The first challenge to these questions, which I can only begin to explore here, is pinning down the term. In truth, I’m still sorting through the diverging visions that various journalists, politicians, and scholars have in mind when they make reference to the post-racial. As deployed by some conservative commentators, it has implied an end to racial disparities and practices and achievement of the privileges of whiteness by all Americans. Other definitions, in contrast, offer no such reassurance to white America or claims that an ideal has been achieved. As defined by Paul Gilroy, post-racial, similar to David Hollinger’s notion of post-ethnicity, ((Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002; David Hollinger, Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: Basic Books, 2006.)) refers to a future in which racial notions, racialized hierarchies, and the hegemony of whiteness are in fact upended. Such a definition has far more subversive implications for equality and social power, making post-racial ideals potentially useful as a theoretical construct in study of how media representation matters beyond the imagery of specific groups, for instance in my own scholarship in interrogation of the production, narrative, and promotional strategies deployed by media producers to appeal to an increasingly diverse audience and their actual impact.

Unsurprisingly, when used in description of media trends, post-racial has taken on differing meanings both for scholars and media professionals. For one, it’s been used as shorthand to describe purported progress in ethnic/racial inclusion in employment and casting, as appears to be at least part of what Morgan had in mind in his claim that he is the face of post-racial America. In fact, a fair number of television series and films now integrate a few characters of color into their casts (notably, this was described recently by the Hollywood Reporter as perhaps due in part to an “Obama effect”) ((Nellie Andreeva, “Drama Pilots Getting More Diverse.” Hollywood Reporter (16 February 2010). e3ic7a9d080cc25d102b90168a2fed94922)), and we’ve witnessed a growing number of non-white and mixed race stars. Important to note and study, a major catalyst of these shifts is a turn away from niche productions targeting African American or Latina/o audiences to media texts that aim instead to appeal to a broad, multicultural audience. Arguably this does not make these texts post-racial (Dale Hudson’s concept of “multicultural whiteness” ((Dale Hudson, “Vampires of Color and the Performance of Multicultural Whiteness.” In The Persistence of Whiteness: Race and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, ed. Daniel Bernardi. New York: Routledge, 2007. 127-156.)) comes closer to describing this trend in relation to the continuing centrism of whiteness), but does raise the need for new methodological tools and theoretical frameworks for studying ethnic and racial representation in this supposed post-racial era. Also important to take into consideration is the continuing and sometimes growing underrepresentation of creative professionals of color behind the screen in tandem with “post-racial” shifts.

There is a need in such study to also take note of the casting and portrayal of mixed-race actors and individuals in Hollywood media productions. I’ve noted in my own work that the rhetoric of post-race has followed in the wake of the rising vogue for mixed-race and racially ambiguous actors and models since the 1990s. The “raceless” or “ethnically ambiguous” aesthetic (as I and journalist Ruth La Ferla described this trend, respectively ((Mary Beltrán, “The New Hollywood Racelessness: When Only the Fast, Furious (and Multi-racial) Will Survive.” Cinema Journal Vol. 44, No. 2 (Winter 2005): 50-67. Ruth La Ferla, “Generation E.A.: Ethnically Ambigous.” New York Times (28 December 2003) ), particularly noticeable in contemporary tween programming and stardom, is an important strand of contemporary media formations that at times falls into descriptions of post-racial trends. Given that mixed-race representation does offer the potential to highlight the constructed nature of race and fissures in racial boundaries, as Camilla Fojas and I discuss in the introduction to Mixed Race Hollywood ((Mary C. Beltrán and Camilla Fojas, eds, Mixed Race Hollywood. New York: NYU Press, 2008.)), this will be an important site of study in relation to the implications of contemporary trends in ethnic and racial representation.

Cast of 30 Rock

The cast of 30 Rock

Importantly, “post-racial” also has been used to refer to shifts in the racial politics of film and television storylines, although again there is little agreement as to what this label implies. For example, in the case of 30 Rock and Tracy Morgan’s character on the series, it can refer to new standards of humor, including the expectation that audiences have become comfortable laughing at at least some presentations of racial misunderstanding and skewered (or at times, self-consciously reinforced) racial stereotypes. Other examples of the trend for what I term post-racial satire include the television series South Park and The Office, the comedy of Sarah Silverman, and films such as Tropic Thunder. The 2010 Golden Globe winner for Best Musical or Comedy Television series, the FOX musical comedy Glee, in fact provides ample evidence of the popularity of this style of satire, which both skewers and at times appears nostalgic for ethnic and racial stereotypes. Whether such “post-/racialized mash-up,” as I recently described it ((Mary Beltrán, “The Racial Politics of Spectacular Post-Racial Satire: Ugly Betty and Glee.” Conference presentation, Console-ing Passions 2010 conference, April 2010.)), is progressive with respect to racial notions is under ongoing and intense debate by critics, scholars, and fans of the series, as witnessed in weekly discussions on the media and cultural studies blog Antenna and elsewhere.

Glee Cast

Glee’s “post-/racialized mash-up”

As this summary makes evident, the meaning and implications of post-racial media are nebulous, given the complicated dynamics of racial representation in the present day and the various meanings individuals take from them and attach to the term itself. However, I think it is important for media scholars and other researchers to dig in the muck of these conversations to explore the actual trends of media representation and practice and their impact. As a scholar my interest in fact is in the tensions that exist among the various notions, dynamics, and texts that might be labeled post-racial, as these tensions illuminate a great deal about contemporary racial politics and ideals, both in the entertainment media and in the broader mash-up that is the American imagination.

Image Credits:

1. Morgan at 2009 Golden Globes

2. Obama on Election Night 2008

3. Cast of 30 Rock

4. GleeCast

Please feel free to comment.

Sanjaya and the Mulatto Millenium

by: Mary Beltrán / University of Wisconsin-Madison

As Camilla Fojas and I note in our forthcoming anthology, Mixed Race Hollywood, we have embarked on a new era. (Fojas is credited as co-author of this opening paragraph, adapted from the book’s introduction). As novelist Danzy Senna succinctly describes it, we’ve entered the “mulatto millennium.” This certainly seems to be the case if you follow trends in popular culture. If you turn on your television you might happen upon mixed-race actors Vanessa Williams in Ugly Betty (2006+), Wentworth Miller in Prison Break (2005+), Kristen Kreuk in Smallville (2001+), or models of various mixed racial backgrounds competing to be declared America’s Next Top Model (2003+). Similarly, you might see Vin Diesel, Keanu Reeves, or Rosario Dawson’s latest film at your local multiplex, hear Mariah Carey talking frankly about her mixed heritage on a talk show, or read about Raquel Welch “coming out” as half Bolivian. In truth we’ve always liked mixed-race performers (think Nancy Kwan, Anthony Quinn, and Freddie Prinze, Sr.), but these days it’s a boon to star hopefuls not only to have an ethnically ambiguous look but to be open about their mixed heritage in their publicity.

Entertainment Weekly cover

Entertainment Weekly cover

A recent illustration can be seen in the massive popularity of ex-American Idol contestant Sanjaya Malakar. Even while he was in equal parts adored and maligned by viewers and the Idol judges, he achieved a level of fame and attention in the entertainment news media unsurpassed by any other non-winner to date. On a recent perusal of a newstand I noted that Malakar was featured in several major U.S. entertainment and news magazines—even People, which featured Malakar on its cover in a small photo insert captioned “Sanjaya Tells All!” This is not to argue that the 17-year-old performer has become popular merely because of his dual Bengali Indian and Italian American heritage. Clearly Malakar’s personality, charisma, and potential as a performer are largely to credit for the stardom that he garnered during his stint on Idol. But I would argue that the singer’s mixed background and ethnic, but not too ethnic look, also played a role in his capturing the hearts of many viewers.

Sanjaya Malakar singing

Sanjaya Malakar singing

People’s “tell all,” among other things, answers the puzzle of Malakar and his sister Shyamali’s mixed heritage, given that viewers already had seen his sister and his mother, Jillian Blyth, cheering him on each week. We learn from People that Malakar has an Indian father, Vesuveda Malakar, a musician, and that his parents divorced when Malakar was 3 years old. Notably, pictures of Sanjaya and his Italian American mother and of Sanjaya and Shayamali as young children are included among the illustrations that document Sanjaya’s life as a mixed-race youth for curious readers. His story is one that I would argue is increasingly coded as American in star promotion efforts. While it isn’t why he became popular, it has helped that Malakar not only has the right look at the right time, but also a life story that is timely and compelling to the U.S. viewing audience.

Sanjaya Malakar

Sanjaya Malakar

Sanjaya’s charm notwithstanding, why are we so enamored of ethnically ambiguous, mixed heritage individuals? In part because of the ongoing evolution of ethnic demographics and identity our country. Americans, and particularly the youth generation, have never been so racially and ethnically diverse as in recent years. In addition, the numbers of mixed-race families and youth have boomed since the 1970s and are projected to continue to grow. A broad perspective on ethnic differences therefore could be expected to come naturally for many of the Millennial Generation, the first generation large enough to displace the Baby Boomers in dictating the direction of popular culture. Advertising and other studies have shown that youth and younger adults today are more culturally curious than their older counterparts, demonstrated in an interest in television shows, films, and other pop culture forms featuring individuals perceived as non-white. As the rise in mixed-race actors and performers attests, however, we can’t necessarily shake the standards of beauty that have been drilled into us by a century of white-centric media culture. Actors, models, and others in the public eye who can embody the “ethnicity lite” that enables us to have it both ways—for example, Jessica Alba, Keanu Reeves, Vanessa Williams, and Sanjaya Malakar—are seen as especially attractive today, and are increasingly successful. While only time will tell if Sanjaya’s fame will extend beyond the shelf life of this most recent season of American Idol, this trend in popular culture arguably is only beginning to be felt.

Image Credits:
1. Entertainment Weekly cover
2. Sanjaya Malakar singing
3. Sanjaya Malakar

Please feel free to comment.

How Would Fresh Prince Do It? Teaching “Diversity” to Late ’80s Babies

by: Mary Beltran / University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

As the instructor of a course on racial and ethnic representation in U.S. film and television, I face many challenges to raising the consciousness of my students, the latest springing from our age difference. I'm struggling with how to teach my current class, the majority of whom were weaned on the television programming of the 1990s, that they were not in fact introduced to ethnic and racial diversity through series that they remember fondly from their youth such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters (of Jaleel White's Steve Urkel fame), and Saved By the Bell. Without intimate knowledge of the evolution of ethnic representations on television and in film over the decades nor of the histories of various racialized groups, often it is too easy to see some variety in skin color combined with markers of upper-middle class status and to ascribe to these narratives the blanket interpretation of “positive” representation. If the non-white characters aren't criminals it must be good, right?

The Cosby Show

The Cosby Show

On its surface my argument against these so-called egalitarian representations of non-white characters in 1990s television narratives is solid. In this regard I build on the scholarship of Herman Gray, my graduate school mentor John Downing, and others who cogently critiqued The Cosby Show for providing a misleading representation of an upper-middle-class African American family that obfuscated how many African Americans were actually living in poverty and facing decreased opportunities in the U.S. Similarly, the storylines of the Fresh Prince's Banks family in their Bel-Air mansion arguably whitewashed the struggles of many African American families in the mid-1990s.

The dilemma, however, is that taking this stance can fall into the trap of also essentializing race and representation. What's the suggested alternative, that African Americans, or to follow that reasoning, Latino/as or other non-whites, not be represented as wealthy and/or professional? That is certainly not what I want to advocate, especially with the knowledge that children are strongly influenced by the presence of role models, or lack thereof, in the media. I also would not want to ignore the fact that representations of non-whites as “problem people” struggling with issues associated with poverty have historically reinforced negative associations ascribed to non-white groups.

Lisa Turtle

Lisa Turtle

So why shouldn't I see Steve Urkel and Lisa Turtle (played by Lark Voorhis on Saved By the Bell) as progressive steps in the representation of African Americans on television? Much of my contentious stance has to do with a lack of contextual framework within the narratives themselves, which leaves these images mere positive caricatures, fantasies within fantasy storylines.

Let's take for example The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, executive produced by Quincy Jones and Winifred Hervey, and starring then-rapper and now film star Will Smith. The members of the Banks family, if anything, were ascribed stereotypes that have historically been the domain of wealthy white characters: Stuffy, materialistic, ditzy, and the like. Their cousin Will, from more diverse West Philadelphia, in contrast was upbeat, confident, and playful–qualities that made him a favorite of many of my male students, of all ethnic backgrounds. Despite his central role in the narrative, Will's point of view and backstory of growing up in a working-class, predominantly black neighborhood, which he has escaped by coming to live with the Bankses, is almost never treated in a realistic or sustained fashion, however. I find myself wanting to argue that “blackness,” if there is such a thing, as a result is left out. But then again, who is to say what form and meaning blackness has on an individual or family-by-family basis? And why can it not exist in Bel-Air? I see the flaws in my own argument, and have to admit that the representation of racialized groups is a topic that will continue to confound us in various ways.

Aside from my wish to educate my students regarding non-white perspectives that I feel were not typically expressed in Fresh Prince and other 1990s programming–and more often than not are still not represented today–this discussion illustrates a larger challenge: There's virtually no agreement on what it would mean to “represent diversity” accurately or fairly on television and in other mediated representations. Would this entail greater visibility of various racial and ethnic groups, increased realism and accuracy, or the inclusion of images that promote more egalitarian social relations? Even if “diversity” in this regard could be accomplished, would it even be supported by television advertisers and watched by enough viewers to survive?

Scholars, ethnic media advocates, advertisers, and media producers clearly disagree on these questions and will continue to do so, given the complexity of the matrix of production, representation, and consumption of media narratives and how race, ethnicity, and class are imbricated in that matrix and in U.S. social relations more generally. The 1990s programming that today's college students grew up on proves a complicated case in point. How to raise consciousness regarding patterns of representation that include the common invisibility and denigration of ethnic minorities, as well as the whitewashing of non-white histories and perspectives even while casting non-whites in more professional and “positive” roles? The challenge continues.

Image Credits:
1. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
2. The Cosby Show
3. Lisa Turtle

Please feel free to comment.

Rooting for Betty

by: Mary Beltrán / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Ugly Betty

ABC’s Ugly Betty

So here's the question: What to make of a television series that finally has a Latina lead character who is smart, sensitive, and interesting enough to compel me to watch each week to see how she is faring – but on the other hand who is, well, ugly? Or rather, clueless (particularly given that America Fererra, who portrays Betty, is far from ugly), with respect to being unable to dress appropriately for her high-powered job at Mode, a Vogue-like fashion magazine. I've waited a long time to be able to turn on network television and find a lead character like Betty Suarez. And yet I can't help but wonder if the premise of the series, based on the phenomenally popular Spanish-language telenovela Yo Soy Betty La Fea (literally, I Am Betty the Ugly), along with Betty's bushy eyebrows and lack of sophisticated fashion sense (does she not even flip through Mode?), perhaps have distorted meanings when set within the context of U.S. race relations. While it is true that we have witnessed a growth in Latina representation in the last decade, I'm not sure these images have grown in number and variety to the extent that the story of a Mexican American woman who will never fit into the world of fashion and beauty can yet be understood as an allegory for how “Betty is beautiful on the inside.” There are moments on the show, particularly when Betty's coworkers have a laugh at her expense, when it seems primarily focused on how a working-class Mexican American girl is rightly marginalized.

America Fererra

America Fererra, Betty

There is much more to the series than that, however, which is why I continue to tune in and likely why it continues to be popular with other viewers as well. Betty is a fairly complex character who is beginning to demand that she be able to be herself and be accepted in settings in which being thin, white, rich, and disengenuous typically have been prerequisites. And her family, while at first glance composed of Latin types that we all have seen before, is developing more shades of gray in recent storylines, despite the series' reliance on melodramatic story turns such as the revelation of Betty's father's manslaughtering past. As I noted in my position paper for the Flow conference, I see Ugly Betty as a positive step in network efforts to reach out to their growing Latino audience. There in fact appear to be many Latino viewers watching the show and rooting for its survival. I recently happened across an on-line discussion by fans over Betty's ugliness. Several fans pointed out the Latin American roots of the storyline and made it clear that, given this knowledge and their fond memories of the original, they didn't find Betty's appearance an issue in this new, U.S. version. What one viewer smartly pointed out, however, is that in the original series, which in novela style lasted only a few months, Betty undergoes a makeover at the culmination of the story, which brings her outer self into alignment with her inner beauty. Because U.S. series typically last much longer, however, we can count on seeing far more of Betty's “ugliness.” Not to imply that Betty needs a makeover in order to be a positive role model for other Latinas, but it seems that an ugly-duckling series premise that makes the duckling a Latina threatens to equate beauty and worthiness with whiteness.

Ugly Betty cast

The cast of Ugly Betty

I should stress, too: I'm still rooting for Betty. The series might provide a more empowering representation over time, particularly given America Fererra's ability to imbue Betty Suarez with an unmistakable intelligence and wit even in the face of the onslaught of overpriced designer clothes and cruelty that she faces. Already she maintains a level of grace and integrity that shines through, behind the glasses, brows and braces. But do other viewers, particularly non-Latino viewers, see it? It may depend on their perceptions before they tune in, what the implications of this Betty ultimately will be.

Image Credits:
1. ABC’s Ugly Betty
2. America Fererra, Betty
3. The cast of Ugly Betty

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