Monday, November 15, 2010

Minority Role Models in Television and Film: Burden or Boon?

Whenever minorities are able to successfully make the crossover onto the Hollywood scene and become household names, they inevitably encounter the 'role model' scenario. Because they are one of the few prominent names of Latino or African or Asian descent, they automatically fall into the role of representing their ethnicity. But I always question this- because placing any actor or actress on the ‘ethnic’ pedestal can only lead to backlash when they fail to ‘represent’ their culture the way millions expect them to. I think, in order to cross racial boundaries and actually progress as a society, we need to see actors as actors- individuals with a talent for his/her craft and not as figureheads for the Latino community or the Black brotherhood. I feel, on some level, that such ideas only propagate and reinforce social and culture stereotypes and create racialized identities. Jessica Alba reveals :
"For me, I never wanted to reinforce any stereotypes about Latin women, and that was why I've shied away from Latin characters I've been offered. Most of them reinforced the stigmas. The women whom I grew up with are intelligent, strong women, and unless I read a woman being portrayed that way in a film, I didn't want to play it.”

This does not mean that I don’t find the idea of attaching a role model status to minorities compelling; I think, on some level, if we see a person of the same race as ours, we immediately and subconsciously identify with them ( or at least, a little light bulb of recognition goes off!). And I also realize that award shows recognizing latino americans in film or celebrating african americans in the entertainment industry are important because we are only recently seeing the integration and presence of minorities (hence ‘minority’) on television and film more prominently and widespread. And yet, the flipside of this is that we subconsciously create these specialized role model roles that help to cultivate and forge a racial identity or place the burden of cultural embodiment on that individual. At what point can we appreciate and

applaud a minority for his/her advancements in this industry without foraying into racialized territory?


  1. This is always a difficult topic because everything you said is true. I have definitely felt more connected with any person if they are the same race as me. It's funny because this person could be a complete jerk in personality, but if they looked something like me, I'd be drawn to them in a crowded room where I don't know anyone. I'm glad of the advancements in the entertainment industry as well but like you, I always wonder why it needs to be racialized or sexualized for it to seem more appealing.

    I would definitely admire someone who wanted to go against the stereotype but realistically, these might be the only roles they are offered. I think that the media industry subconsciously and consciously oppresses actors and actresses by offering and suggesting roles that are within their stereotype. This is interesting because I can recall a Native American video I've seen where the Native American person was played by a Black man instead.

    It's hard to understand why times have changed in the way they have. More and more minorities want to be equally represented but are stuck between a rock and a hard place when the role is stereotypical. But what's a person to do when they want to be famous? When they want to have a career? Either you submit or you might be unemployed.

  2. Thanks for the post – I often question the level of advancement of minorities in the Hollywood industry because my parents make their careers out of it. Both my mom and dad are Filipino journalists who write all about Hollywood entertainment and showbiz for Filipino newspapers, for readers both here in the States and abroad to consume. My dad is always looking for, what he calls, the “Filipino Connection,” to the actors and actresses that he interviews. When I read his articles, it almost seems like he can find any kind of relationship with the celebrity to the Philippines – from the seemingly superficial, like the celebrity had a Filipino nanny or the celebrity is rooting for Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. All of which, make it this spectacle to see how "like us" i.e. how "Filipino"-like these white celebrities are.

    But every now and then, my parents will interview the REAL minorities in Hollywood – usually the lead animators, special effects managers, directors, costume designers, to the few and the proud Filipino celebrities who have made it big-time, as in Made it in the USA, like Tony-award winning actress Lea Salonga(who ironically did not even play a Filipina, but a Vietnamese character!)

    Most recently, however, Charice Pempengco, the young singer prodigy that Ellen Degeneres "discovered," recently starred on the hit-television series “Glee” as...surprise! A Filipina! With a very Filipina sounding name – Sunshine Corazon, to top if off. She even directly states her ethnicity in one of her lines, as she explains why she had to transfer “…my mom and I just came from the Philippines, and this other school gave us green cards and a house so I will be going there.” I feel like this relates to your blog posts which suggests that minority actors only propagate and reinforce social and cultural stereotypes and create racialized identities. While Charice’s character was not depicted in a demeaning way, her presence and character motivation on the cast is still, like many minority actors and actresses, a guest appearance or supporting role that plays on positive/negative cultural stereotypes.

    Nevertheless, it still makes headline news for the ethnic communities to read about, and gives my parents more people to write about.

  3. Great posts! So many smart observations. It gets pretty complicated, right?