Visible Minorities in Entertainment Media

Much in the same way that visible minorities are under- or misrepresented in news media, visible minorities are not accurately portrayed in entertainment media, which tends to reinforce themes that are conveyed in the news. In Canada, these inaccurate representations are often the result of economic factors that affect which forms of media are broadcast and the types of portrayals they include. Although positive change is occurring, it is important that Canadian media content more accurately and fairly reflect the reality of Canadian multiculturalism.

Further, Canadian media often reflects American as opposed to Canadian visible minority populations: for example, TV viewers are more likely to see African Americans than African Canadians on their screen and specific Canadian minorities, such as South Asian or Southeast Asian populations, will often be underrepresented in favour of Hispanic populations. Concerns have also been raised that visible minority actors are being recruited not as central characters, but as a means of attracting viewers from diverse cultural audiences. These portrayals are not aimed at accurately portraying minorities; rather, they are focused on gaining profit and viewership. [1]

Visible Minorities in Television

Minelle Mahtani argues that Canadian entertainment media shares many problems with American programming, exhibiting a similar tendency to underrepresent and misrepresent visible minorities. She writes that this underrepresentation is “suggestive of [these groups’] unimportance or their non-existence”. [2] A Toronto study found that only 4 per cent of female characters and 12 per cent of male characters in Canadian dramatic series came from diverse ethnic backgrounds. [3] A glimpse at popular Canadian television reinforces this trend: of fourteen original programs airing on CBC, CTV and Global in the 2010-2011 season, only one – Little Mosque on the Prairie – had any visible minority characters in lead roles; what few visible minority characters were present were largely relegated to sidekick, confidant or comic relief roles (as on Being Erica or Men With Brooms).

Mahtani also argues that when Canadian shows do include minority content, they rely on negative stereotypes of visible minorities. [4] These groups are often presented as “social problems… pimps, high school dropouts, homeless teens, or drug pushers”. [5] These portrayals can again be linked to mainstream media narratives that cast minorities as foils to majority ‘heroes’, sharpening positive majority stereotypes through the contrast provided by negative minority ones. Mahtani writes that black Canadians in particular “are often limited to roles of villains or victims, or buffoons and folksy sitcom types”. [6] Further, visible minorities are often represented as people who don’t have anything important to say, especially when compared to majority members.

While Canadian television can be criticized for its marginalization of visible minorities, there are also Canadian shows that have been praised for their minority content. Even shows that have been criticized for their portrayal of certain groups have simultaneously been praised for their treatment of others. The various incarnations of Degrassi have historically included many representations of culturally diverse characters, and the current series continues to set a generally positive example of Canadian programming that includes representations of visible minorities. The portrayal of Chinese Canadians on Robson Arms merges traditional Chinese cultural values with contemporary Canadian society in a way that stresses that the two can be complimentary, not mutually exclusive. How to Be Indie shows an engaging and fun South Asian protagonist who has a fresh and independent view on life, despite the struggles of negotiating junior high while living with her strict parents. Little Mosque on the Prairie has been met with critical acclaim for its positive and balanced representation of the Canadian Islamic community. Even Canadian shows that have been criticized for their American focus – such as Mysterious Ways – have included diverse portrayals. For example, Dr. Peggy Fowler is an intelligent, rational, cheerful psychiatrist who also happens to be African American. Further, in addition to these positive representations in mainstream media, visible minority media – media produced by minorities – is gaining popularity in Canada.

Visible Minorities in Film

Due to a number of factors – among them the small size of Canada’s film industry and the prominence of the National Film Board – Canadian film has a fairly good history of visible minority participation, both in front of and behind the camera. Feature films such as Incendies and The Planet of Junior Brown feature realistic and responsible fictional portrayals of visible minority experience while the NFB has produced dozens of films on everything from hot-button multiculturalism issues to filmmakers’ family histories.

Most Canadians, however, are much more likely to watch American than Canadian films, and there the picture is not as rosy. While some visible minority groups are fairly well-represented in terms of sheer numbers, there continues to be a fairly narrow range of roles available: Asim Wali, a Canadian actor of South Asian origin, describes his previous roles as “terrorists, suspected terrorists, undercover operatives infiltrating terrorist organizations and, in a real twist, a domestic terrorist.” This may be because while a small number of visible minority actors, such as Will Smith and Jackie Chan, are among Hollywood’s biggest box-office draws, nearly all of the faces behind the camera are White: a 2009 study by the Writers Guild of America found that visible minorities made up only 6 per cent of screenwriters, as compared to 35 per cent of the general U.S. population and a 2013 study by the USC’s Annenberg School found that only 33 of the 565 directors of the top-grossing Hollywood films of 2007 to 2012 were black.[7] Another reason is that visible minority actors are often only considered for parts specifically written as visible minorities, while parts of unspecified ethnicity are assumed to be white; Kelly Edwards, vice-president of talent development and corporate diversity at NBC Universal, has said that casting directors and producers tend to turn to actors with whom they’re already familiar, which often results in less diversity onscreen.

Visible Minorities in Music

Canada has traditionally led representations of diversity in music. From Gordon Lightfoot’s tale of minority struggles during the construction of the Canadian Railway in “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” to Nelly Furtado’s Portugese anthem “Forca”, translated to “Strength”, Canadian music is a way through which minorities have been able to gain visibility. In 2010, K’naan, a Somali Canadian rapper, was awarded the Juno Award for Artist of the Year, while Drake, of African Canadian descent, took home Best New Artist.

Popular music frequently displays certain racial themes. Toby Jenkins, professor of Integrative Studies and Higher Education, describes that rap and hip hop music express the realities of institutional racism and find their roots in the 1960s civil rights movement and integration of Black students into White society. Music, she describes, was a system for these minority populations to express their thoughts and struggles at a time when they were often silenced and ignored in classrooms or social life. As Jenkins argues, “hip hop music tells the story of what it is like to be Black in America…hip hop music is one of the few cultural spaces where African Americans can voice their discontent with American power structures that make it difficult for Blacks to be successful”. [8] Today, rap and hip hop music continue to build on these themes, albeit for more subtle reasons than the very obvious segregation of the 1960s. Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture, writes that, “statistically, African-Americans are less educated, employed and successful than Whites. Incarceration, health issues and death rates are higher for Blacks compared to Whites. The emotional impact of these statistics is quite apparent in the lyrics of hip hop songs.”

Like American hip hop, Canadian hip hop is much concerned with matters of race, culture and identity – but that of African Canadians, whose origins, experiences and history are quite different from those of African Americans. While it originated in close imitation of American hip hop, Canadian artists such as K-Os and Kardinal Offishall produce music which is much more influenced by the traditions of the Caribbean (two-thirds of African Canadians are of Caribbean origin) and first-generation immigrants such as K’naan have begun to draw on their personal and cultural experiences in producing their music.

Other visible minority groups have begun to make their presence known on the music scene as well. The increasing prominence of South Asian culture, most visibly represented by “Bollywood” movies, has resulted in a greater visibility for groups such as Delhi 2 Dublin, which plays songs with lyrics in Punjabi and music played on instruments such as the sitar, dhol and tabla to mostly White audiences. As with Canadian hip hop, this new wave of South Asian music is not just a transplant of traditional forms but a blend of influences – in this case South Asian banghra, Celtic folk and reggae. Raghav Mathur, whose music mashes Bollywood beats with hip hop and whose lyrics are equally likely to be in English and in Hindi, compares South Asian music in Canada to Latin artists such as Shakira and Ricky Martin, who have managed to please both visible minority and mainstream audiences.

Visible Minorities in Video Games

Unlike other media, there is no domestic Canadian video game industry: while a number of extremely successful video game publishers, such as BioWare and Ubisoft, are based in Canada, all of their work is created for the American market. As a result, visible minority representation in video games can only be considered in an American context.

Whether they are compared to Canada or the United States, video games have perhaps the worst record of visible minority representation. A 2009 study of video game advertising found that not only were visible minorities underrepresented – 23 per cent of characters compared to 35 per cent of the U.S. population – but when they did appear they were heavily stereotyped: Blacks were portrayed overwhelmingly as hyper-masculine, aggressive and dangerous, with 100 per cent of those in the study being portrayed as violent, athletic or both. Violence, of course, is a frequent occurrence in video games, but while White characters were more likely to be shown engaging in fantasy violence – using swords or laser guns against monsters or aliens – visible minority characters were much more likely to be part of realistic violent acts such as drive-by shootings, violent muggings and gang fights. Asian characters were stereotyped even further, as they were almost exclusively shown engaging in martial arts. Many visible minorities – such as South Asians or Hispanics – were nearly or entirely absent. [9]

Perhaps because the video game industry is overwhelmingly White (83.3 per cent according to a 2005 study by the International Game Developers Association, with only one other group, East Asians, representing more than 3 per cent) game designers and, indeed, gamers have often proven to be tone-deaf on racial topics. For instance, the developers of the game Resident Evil 5 claim not to have anticipated any negative reaction to the game’s storyline, which required a White protagonist to kill hundreds of zombified Africans, and many commenters on game forums responded with great hostility to suggestions that the game was in any way racist. As Newsweek’s game critic N’Gai Croal described the situation, “Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game… The point isn’t that you can’t have black zombies. There was a lot of imagery in that trailer that dovetailed with classic racist imagery. What was not funny, but sort of interesting, was that there were so many gamers who could not at all see it… So how could you have a conversation with people who don’t understand what you’re talking about and think that you’re sort of seeing race where nothing exists?”

 


[1] Malla, Pasha. “When Hollywood Goes Crayola .” Home - The Globe and Mail. N.p., 6 Aug. 2010. Web. 4 Mar. 2011. .
[2] Mahtani, M. (2001). Representing minorities: Canadian media and minority identities. Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes Ethniques au Canada, 33(3), 99-133.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Smith, Dr. Stacy L., Marc Choueiti, & Dr. Katherine Pieper, Race/Ethnicity in 500 Popular Films: Is the Key to Diversifying Cinematic Content held in the Hand of the Black Director?, Media Diversity & Social Change Initiative, University of Southern California, 2013, http://annenberg.usc.edu/sitecore/shell/Applications/~/media/PDFs/RaceEthnicity.ashx, last accessed November 4, 2013.
[8] Herold, C. (2010, June 22). Hip Hop Songs and Black Racism. Suite101.com: Online Magazine and Writers’ Network. Retrieved March 4, 2011, from http://www.suite101.com/content/hip-hop-songs-and-black-racism-a247425
[9] Burgess et al. Playing with Prejudice: The Prevalence and Consequences of Racial Stereotypes in Videogames. Media Psychology: 2009.

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The Diversity and Media Toolbox is a comprehensive suite of resources that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet. The program includes professional development tutorials, lesson plans, interactive student modules and background articles.

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