Minority Representation in Media

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Courtesy of Disney

Audiences have struggled with how some film makers aren’t using minority actors to fill minority roles.

Ciara Hendricks, ENN Staff

Major animation companies such as Disney and Pixar have a huge influence on the lives of young and impressionable children. Pixar’s most recent animation, Soul, has been popular with many people. While Joe Gardner, the main character in Soul, is played by the African-American actor Jamie Foxx, Joe has been dubbed over by white actor, Charles Rettinghaus, in Germany. This is not the first or only time actors have been cast for characters whose race does not resemble their own.

The first Disney princess was Snow White in 1937. It took 55 years for Disney to have popular main characters of color who were depicted as human, which was Jasmine and Aladdin in the 1992 movie Aladdin. Both Jasmine and Aladdin were played by voice actors of different ethnicities of the ones they portrayed, meaning neither of which were of Middle Eastern origin; Lea Salonga (Filipina) and Scott Weigner (caucasian). 

There has been a history of directors casting white voice actors for characters of color or casting voice actors of color as a different ethnicity other than their own. Kandice San Miguel, English III teacher and Disney fanatic, feels as though this is no longer something that should be happening, even if it was once the norm. She feels as though someone who can not experience the life of another ethnicity could not accurately portray it.

“I think that, at one time, it was acceptable but not anymore. As someone part of the majority, we cannot experience or understand the plight of a minority character. We haven’t had those kinds of struggles, so lending our voice to someone who has, detracts from the message that needs to be sent,” states San Miguel.

There are still some cases today where the inaccurate casting of people of color happens in live-action films, though not as often now according to Shalyn Colbert, AVID teacher. She agrees with San Miguel that this kind of behavior is unacceptable, and takes away from the authenticity of the role.

“For playing a different race, and it’s in person, a white male can’t go in the camera and play a black man. Minorities should be played in their true light, just like how everybody else is portrayed. With the good and the bad, not just focused on one thing,” stated Colbert.

There are other concerns aside from the actors behind the voices, and towards the accuracy and amount of representation people of color get in television, whether it be animated or live-action. Neva Khan, a Bangladeshi sophomore, feels as though she didn’t see enough accurate representation for her own culture as a child and even now. 

“Growing up I had very few characters to relate to in American media. I was always involved in both Hollywood and Bollywood. So as I switched between the two, I would always notice the lack of people that looked like me. The first character I felt a connection to was Mowgli from The Jungle Book. However, even then it was an outdated understanding of Indian culture. That movie especially made me feel special to be different because the tiger, Shere Khan, had the same last name as me,” said Khan.

But Khan is not Indian. She is Bangladeshi. She grew up having to compare herself and identify with characters that do not share her culture. Mowgli was just the closest she could find to anyone that resembled her in the slightest. Even now, there is yet to be a Bangladeshi character in mainstream media.

“For most of my life, I had to take Indian representation as my own because even that was scarce. I have never come across a character from Bangladeshi parents or anything pertaining to Bangladesh. That is something I hope to see I’m the future, but I’m grateful for having South Asian people in the media to connect with,” says Khan.

It seems as though mainstream media may slowly be in the making of more inclusive and diverse creations, and there of course is not nearly enough representation for people of color to identify with. However, Colbert feels satisfied with the new wave of African-American characters her daughter can grow up with, though the issue is only subduing and not eliminated.

“I think, as far as today’s world, there is a lot more diversity on the screen in both in-person and animation. Therefore, I don’t think that that is as much of an issue as it has been in the past. My daughter is African-American and she sees African-American princesses and African-American superheroes,” stated Colbert.

When Colbert was a child herself, she felt as though there was not the same issue of diversity in children’s cartoons as there seems to be in today’s society. The mainstream media she received as a child had main characters that were animals rather than humans, and she felt that a child can not perceive race the same way.

“A lot of our animation was dogs, cats, and animals, so it didn’t really affect me as a kid. I think kids’ minds are so far gone, once you grow up and you see and hear all these different things is when you get that perception. They just see a cartoon,” states Colbert.

Many believe that there is a need for diverse and accurate portrayals and representations of minorities in media. It is crucial for child development. San Miguel explains that it allows for children to broaden their horizons and believe that they have a future full of possibilities.

“When young people see someone who looks like them on screen, it allows for the possibilities of their future. You want to see yourself in your heroes and the people that you emulate. If you don’t have somebody to look up to that looks like you and you internalize that, then you think you can not be that,” said San Miguel.

Khan has a similar perspective and feels as though it isn’t just children that need the representation. Child development and societal development ride on the back of mainstream media, and right now, the lack of such diversity is disrespectful and unacceptable.

“It is crucial to portray minorities in screen media. People resonate with characters in their favorite tv shows. However, if there are no minorities involved it creates a racial bias. Even if they don’t intentionally mean it, their brain connects seeing white people with entertainment and feelings of joy. That slowly creates resentment towards minorities, because they become foreign beings,” says Khan.

Khan especially emphasizes the need for an accurate representation of minorities. She feels as though there can not be meaningful diversity without the true portrayal of a culture, and the media has not played their role well enough. According to Khan, society and media must not continue to stereotype minorities and play into inaccurate assumptions of people of color.

“When minorities are portrayed it is important for them to be accurate and not based on stereotypes. It is common to assume things about different cultures, because of the tiny bit of knowledge we know. However, if a director wants to include minority characters it must be accurate to the actual culture. For example, many tv shows portray Muslim girls with hijabs as repressed. Then some white boy comes by, “enlightens” them, and the girl takes her hijab off. The hijab is not a forced accessory and is multiple Muslim women’s choices. Portraying Muslim girls like that on media creates false pretenses that affect our real-life opinions,” stated Khan.

Society is changing, the needs and demands for a much larger and more accurate representation for characters in mainstream media are growing. As San Miguel explained, the children need it and society needs it, and the newest wave of representation is just the beginning. There can always be better, someone just needs to decide to do it and do it well.