Peeling Away the Discrimination of Actors in Hollywood

The struggle to be an actor in Hollywood is real, and if you’re a considered to be a part of the minority set then the fact that you even get a part is like winning the lottery – pure luck. The media (television, film, web, social media, etc.), have a huge role in our lives as they provide us information such as news, but they educate us whilst informing and while doing so it becomes to be both intentional and unintentional.

Films, television shows and commercials are something that has woven itself into the present style of living so much so that without it; most of us would have a lack of understanding of certain subject matters in life and lack the luster to imagine certain aspects of the world without using their imagination. It can be assumed that we would be walking around either completely oblivious what is going on around us and the world and either be more or less self-absorbed with ourselves.

Take a look at Aziz Ansari, a notable Indian actor in Hollywood and creator of one of Netflix’s best series, Master of None, who plays Dev – a single Indian guy living in New York City whose accurate depiction of lack-of-acting gigs grants him a lot of time to hang out with his friends in bars and chill. This series talks about matters of gender and race with accurate depictions of actors which is used to subtlety hint at what is going on in this industry.

Whether America is ready for shows such as Master of None is unclear, but as of the beginning of 2016, the show grabbed 3.9 million adult viewers (between the ages of 18-49), in a 35-days viewing cycle. This makes the rom-com cliché one of the top ten shows amongst Netflix Originals.  It’s the opposite of virtually every sitcom ever to be shown on our screens. The ever so casual multicultural, multiracial comedy that’s acutely conscious of how identity in media is pivotal to everyday life.

This show isn’t just great because it deals with race, but how it deals with race; as the son of an immigrant and actor of color trying to get work – race isn’t the only theme in the show, it’s about navigating choice and privilege. Dev has his friend Brian, a Taiwanese-American, Denise a black Lesbian, and the white single guy Arnold whose conversations revolve around the ups and downs of Dev’s love and acting life. As Ansari/Dev said in the third episode, “Hot Ticket”, “I’m a person, not a bubble in a phone.” This was said partially because he was not getting the response he wanted from a white girl not texting him back, but he also was making the underlying reference to the others that are a part of his life, even though he is technically acting and treating everyone else like they are treating him. He just wants to be heard and heard back, which is not uncommon for minorities in this nation.

The portrayal of minorities in media context is not unheard of, but not enough people are speaking up about the topic, especially when it comes to a film context. There are very few shows that portray a person of color as the leading character unless they are like Aziz Ansari and produce, write, and direct the entirety of the show. Yes, there are people such as Priyanka Chopra, another Indian actress whose made her way into Hollywood, but her character portrayal in Quantico identifies her as being more of an American and an actual Indian. With such media platforms, those considered the minority hardly take the lead roles, and if so, it is typically because the story line would portray them as a person overcoming a type of hardship of some sort. This means that by saying a show/person to be diverse may have a multitude of meanings in organizations, corporations, and communities in respect to different contexts.

So, what is considered a minority and who are they? They live amongst us, but in the world where it’s predominantly the “majority” (the white, middle-class, young, heterosexual, and able-bodied), tend to overlook the realities of the situations of people who considered and look “different”. The word minority applies to those people who find themselves outnumbered for some personal characteristic of which they have no control over. Such characteristics include race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, etc.

It’s been murmured by professors, media CEOs, and actors themselves that those of a different background have “significant influences” in the workplace, social lives and media, yet how many people of color are leading corporations, acting as the lead in a hit TV show or film, or taking, or being portrayed in a positive/not so exploitative/derogatory light in advertisement? Studies have “claimed” we make a difference but how?

With the endless supply of mediums for communications, they bring in a range of problems to our individual selves. We start becoming critical of our appearances, minds, and consumer goods – and this leads into the thought as to whom is endorsing such imagery -which is typically the white, good looking human.

Those portrayed before the lens are selected for a reason and the fact that they are in their position: looking great, feeling great and living what is seemingly a fantastic, famous life will make us self-conscious and will make us want to attain such a life or something of the similar.

If we look at Indian films, most of the female heroines are fair skinned, and, well – India is known to be the “brown skinned” nation. It’s natural for advertisements’ and commercials to have these heroines advertise for a “fairness” cream and thus, half the nation’s females will go out and buying it in hopes they will become “lighter.” Here in America, those of the “colored” variety will hardly be portrayed, and if so, they will, as previously mentioned, be of a lesser role or a role where they will face some hardship in order to attain a fair shot at life amongst the rest of the nation of Americans.

As Emma Watson, a Caucasian actor had said during her United Nations launch of the ‘HeforShe’ campaign, “it is time that we see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals. We should stop defining each other by what we are not, and start defining ourselves as who we are”. This pertains to those considered the minority as well – not only are we considered an “outlier” of all things American, but we are defined by a specific image that does not seem to paint a kind picture. The sense of our originality as an individual gets lost in how the media portrays those of a different descent/gender/etc. as they get the roles that are less significant.

Aziz Ansari in an interview on Acting, Race and Hollywood disclosed that,  He realized that Hollywood’s lack of diversity is a major problem, and when they did portray a character of the “minority” type, it would just be an anomaly because it was just so rare to see people of a different descent portrayed on TV/film except for brief appearances.

It’s difficult to portray diversity in the media and to bring such colored actors into Hollywood, because it’s just easier to get a Caucasian actor to play the “brownface.” This is partially because there is the cultural normative gap and the idea that casting directors think there would be issues with the actor’s cultural beliefs or whatever excuse they can compose, but it primarily the fact that it’s just easier to cast them aside then upfront as the lead.

Sully Jhally mentions this “new direction” media is taking – cultural studies, which falls in line to minorities and how audiences are taught to perceive them via the media. “Cultural processes are intimately connected with social relations, especially with class relations and class formations… Culture is neither an autonomous nor externally determined field, but a site of social difference and struggles.”  What Jhally is bringing to light is that there are known and clear differences in the media that need to be addressed and understood – for the sake of self and for society to thrive.

“Media images help shape our view of the world and our deepest values.” Media, especially motion media – TV shows, films, etc. play a huge part of how we perceive things before us, so if the media has such a strong pedagogy upon us, why isn’t it being utilized to make change happen? As Douglas Kellner mentions, “cultural studies is valuable because it provides us tools that enable one to read and interpret one’s culture critically. It also subverts distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture…”. This essentially makes the film world an industry of creating distinctions of who is considered the “elites” and who are considered the “minority”, and these differentiations are created so that they are perceived as normal in our societal values. This is clearly seen in the casting of Hollywood films.

Television and film is consonantly thrown at our faces in our present lives. It’s a form of time pass, entertainment, and visually unique so it will reel in people’s attention.  Studies have shown that it affects our interactions with other humans – such as family, friends, church, and school – and by being such a predominant force in life, it’s in essence shaping young people develop values and form ideas about the world around them. Also, the media’s influences will shape a viewer’s attitudes and beliefs not only about themselves, but from other social, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Being white is presented as the “norm” for most media platforms, (television, films, commercials, news, etc.). The few minorities that get to be “presented” get portrayed in their social/ethnic stereotype which is generally negative. To conceptually understand this; years ago, (and still present today) African American actors often play the role as household servants, or a person of lesser stature, whilst Native Americans often appeared as wild warriors in Western movies. Critics may consider this racism as it’s unfair treatment and depiction of human individuals because of their race and the color of their skin, along with ethnic background.

As if racism weren’t enough, movie studios and directors have plenty of lame excuses for not casting people of color for years. Take Marvel’s Doctor Strange, which has apparently “roused fans” for turning the Ancient One, Benedict Cumberbatch’s master from a Tibetan man into a Celtic, white woman. It wasn’t clear as to why the casting; it is said that this is an example of how Hollywood is creating more prominent opportunities for women or people of color, but it cannot be both at the same time.

The fight for equality in the movie industry may be a matter of living up to the American values Hollywood claims to represent well. But the barriers to equality and the solutions to remove them, may require us to take an open-eyed approach beyond what is pronounced before us. To peel away at only the discrimination of actors in Hollywood will take any one venturing on the path to happen upon the various other obstacles that this industry is facing.


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