Inaccurate Portrayals of Minorities Shouldn’t Exist in 2016

Feminism Film & TV Human Rights
An old television sitting in a bare dirty room.

It’s 2016. In a visual medium such as film, there are no excuses for something like lack of minority representation. Everyone should have a chance to see themselves represented on television or in film. Every voice should be present. Every narrative non-fantasy, non-sci-fi film has the social responsibility to create and utilize characters that are realistic. More importantly, every creator has the responsibility to their viewers and to their craft to create characters that are fully realized human beings.

It feels odd writing an article trying to tell people how to write their characters. It feels pompous, but the reality is things like #OscarssoWhite exist for a reason. The disability community complains about representation, or lack thereof, for a reason. Women complain about their role in front of and behind the camera and the Bechdel Test is used, for a reason.

I’ve been a party to and seen a number of conversations dealing with this issue. A minority group says… “this is the problem with this film or this character.” They say it to help improve diverse films in the future. The filmmaker or Hollywood executive responds with… “we did the best we could,” “it’s not such a big deal,” or “what did you want us to do, not make the film?”

Let’s address these things one by one for a second.

We did the best we could

Did you? I mean did you go out of your way to ensure that you were making the best movie possible? If your character was disabled did you hire a disabled person? If you didn’t, did you hire a consultant? Did you speak to a guy in a wheelchair on the street before you moved on with your story? Did you ask the autistic guy if he really does act like “Rainman”? Or did you just Google the disability fueling your film and assume you knew enough to move forward with your character.

It’s not such a big deal

It might not be to you, but chances are good that you see some sort of representation of yourself on television every day. Now imagine that you’re disabled, so you never see yourself. You’re autistic, so every representation is a horrible and sometimes downright ridiculous characterization of a socially awkward alien. You’re black, so every representation is a drug-dealer, gang member, prostitute, or slave. You’re Hispanic, so obviously every representation is of your family illegally crossing the border and hiding in this country to form the secret American dream.

If you’re white. It’s not a big deal to you. There is a reason for that. You see yourself everyday. You are a mom or a dad, a brother or a sister, a lover or a friend. You’re a lawyer or a doctor. You are a police officer or a criminal. You have options. You are not a caricature. You are not usually a plot device or if you are you are not one because of your color. You get to be a real person. Minorities don’t get that or they don’t feel that, because film as a visual medium does not offer that.

What did you want us to do? Not make the film?

Yes. I want you to not make the film. I want you to read your film or watch your footage and put yourself in the shoes of other people. If your film makes you feel ill, if it bothers you, or makes you feel ashamed I want you to throw it the fuck away. I want you to find the minority group that drives your film, and show it to them. If they make guttural noises of disgust or they cry out in anguish, I want you to consider it a lesson learned and scrap your film. Most importantly, I want you to realize that in a world where minorities are already starving to see themselves represented, it’s better to make them wait for something good, than force them to suffer with more of the same.

I also want you to realize that people learn things from film, and teaching them things that are wrong causes more damage than you are considering when you release your seemingly harmless film about a young autistic who changes the life of everyone around her by being “special.” It hurts every autistic who watches it and realizes you made the film for yourself and not for them. It hurts the viewers that watch it and assume that this representation is representative of the autistic community, which it often isn’t, because you didn’t take the time to speak to anyone or hire anyone with autism to tell you what you were doing is wrong.

In 2016 we shouldn’t need Bechdel tests or commonsense guidelines about how to cast or represent minorities in film. But, apparently we do.

The incomparable and amazing actress-writer-producer-comedian Maysoon Zayid once said, “If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyonce then Beyonce can’t play a person in a wheelchair.” Maysoon doesn’t use a wheelchair, but she does have a disability. None of that should matter of course, but apparently it does, because I’m guessing that with talent like hers she’d already be a household name by now without one.

And that is a distinction that should make you mad. It should piss you off. It should have you raging against the system, and not sitting complacently and doing nothing.

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If you are making a film this is how you should deal with minority representation.

You write a character with a minority. Stop. Ask yourself these questions:

Does this story only work because the character is this minority?

This isn’t an automatic deal breaker, because some stories exist to tell the minority story. So, if this is the case you need to ask yourself some additional questions.

Is my minority character a caricature?

Are you writing a story about a sassy Latina maid who is trying to find a better life and happens to improve the life of a white man who takes all her financial woes away? If so, cease and desist.

Does your character only exist as a plot device?

Is your drooling, bed-ridden, barely-verbal wheelchair using disabled guy only in your film to teach someone able-bodied the power of their ability and how to love and enjoy a life they were previously taking for granted? If so…Please. Fucking. Stop.

Is your autistic girl in the city looking for love, quirky and funny (in that laugh-at-her-not-with-her way), but she improves and learns things after someone neuro-typical teaches her who she is, and what she should want, while she teaches them to be more human? Nope. Quit it. Seriously. Just. Stop. Writing.

And it’s not just disabilities or minorities. It’s women, too. We are people. Do not write films or direct films about us without considering that we are actually real people. Women talk to other women about things other than men. We don’t live for just men. We don’t work just because men hire us. Some of us like men. Some of us don’t. That generally doesn’t matter though because there are so many other layers that any story told about us should not even need to have a man skirting the top layer.

Tell the story about the woman first and add in her man on the side (if she even has one!), similar to when you tell that story about that man. Allow her to be a fully functional person that happens to be in a relationship. Don’t create a woman that is a mother and a man’s wife that happens to have other goals beyond those two important distinctions. Create women that don’t have kids or that don’t want to get married. When you create heterosexual cisgender women, make sure that they have more goals than getting married. When you create women, consider ALL women…trans women, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, Asians, disabled, Native/aboriginal, etc.! We all have stories to tell, and we all have value. All women deserve to be seen and represented, and then Hollywood needs to cast them.

And before you say it, don’t tell me to create that story if I want to see it. I do. I have. I will continue to do so. I am telling you because you are the people writing the stories now. You are the ones getting the stories out there and you should care about what your audiences think and feel.

I’m telling the consumers because Hollywood is a money game and if you want to see yourself in the right representations you have be willing to ignore all the wrong ones. If you want to be an ally, don’t watch movies that are clearly harming the minority communities you support. Don’t watch those films that make transwomen, LGBT individuals, disabled people, people of color, or even women plot devices and future paychecks. It is only when people refuse to watch these bad representations that we will stop seeing them.

If you want to make an impact on the issues we’re seeing in Hollywood, then you need to make a pledge to hit them in their pocket book. More than anything that is what they are going to listen to. The voice of one or one thousand minorities won’t change their minds. It hasn’t changed them yet, and plenty are screaming about the problems. If you want them to change, you have to remove the money that is put in their hands from the films that should have never been made in the first place. The removal of that money will ensure they will stop making those films. When that happens, with a little hard work on our part, and a whole lot of luck, we will finally see some much needed change.

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Photo credit: Giandomenico Ricci via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Ashtyn Law is a freelance writer living in Ohio. Focusing on film, she spends much of her days watching and analyzing film and television and also writing screenplays.

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