Editor’s note: This piece first published in the Berkeley High Jacket.
By: Maria Arms
Berkeley High Jacket
Growing up, I always found it strange that the Latina women on television were nothing like those around me. The few Latina characters I saw on television were loud, obnoxious women who were objectified and often cast in small roles. However, growing up in a Latinx household, I was surrounded by strong, influential and inspiring Latina women, unlike those shown in the media.
I quickly began to realize the disconnect between the Latinx characters shown in the media and those in the real world.
While many aspects of our society are beginning to shift, the entertainment industry seems to be at a standstill with its lack of diversity. A study released in 2016 by USC found that while Latinxs make up about 17.6 percent of the U.S. population, they continue to be among the least represented in terms of speaking roles in film and television.
The study found that out of more than 11,000 speaking characters surveyed in film and television, only 5.8 percent were Hispanic or Latinx. According to NBC, Latinxs account for 32 percent of frequent moviegoers. It makes little financial sense to continue to have such a lack of diversity in the entertainment industry.
According to a UCLA 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report, “Scripted shows featuring casts that were at least 30% diverse had higher ratings among viewers ages 18-49 than competitor shows.” Yet this data is not reflected in the movies and TV shows that are constantly being produced by Hollywood.
Numerous studies have shown a direct correlation between TV exposure and self-esteem. For example, children who watch television shows where they see themselves represented demonstrate an increase in self-esteem.
When children do not see representations of their race, there is evidence of a decrease in self-esteem. This is an important issue for the entertainment industry. Media companies, however, do not lack the opportunity to create diverse shows that would represent the largest growing ethnic group in America, they just seldom take the opportunity.
Disney is home to most of the classic childhood films. In 2012, Disney faced a controversy surrounding a new television show called Sofia the First: Once Upon a Princess. The show quickly gained media coverage after executive producer Jamie Mitchell told Entertainment Weekly that Sofia was indeed Latina, making her the first-ever Latina Disney princess. There was an immediate controversy when the show came out, however, because princess Sofia resembled a young white girl, with blonde hair and blue eyes.
Many took to Twitter and other social platforms to express their disappointment and frustration with the princess not resembling their idea of a Latina girl.
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Others argued that Sofia can still be Latina even without resembling the stereotypical look of a Latina. Disney responded to the controversy by denying that Princess Sofia was Latina and said all of the characters are from fantasy lands inspired by elements of certain cultures. “Princess Sofia is a mixed-heritage princess in a fairy-tale world,” said the co-executive producer and writer Craig Gerber. Not only did Disney miss an opportunity to diversify their characters, they missed an economic opportunity to appeal to a wider variety of viewers.
This lack of Latinos and Latinas in the entertainment industry was truly apparent the night of the Emmys. During the 2017 Emmys, not a single Latinx actor, director, producer, or writer was nominated for any of the prestigious awards. And this year wasn’t an exception to the rest: to this day, not a single Latinx has won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor or Actress in a Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy, or any of the awards for directing, producing, or writing a TV series, telling how slow the industry is to acknowledge Latinx achievement in entertainment.
While the television industry fails to reflect today’s demographics and Latinx culture in particular, some shows are actively working to tell more accurate stories about Latinos and Latinas. One example of a show combatting stereotypes is “Jane the Virgin,” a telenovela-inspired comedy, whose lead is Latina. The show features Latinx characters from all different backgrounds and different economic classes.
Jane’s father and the father of Jane’s child come from incredibly wealthy families, while Jane is raised in a working-class family. The characters in the show also have a variety of dreams and pursue a variety of careers, from entertainment to entrepreneurship to education.
When speaking about the impact of the show’s conscious effort to portray a variety of Latino and Latina characters, the show’s creator, writer and producer Jennie Snyder Urman said, “What I didn’t understand until I did this project is just how important it is to see someone who looks like you on TV. … It has been a moving experience to hear young girls who watch the show explain how important it is for them to see themselves onscreen, and to see a young Latina who is defined by her ambition and dreams.” After the show’s three highly-watched seasons, the show is set to begin its fourth season in early October.
The success of “Jane the Virgin” is a small step, but a step in the right direction. As actress Gina Rodriguez said, “Being a maid is fantastic; I have many family members who have fed their children in that role. But there are other stories that need to be told.
The media is a venue and an avenue to educate and teach our next generation.” As the Latinx population continues to grow in America, it is important for the media to reflect the increasing diversity in our society. Since the media and entertainment industries hold vast power, it is crucial that they use their platform to empower and inspire the coming generations.