When we go to the movies and watch television, we expect to laugh and cheer and to be entertained. At its best, however, media can give us something deeper, a portrait into our lives and a glimpse into what we can become.
But what if that portrait never reflected your reality? According to U.S. census data, minorities now represent over 40 percent of the country. That number might surprise those who grew up against the backdrop of American movies and television shows whose storylines typically concern white men, or, if there’s a white girl, the white guy‘s attempt to get with her.
This lack of diversity has serious consequences. Only one demographic in this country can turn on the TV and see a positive, in-depth representation of itself. Only one demographic of the country is spoon-fed inspiration to achieve its maximum potential at the expense of every other group. If you use television screens to propagate already dominant conceptions of strength and beauty, these ideas seem to pass as truth. Does this feel any different from marketing or — worse — from propaganda?
Sometimes I wonder if my younger self would have had greater dreams and aspirations if there existed a wider variety of depictions of Asian-Americans beyond the typical scholastic nerd.
As I got older, I told myself that the best way to combat stereotypes and empower other Asian-Americans would be to break through these barriers myself and become a counterexample for others. I rowed Varsity Crew my freshmen year. I was in student government. I was a FroCo. I’ve worked on my public speaking and my writing skills. I’ve slowly built up the confidence to define myself beyond my race. And yet, I’ve also realized that I as an individual am limited in the number of lives I can touch. Unless I become a celebrity or a national icon, unless my face can reach an entire country’s population, my impact as a role model will only be felt at the local level.
Barack Obama’s presidency was so historically important because a black kid can now point to Obama and dare to say to himself, “I can be president too.” But a white kid can turn on his TV and tell himself, “I can be Superman, I can be Batman.” And, if he follows the Oscars, “I can be Steve Jobs. I can use my ingenuity and grit to survive Mars or the uninhabited Louisiana territory.”
This is why diversity in media is so important. It’s a way to visualize narratives for ourselves and our world. No kid out there should believe that any path might be closed off to him due to his race. Ignorance is when other people buy into the stereotypes created about your race. Tragedy is when you buy into these stereotypes yourself.
Now, eight years after Obama began his presidency, Spike Lee and others are boycotting the Oscars because no actors of color were nominated. But the problem extends beyond the composition of the Academy, which, as of 2012, was 94 percent white and 77 percent male. What’s of greater concern is the lacking number of non-white, male studio executives that ultimately decide which projects are produced, how they are written and how they are cast.
“It’s easier to be president of the United States as a black person than to be head of a studio, or be head of a network,” Lee said.
At Yale, we are led to believe that we can change the world and become leaders and influencers. We also believe that business, politics, law and medicine are most expedient for accomplishing this end. It’s time that we also begin taking an active role in shaping the powerful and pervasive effects that media exerts on our lives.