By Chris McBride
Youngstown State University staff and students gathered on March 16 in the President’s Suite to take part in a discussion on representation of race, gender and ethnicity in pop culture, especially television and film.
The discussion was led by Dolores V. Sisco, director of Americana studies at YSU with YSU faculty member, Linda Strong, moderating questions.
Sisco began by discussing the role actress and writer Issa Rae plays in furthering the race/gender conversation in television. To do so, Sisco included clips from Rae’s popular web series “Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.”
The series features Issa Rae as “J”, an African American woman who often finds herself in uncomfortable social situations. Rae also stars in her own HBO show, “Insecure,” based off the web series.
The shows encompasses all the aspects of race, gender and ethnicity that Sisco spoke on during the discussion.
“You don’t see anyone like her on television,” Sisco said in regards to Issa Rae. “It’s a series with young black millennials and awkward black girls.”
A comment from a student discussed how the success of more diverse shows could lead to more diversity on television.
Sisco cited this as being the “Hollywood motto” of replicating the formula of previously successful shows. The idea being that with diverse shows garnering more attention, Hollywood will attempt to pump out more shows like them.
The problem, though, doesn’t simply lie with American television, as Strong points out that foreign television doesn’t have a lot of diversity as well. Like American television, Strong said, they “fall into the same stereotypes” when portraying other races.
“Arabs and middle easterners are still portrayed as always being the terrorist and dangerous,” Strong said.
Later in the discussion, Sisco also spoke about the success of shows like “Black-ish” while also noting the “backlash” when such diverse shows fail.
“A few years ago, television made this diversity push, so we’ve started to see Asian-Americans telling their stories,” said Sisco. “When one fails, no more black or Asian stories on television.”
Sisco references the short lived “All American Girl” which featured an Asian family as the last show of its nature, that was until the current success of the ABC show, “Fresh off the Boat.”
With the ABC show’s success, Sisco cautioned the challenge faced when networks attempt to make shows with diversity cater towards a national audience.
“There’s this push to make everything universal which is a hard thing to do looking at African Americans and gay American’s experiences,” Sisco said.
In doing so, Sisco argues making their experience universal stands to dilute the experience of these minority groups rather than reflect them.
The conversation shifted to whitewashing in shows such as the Netflix series “Iron Fist” which features a white male playing a character with deep roots in Asian culture.
The last point Sisco made during the discussion was regarding the portrayal of black women as the “paragon of virtue,” meaning that black characters in the past were portrayed too perfect and one dimensional. For her argument she cited T.V character Olivia Pope from “Scandal.”
Afterthoughts from YSU student Christian Bennett reflected on the discussion and what the conversation means to her.
“I agreed with a lot of the points made regarding diversity on T.V.,” Bennet said. “Diversity matters in film because people shouldn’t have such limited world views regarding race.”
Speaking with Sisco afterwards, she also spoke towards representation and the importance of the role it plays in society.
“It’s important to see what America looks like, the diversity of America,” Sisco said. “It’s important for people to view blacks as human on T.V. just like everyone else.”