Ethnic diversity and American television

jane-the-virgin-poster-04Ah America, the land of the free and the home of the many various cultures who have settled on this great land over the last couple centuries. And while America has progressively become more and more diverse, American television feels as though it is stuck in the past. On shows like HBO’s Girls, and CBS’s Criminal Minds, both of which are set in diverse landscapes, the cast is predominantly Caucasian while including little to no minorities despite the fact that both shows are set in modern-day major U.S. cities. While shows like The CW’s Jane the Virgin, set in Miami, are taking a step forward by embracing a Venezuelan family whose grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll) is an undocumented immigrant — which is increasingly a familiar story many Americans can relate to. But for every Jane the Virgin, there’s 10 more Girls and Criminal Minds, which is why it’s time to show network executives we’re ready for more ethnic diversity.

Over 25% of the US population identifies with an ethnicity or race that is other than Caucasian. For many of these ethnicities, their lack of representation can be quite upsetting. Most people turn to the media to find an affirmation that they too belong, especially in this country that was founded on the grounds of unalienable rights and the pursuit of happiness, yet most ethnic minorities never actually see realistic portrayals of themselves on television… you can imagine how upsetting and isolating that is, and it’s sending the wrong message – like they don’t belong. The lack of ethnic diversity can also reinforce the idea that one needs to be a certain color to belong to a certain culture in order to fit in, which takes away the very ideals that America was built on.

It is not as though ethnic diversity has not appeared on television until now; stereotypical portrayals of many ethnicities dates as far back as the 1930s, however, many of these minorities are rather one-note. On Modern Family, Sofia Vergara stars as Gloria, patriarch Jay Pritchett’s (played by Ed O’Neill) new wife. While Gloria has some great one-liners and is one of the only Latinas on television who is not a maid, she essentially embodies all of the stereotypes that are associated with Latin women. She’s fiery, she’s sassy, she’s loud and she’s in your face. She reads more like a character description by the creators of Poochie (from the The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show seen on The Simpsons) than as a believable character. While it is comforting for many Latin women to see a Latina on one of television’s most popular shows, it can also be frustrating since she is such a blatant stereotype.

In 2015, Americans were introduced to three Asian American families: The Huangs from ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, and the Shahs and the Chengs on Netflix’s Master of None. Although all three families differ in age and experience, they are truthful to what it means to be a minority. When Aziz Ansari’s Master of None (in which his actual parents play his character’s, Dev Shah’s, parents) first premiered, Twitter was thrilled — television was finally showing parents from other countries as three-dimensional people, not just as having funny accents. Dev’s parents had a realistic backstory, they had come to America and struggled to give Dev the best life they could, while their son remained fairly unaware of their struggles; while on Fresh Off the Boat twelve-year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang) and his Chinese family struggled to adapt to life in suburban white Florida. Both shows were a success for minorities — finally, their voices were being heard.

For every great instance of ethnic diversity on television, such as the parents on Master of None, there are still many lackluster ones as well as some minorities who are just not represented. There has yet to be a mainstream, successful show featuring a Middle Eastern or Muslim family. Considering the current political climate, Muslims and Middle Easterners need a reminder that they have a right to be recognized as well, and a realistic portrayal of a Muslim and/or Middle Eastern family would help to educate many who are grossly informed about their culture. May we suggest, after the popularity of Marvel’s Jessica Jones, found on Netflix, another series could focus on Ms. Marvel (aka Kamala Khan), the first Muslim American superhero to appear in Marvel comics.

While 2015 made great waves for realistic portrayals of minorities on television (and strong female characters too!), it also served as a reminder of why we need even more diversity on television. Realistic portrayal leads to a deeper understanding of different cultures and a deeper blending of cultures, which is one of the core beliefs of America. We need more than just one token minority family or token character, we need a variety as America is made up of a variety of ethnicities and races. It’s time for television to move past the Caucasian faces and include a sea of new ones.