I was looking for a topic to write about for this week’s column and I stumbled upon a paper I wrote when I was studying at Pratt Institute some eight years ago. It was an assignment for the Arts, Culture and Social Policy class and I wrote about the misrepresentation of our culturally diverse society in theater and film.
When reading it once more, I realized that it is so current still, and it struck me that what I wrote is not only an issue in theater and film, but also in the media. The tables are turned: Whereas the media should be a reflection of what is going on in society, we are so influenced by it, that society has instead become a reflection of what is said in the media.
Let me illustrate with a couple of things from the paper I wrote. When you go to an average show on Broadway or visit a theater production in downtown Manhattan, you will most probably be confronted with a cast consisting of white men and women, one or two African Americans, an Asian, and a Latino person, creating the illusion of a culturally diverse cast and reassuring us that we are dealing with a correct representation of society.
Exciting and active roles are almost exclusively the domain of white people from a middle-class background. This Eurocentric perspective has the effect of excluding groups and it also operates as a norm that can have a negative influence on the audience. Non-white people on the other hand perform mostly in stereotypical roles. You might argue that theater is a simplified, exaggerated or symbolic representation of reality and therefore by definition type cast, but we don’t see the same happening for the roles that are assigned to white people.
There might be several reasons for the underrepresented communities not taking part, varying from cultural inhibitions to lack of economic opportunities granted to them. But no matter what the reasons are, knowing that theater is at least for some part a reflection of reality and has the function to educate us, we are obligated to work towards a more balanced representation of society on stage.
Furthermore, theater also entertains, but it is left up to the audience to distinguish between the entertaining aspects of a play and the issue at stake. This obligates theater-makers to provide a proper context for the audience to allow them to make that distinction and that does not reinforce stereotypical thinking.
It is very similar to what is happening in the media. News reports on an African American who committed a crime, focuses on how he or she was bound for a life of crime anyways, while a similar report depicting a Caucasian criminal, might reflect on how everyone had such high hopes for him or her.
This must have an effect on how people interact in daily life– by judging someone’s capabilities or ability to participate in society because of the color of their skin. It’s almost as if it is expected, and that is why a person of color oftentimes has to work so much harder to be successful.
The recommendation that I gave in my paper for improving cultural diversity in theater are just as valid for the media:
1. Make it recognizable: a more culturally diverse cast will attract a more culturally diverse audience;
2. Avoid “Us” and “Them:” Don’t depict one culture as exclusively problematic;
3. Use suitable language: Make it accessible for and sensitive to an intercultural audience;
4. Demonstrate variety as normal: Depictions should not reflect ethnical stereotypes;
5. Prevent a mono-cultural perspective: Reflect variety in cultures as they exist in daily life;
6. History and folklore are no excuse: Don’t maintain something just because we are used to it.