Speak Now: Diversity in media is getting better, but it’s not enough

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During this time in quarantine, I decided to binge the new Netflix show, “Never Have I Ever.” Created by Mindy Kaling and based on her experiences, the show tells the story of a first-generation Indian American named Devi, who is a sophomore in high school.

The show portrays Indian Americans in a way that is not often portrayed by most TV shows or movies. Generally, from what I’ve seen, South Asians are portrayed as doctors or engineers if they are adults, or nerds who love math if they are adolescents. However, this TV show deviated from the norm. The protagonist Devi is a good student, but she also has a temper, gets into trouble often and really wants a boyfriend. As an Indian American myself, it was a nice change from the normal portrayal of Indian American characters.

For any type of media, it’s not enough to just be able to say that they have a diverse cast; they also have to portray the characters properly. Especially for kids today, media that doesn’t just depict stereotypical representations, especially of certain racial and ethnic minority groups, would be beneficial.

I grew up in a predominantly white town, where I could count the people of color in my elementary school on one, maybe two hands. I would get questions like “where are you really from?” and “OMG is that your brother/sister?” with people pointing to other people of color, even if they weren’t also Indian. If more media representation was present, maybe my classmates wouldn’t be so ready to assume that I was different from all of them simply because of the color of my skin.

Better media representation is also beneficial to children in other ways. I know as a child, I was always embarrassed to dress in traditional Indian clothes, bring Indian food to school or even speak my mother tongue in a place where my peers from school could see or hear me. I think that if my peers and I could have seen a better representation of people belonging to racial and ethnic minorities in places such as TV shows or movies, it really would have helped me feel more comfortable, and it maybe would have shown my peers that they shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

A study was done that found that there is a relationship between low self-esteem and negative media portrayals of racial groups, especially in children. In the study, researchers showed children different images of diverse, animated faces and also played voices using different dialects. The researchers then asked children to judge if the person they were showing them was good, bad or could not be judged. First and second-grade children easily sorted them into good and bad characters solely based on how they looked.

Having more diversity in the media could change this. If TV shows and movies had more racially and ethnically diverse characters, children would be less likely to believe stereotypes, and they would have a better chance at being more open and accepting in general. 

It is also the case for middle and high school aged children as well. Many of the racial microaggressions that I faced in elementary school followed me in some shape or form in middle and high school as well. It just so happened that my best friend was also Indian, and people often got us confused, and some people — students and teachers alike — even made assumptions about our culture. If people had more exposure to diversity in the media, maybe this wouldn’t happen.

The fact of the matter is that the U.S. is a very diverse country. Yes, there is a racial majority; however, there are numerous other people with different racial backgrounds that need to be represented as well. And I don’t mean just a side character meant to fill some quota — I mean as a protagonist.

Right now, there are numerous examples of how movies and TV shows have been improving. The movie “Black Panther” had a predominantly Black cast, and the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” had a predominantly East and Southeast Asian cast. More movies aimed at children, such as Disney movies like “Moana” and “Coco” also depict protagonists of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as different cultural values. However, it was not so long ago that the Oscar nominations were almost all white. We’ve improved, but it’s not enough.

It shouldn’t just stop at racial and ethnic minorities as well — if more movies and TV shows had a better portrayal of people from the LGBTQIA+ community as well as people with disabilities, it could potentially help more people feel more accepted. 

Our world is improving, but we can’t stop yet; we can’t pat ourselves on the back for an incomplete job. Film and television industries need to continue to portray characters of diverse backgrounds in less stereotypical ways, so that all children can see themselves represented. Once this happens, we will create a more tolerant and accepting environment.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.

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Anika Veeraraghav is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at anika.veeraraghav@uconn.edu

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