Media on both sides of the Atlantic have a history of under-representing ethnic minorities, writes Paul Hodkinson in ‘Media, Culture and Society: An introduction’ (www.sagepublications.com).
As example, he cites studies that found the proportion of African American characters on US television to be significantly lower than the proportion of blacks within the country’s population, until the 1990s. “The situation is deemed gradually to have improved, partly thanks to the development of a range of newer cable channels, but other minorities, including South Americans and Asians, continue to be under-represented.”
What can be more disturbing is the stereotypical representation of ethnic minorities in media, leading to a narrow and generalised version of the lives and identities of such populations. “If people who are gay are repeatedly and exclusively depicted as feminine and theatrical, for example, then audiences may gain the impression that all gay men have such characteristics or even that they are defining traits of homosexuality.”
While media stereotypes of powerful groups undoubtedly exist, it is subordinate and minority groups who tend to be affected the most, both in terms of the pervasiveness of the stereotypes and the depth of their impact, the author rues.
He mentions, as examples of stereotypes that developed during the years of slavery and colonialism the devoted and childlike ‘Uncle Tom,’ the lazy, ignorant ‘Coon,’ the larger than life ‘Mammy,’ the ‘happy go lucky’ entertainer and, the dangerous, animalistic native, all of which presented blacks as irrational and inferior. “For some decades, African American film actors found that they had little choice but to play stereotypical slaves, housekeeper or violent criminals in a white-dominated media industry.”
Representations of South Asians
Immigrant communities have found themselves subject to media stereotyping in the UK, too, one learns. The book speaks of depictions of Afro-Caribbeans and South Asians centred consistently on criminality, violence and trouble, with images of angry young non-white men dominating moral panics in the news about muggings in the 1970s, and about urban riots, gang culture, shootings and stabbings in the decades that followed.
Quite worryingly, representations of South Asians can ‘sometimes reference a convenience store owner stereotype, something which can include hints of dishonesty and corner cutting.’ South Asian representations also have focused on themes such as religious conservatism, strict parenting, a refusal to ‘integrate’ with British culture, and arranged marriages, with South Asian women often depicted as quite, passive and subordinated, the author informs.
It may be heartening, however, to read that the concerted drive towards the inclusion of ‘positive’ ethnic minority representations in the UK media, which began in the 1980s, has borne some noticeable results, in the form of “Black or Asian presenters of news broadcasts, documentaries, children’s programmes and other respected forms of output. Similarly, ethnic minority actors often are now cast as professionals, such as doctors, teachers and police.”
Complex emerging identities
If we regard ethnicity as a product of ongoing process of human thought and representation rather than nature, then it follows that, rather than being a fixed state of being, ethnic identities are always developing, changing or becoming, Hodkinson writes. He adds that they may retain certain stable or shared elements, but are constantly open to development, influence and diversification according to changing social circumstances – not least, experiences of migration.
An interesting example of the complex emerging identities is the popularity of hybrid forms of culture, as in the case of ‘the development and consumption by British Indian youth of Bhangra and post-Bhangra forms of music,’ which entailed ‘a fusion of selected elements of traditional Indian music with Western urban dance rhythms and sequences.’
The notion of new ethnicities, in the author’s view, encapsulates cultural developments of the Bhangra type by young people as part of a more general emphasis on the complexity and fluidity of all ethnic identities. “It implies a rejection of positive image campaigns and tokenistic approaches to questions of media representation that reinforce the notion of ethnic identities as monolithic,” avers Hodkinson.
A well-researched book that can benefit students of media.