Wide-Angle Lens
January 2, 2014

How well is sexual and ethnic diversity represented in TV and film? We asked two AULA community members to weigh in.

ThomasThomas Mondragon
Founding instructor, LGBT-Affirmative Psychology Specialization in Clinical Psychology
Mondragon was instrumental in creating a new training site for Specialization students at Being Alive,  a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that supports people living with HIV and AIDS. He has a private practice in West Hollywood with a strong focus on gay-centered psychotherapy.


Why is it important for minorities to be represented in movies and television?

Bringing visibility and realistic representation in movies and TV of the diverse groups of people in this culture and society is crucial to break down stereotypes, educate through exposure and understanding, and to empower those who otherwise feel invisible and unseen. Heterosexist and cisgender norms and media non-representation have contributed greatly to discrimination against LGBT folk and to the perpetuation of low-self-esteem and a lack of self-appreciation for LGBT people. One of the best ways to control and dominate another group is to make them feel ashamed or invisible. Research shows that bringing greater positive images of LGBT people, and this includes LGBT people of color, into the media leads to greater understanding acceptance by the dominant heterosexist culture, and this provides much needed positive mirroring for the LGBT community and its diverse expressions.

What are some TV shows and movies that do a good job of representing diverse characters?

The TV show “Glee” has characters who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender – and aren’t all white. This show has done much to introduce the general public to various storylines about what LGBT youth go through.

Movies I’ve appreciated with strong positive storylines in this regard have included: “Brother to Brother,” about a young African-American gay man who encounters someone linked to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s, shedding light on the importance of black gay, lesbian and bisexual artists, writers, and singers who shaped this important movement. “The Wedding Banquet” and “Saving Grace” have Asian gay and lesbian characters that were so mirroring of my experience navigating the line between having a gay/lesbian identity juxtaposed against Asian cultural influences and the effects of powerful cultural familial expectations and duties specific to being Asian. “Pariah” presents a much-needed strong lesbian African-American character going through coming out and having to deal with different attitudes from parents and family. An important documentary, “Before Stonewall,” shows the important contributions of LGBT people of color in the pivotal beginnings of the modern gay liberation movement starting with the Stonewall Riots in 1969.

And not-so-good?
While the film “Brokeback Mountain” was in many ways a powerful and highly visible film, it continued Hollywood’s depiction of gay men in a highly tragic, self-hating light.

What film or TV show could use a diversity update?
The Lord of the Rings films depict male friendships that exude homoerotic bonding. AULA instructor and gay-centered therapist Roger Kaufman has written extensively on how Tolkein’s classic tale can be viewed as a powerful gay individuation journey, where Frodo and his devoted Sam are archetypal figures of an erotic Twinning or Gay Soul Figures, whose mission it is to save Middle Earth. Imagine what this trilogy would be like if the various “couples” were explicitly gay, and what a powerful message that would send about the potential, purpose, and power of gay love?

LigiahLigiah Villalobos, BA ‘13
Villalobos is an independent writer/producer who won a 2013 HUMANITAS Prize for writing the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie “Firelight,” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. She was head writer on the hit Nick Jr. series “Go, Diego! Go!” and the writer and executive producer of the hit indie film “La Misma Luna” (“Under the Same Moon”).  She is currently writing multicultural projects for BET and NBC.


Why is it important for minorities to be represented in movies and television?

Well, the first thing I would say is that I don’t really like to use the term “minorities.”  The preferred term, for me, is “people of color.” The reason why I think it’s important to have a representation of people of color in film and television is because media should reflect the community and/or communities it represents. Especially television. TV wasn’t really originally established to make money; it was established to serve the community. So if that’s really what they’re supposed to be doing, then their programming should represent the diversity of the communities they reach.

Now that television has become a huge money-maker, it is common sense to make sure you’re reaching the widest audience possible.  And you’ll do that better if you take into consideration the enormous amount of people of color that live in this country.

What are some TV shows and movies that do a good job of representing diverse characters?

There is more diversity in television today than ever before.  And there’s actually a reason for this. (A little over a decade ago, during the fall season, studios and networks had to change the way they developed shows and hired creative talent.) So it’s not as hard to think about shows that do a great job representing people of color. Some of them are:

“Grey’s Anatomy”
“The Bridge”
“Modern Family”

Creator/executive producer Shonda Rhimes’ TV shows (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal”) do a really good job of casting people of color in professions where they don’t often appear – in politics, as doctors, etc. “Modern Family” not only shows mixed marriages, but also foreign adoptions and the normality of a gay couple. All of the shows I listed also show women, not as sidekicks, but as important parts of the plot and storylines.

In terms of film, it is a little harder to really see a lot of great movies that do a good job representing minorities.  But some of them would be:

The “Fast and Furious” franchise
The Twilight” franchise
“World War Z”
“Pacific Rim”

I think all of these examples show a diversity of characters with not a lot of stereotypes. In terms of the movies I chose, I not only appreciated the diversity you see on the screen, but also the diversity behind the camera:  an Asian-American director in the case of the “Fast and the Furious” franchise; a Mexican writer and director in the case of “Babel” and “Pacific Rim;” a female writer and a female director in the case of the “Twilight” franchise; and then the diversity on-camera in the other films. Native American characters being seen in such a new light in the case of the “Twilight” series; Brad Pitt making an effort as a producer to make sure that scientists and doctors in “World War Z” were cast with diverse actors from all over the world.  And Guillermo del Toro doing the same in “Pacific Rim.”

And not-so-good?

“The Amos and Andy Show” was a terrible representation of African-Americans, so much so that the network and studio that produced it don’t allow it to air today in repeats. It’s hard to even get stills of that show.

I didn’t see the film “Giant” until recently, and I was appalled to see that they had painted white actors with brown faces to play Mexican characters. But I will also say, that I think it’s just as bad – especially for me as a Latina – to see amazing roles go to white actors that should have gone to Latinos.  Because there just aren’t that many amazing roles for us. So when I see a really good Latino role go to a white actor – heartbreaking.  Also because the studios would not dare to do that with an African-American actor.  Some examples of that would be:

“The Soloist”- Robert Downey, Jr. playing Steve Lopez, a real-life Los Angeles Times Latino reporter.  (The real-life African American pianist was played by Jamie Foxx.)

“Argo” – Ben Affleck playing Tony Medez, a real-life CIA Latino agent.

“The Impossible” – Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor (and the white actors cast as their children) playing a real-life Spanish family.

These were amazing roles for Latino actors, but all played by non-Latinos. And it makes me wonder, “why does Hollywood think it’s okay to do that with Latino actors, when they don’t think it’s okay to do that with African-American roles?” Can you imagine a studio ever casting a non-black actor for a true-life person like Nelson Mandela? Yet, they do that on a regular basis with Latino roles.

What film or TV show could use a diversity update?
I would love to see a movie like “The Big Chill” with a multicultural cast. Or, how great would it be if the family who took in E.T. was a Latino family, or a black family, or an Asian family? I would love to see any Woody Allen movie with a Latino cast.  How would it change “Hannah and Her Sisters,” or how would “Manhattan” be told with a black cast?

What would the multicultural version of “Gilligan’s Island” look like, and how would the stories change?  I’d love to see “Roseanne” as a mixed marriage. Or a multicultural version of “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Cheers” or “Frasier.”


(“Lord of the Rings” illustration by Alexander Lewitzki.)

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