Martina Baldwin is a professor at California State University, Fullerton in the department of Cinema and Television Arts. She has a Ph.D. in Media Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. She has conducted research in topics such as television studies and audience studies. As a full time lecturer, her teaching areas include critical media studies, television studies, and media literacy. We sat down with her to discuss the lack of representation and misrepresentation of BIPOC women in television.
From her own experience in studying media, she was able to deduce that the “representation of BIPOC women (or lack thereof) has a negative effect on the entire viewing public and contributes to the systematic racism we have in our country.”
Television as a media is extremely powerful when it comes to spreading messages, so it makes sense that misrepresentation of a minority group could cause further harm. Not only does misrepresentation affect how the group itself may view themselves, it also impacts the way other groups and non-minorities view them.
Media shapes our perception of reality. This is a fact that has been perpetuated from the early ages of the Jim Crow era. Since there were not many Black people in certain regions of the United States at the time, many folks believed that minstrel shows depicted actual Black people’s identities and livelihoods. Now that entertainment has become an accessible media, available to everyone, its messages have become even more powerful and persuasive. Therefore stereotypes of people of color, especially marginalized women of color, that are showcased on television, will build a culture where the viewer will most likely create a bias based off of what they have seen on television.
Baldwin countered this idea by saying, “No one is immune to the somatic teachings of television, including myself. However, by being committed to anti-racism, I make a point to call out stereotypes that I find myself and others invoking and make sure to consume all media critically.”
In the progression of television, the character development of certain television show characters has changed. In previous decades, mostly white actors and actresses were casted as main characters on T.V. shows. Colored characters on the screen were seen as background characters or given negative associative traits, if they were even casted at all. Throughout the history of television, people of color have often been underrepresented and poorly represented. People of color are usually given stereotypes that give them a negative persona. Writers would often exaggerate certain defeatist and stereotypical characteristics that were associated with a person of color’s race, turning them into laughable caricatures. Forcing these characters to rarely ever be depicted as real humans.
Women have always been underrepresented in the television industry and before the 21st century, it was especially rare to see a woman of color. The television industry is run by white males, which means that women of color being properly represented in the beginning of T.V. was almost never seen.
According to Martina Baldwin, we have seen great progress made when it comes to the proper representation of women of color on T.V. in 2021. There have been many T.V. shows and films in recent years that have put women of color in the spotlight as main characters. Movies and shows such as Girl’s Trip, Empire, and Orange is The New Black have featured women of color in central lead roles. There have been great strides in representation in the industry since the beginning of T.V. and the roles of women of color continue to grow.
When we are given a woman of color character in the media, they are often portrayed for their general stereotypes, whether it be positive or negative. As times change, society continues to move towards demanding more representation for all types of women.
Martina Baldwin shares her view on portrayal of women on tv by stating, ‘When I think of a black woman on TV specifically being portrayed positively, I think of Insecure and I May Destroy You, not surprisingly both shows are found on HBO. When I think of women of color generally being portrayed positively, not too much comes to mind except Mindy Kaling’s Netflix Show, Never Have I Ever….As for negative representation, much of reality television relies on stereotypes to typecast women of color, as well as broadcast sitcoms.”
As a woman of color, you want to see yourself on the big screen and not as a supporting role, but the main character. Usually when women are given the main role they are belittled and stereotyped to all these other aspects of their life. As a society we need to institutionalize more accurate representation of women of color in film and television. These portrayals affect how women of color are portrayed in the media which can affect real life perceptions.
When asking the question of why women of color are so negatively stereotyped, Baldwin shares that, “White male writers should never write on behalf of people of color because it is not their story to be told. In fact, that’s why much of the representation is so stereotypical. You can’t write what you don’t know. Diversity should be the norm at EVERY level of production, of course including screenwriting.” We must ask ourselves, does the problem start in the media or does it start in the writer’s room?
Although the entertainment industry has made great progress when it comes to including colored actors, by no means have we reached the point where the inclusion of colored actors has equaled that of white actors. Martina Baldwin agreed and said herself, “Is inclusivity present in television to some degree? Yes. Is that inclusivity equitable especially when compared to white actors? No, not even close.”
Today, colored actors are just scratching the surface and have long ways to go to even out the ratio of inclusivity with white actors. Today when people of color take on lead roles in T.V. shows and films it is sometimes treated as a special occurrence. It is good that we as a society point out such ground-breaking moments for people of color in the industry, but it is yet to feel like the norm. Movies and shows starring people of color have yet to be completely normalized. The only way it will become normalized is by evening out the ratio of inclusivity between colored actors and white actors. This will happen as the industry continues to grow the representation of people of color and continues to open up larger roles to them. It has taken a long time, but the entertainment industry is finally getting on the right track and is including people of color and giving them fair chances to thrive in lead roles. However, it is important to remember that this is just the beginning, and the entertainment industry is nowhere close to being where it needs to be when it comes to equitable inclusivity.
Additionally, when it comes to the changes that should be made in order to promote further inclusivity and proper representation on television, she says that our society needs more anti- racist individuals to play a role in media making. Students of color should be encouraged and supported to pursue their dreams. This can lead to more stories being written in a way that positively represents BIPOC women because they are being told from their perspective.
Common stereotypes associated with women of color on TV are; The Black Best Friend: A character who only serves as an asset to the white protagonist, The Maid or Service worker: Usually played by a woman of Latin decent, or the Spicy Latina, which is a oversexed Latin woman with a thick Latin accent, and The Dragon Lady: An female Asian character, whose sole purpose is to be an object of sexual desire to the protagonist. Black and Brown women are most likely depicted as loud, angry, and aggressive.