Minorities on the Screen: Where are They?

Susan Aghedo, Staff Writer

Everyone has heard of them– the one black, Asian or gay friend that proves someone is not racist or homophobic. The token friend is usually that one person who breaks from the racial or other homogeneity of a friend group. These friends are often thought to be minorities who are willing to dispose of or downplay their differences in an attempt to assimilate into and be accepted by the greater group.  Hollywood has been accused of using this friend to prove it is inclusive and fill diversity quotas: the token minority.

“A token minority is one or two characters put into media and shows to give diversity to the main group of characters,” junior Samantha Pederson said. “It’s like a character to fill the diversity quota, basically. They’re added out of obligation. If people didn’t complain, they wouldn’t be in media at all and they’re much more two dimensional than the white characters often are.”
Minorities in the entertainment industry include people in the LGBTQ+ community, people of color and women, although women are not minorities by population. These characters are usually stereotypical by being the sassy black girl, sexy Latina, flamboyant gay boy or hyperintelligent Asian. Clear examples of the sexy Latino trope are Adrian from “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”  and Gloria from “Modern Family.” Even if the character is not a stereotype, they tend to be relegated to the back as a disposable minor character. Some other token minorities are Fez from “That ‘70s Show,” whose ethnicity is vague, and Chastity from Ten Things I Hate About You.


People of Color

An NPR compilation of studies shows that minorities are nearly 40 percent of the country, yet 28 percent of characters on both the big and small screen. According to a study done by the University of Southern California Annenberg, 74 percent of movie characters with names or speaking roles and 70 percent of people in television, including broadcast, cable and television series are white. Some people believe that television show and movie makers should include more minorities, so diversity quotas are set up to escape criticism. Diversity quotas are set amounts of minorities to be included in a show or movie.

“[Diversity] quotas are still currently necessary. Hopefully they can be seen as a type of guideline to diversity and representation and what characters to build  rather than an outline of a character’s identity itself,” Pederson said.

Even among these few nonwhite characters, some of them are played by white actors. Casting white actors as people of color is as old as minstrel shows in the 1800s, which were shows performed on stage involving singing and dancing where white actors who often donned blackface and exaggerated red lips to portray black characters. Jim Crow was the most well known black character, and his name became synonymous to laws that segregated and denied certain rights to black people in the United States from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Throughout the 1900s, yellowface and redface were used frequently, but declined as actors of color were hired more frequently. The practice of hiring white actors to play nonwhite characters, known as whitewashing, persists strongly today.

“You see [token minorities] more in American films today than you did back in the day,” film studies teacher Ron Talas said. “That being said, the American films of old are all racist, having whites in blackface, dressed up as Indians and painted red. You saw more of that in the old days.”

In the 2013 movie The Lone Ranger, white actor Johnny Depp played the role of a Native American. Angelina Jolie, wearing blackface, portrayed biracial Mariane Pearl in the 2007 movie A Mighty Heart. The 2015 movie Pan cast white actress Rooney Mara as the Native American Princess, Tiger Lily.

“It’s disrespectful, and it’s taking the opportunities of other people to play that role,” senior Anaelys Bazan said. “I’m Hispanic and Cuban and if someone was making a movie about my life, I would want to be played by a Hispanic Cuban.”

The continuous whitewashing of Hollywood and television accompanied by the tendency to lean in favor of choosing white actors as the default may be foreshadowed in the race and gender of directors and writers. Nonwhite people are 13.7 percent of television writers and 29 percent of writers are female. Daily Show anchor Trevor Noah found this problem among his writers. As a biracial South African, he noticed the lack of racial diversity and made sure that diversity was made a priority. Even with this, the Daily Show, like most late night television, has come under fire for a purported lack of gender diversity.


A lack of racial minorities is not the only issue in film and television. Women account for 50.7 percent of the population but 33.5 percent of speaking characters in film and television. Women account for 29 percent of television writers and 18 percent of film directors, according to the Women Make Movies website.

Even when they are portrayed on the big and small screen, they serve ornamental purposes or to further a plot centered around men or a man. The study by the University of Southern California Annenberg also shows that on  the screen, 34.3 percent of women are shown in sexy clothing, 33.4 percent are shown nude and 11.6 percent are referred to as attractive, as compared to 7.6 percent of men in sexy clothing, 10.8 percent nude and 3.5 percent referred to as attractive.

“I hate [the way women are portrayed] because it makes those who watch these shows and movies feel like ‘I have to be like that in order to get that kind of attention’ but people shouldn’t feel that way,” junior Melissa Prata said.

Playing into the ornamental usage of women is the age barrier on the screen that older women face. Men over forty years of age account for 74.3 percent of all the men viewers watch, but women over forty are a minority at 25.7 percent.

“We need to be much more discerning about what we watch. I say, vote with your eyes. Don’t watch stuff that doesn’t reflect reality,” Advanced Placement Biology teacher and Women’s Union sponsor Ann Nelson said.

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel created a comic about the criteria she uses for watching movies inclusive of women which has transformed into something known today as the Bechdel Test. The test requires two female characters with names to speak to each other and about something other than a man.

“Women in [past] movies have been portrayed as the catalyst for the man to do something, not necessarily the hero themselves,” Talas said. “They’re there to support the hero. They’re there for the hero to go and save, the damsel in distress. They’re the motivation for the hero to go and act. I don’t know if that’s even changed much. There’s very few really few powerful character roles for women, and women have been arguing about this for about twenty years now, that they’re just not represented very well.”

The movies that met all three criteria of the Bechdel Test were 57.7 percent of the total, with 10.1 percent meeting two,  21.9 percent meeting one and 10.3 percent meeting none, according to the Bechdel Test website. Movies such as the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and even Finding Nemo all fail the Bechdel Test.

“Some shows show women to be  more empowered, but there’s also some where they have the women doing all the housework,” Prata said. “In ‘The Fosters,’ one of the moms is a cop and the other is an assistant principal at a school. Many people want to be like that. In ‘Young and Hungry’ they have a lady doing all the housework as a job.”


The entertainment industry has been accused of being exclusive of people in the LGBTQ+ community, which includes sexualities that are not heterosexual such as lesbian, bisexual, asexual and gay, as well as gender identities that are not cisgender, including intersex, transgender, gender neutral etc. The umbrella of LGBTQ+ includes many people of different identities, but accounts for a small percentage of characters on the screen. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation does annual compilations of minorities on screen called Where are We on TV. Their 2013 edition found that only three percent of regular characters, 50 people, on broadcast television were nonheterosexual.

“I think that all communities deserve to be represented in television shows,” junior Kayla Edouard said.

Within these three percent of LGBTQ+ characters, one of the 50 characters was transgender (accounting for two percent of all the LGBTQ+ characters), while 46 percent were gay, 30 percent were lesbian and 17 percent were bisexual. Even within these groupings, 72 percent of these characters were white. Some believe the racial, gender and sexual identity  homogeneity in television may have been part of the reason why Netflix show “Orange is the New Black” has been so successful. The show portrays a diverse cast of women in prison, including multiple lesbian and bisexual characters, women of color, one transgender male to female character, two characters with a mental disability and two characters with a physical disability.

“LGBTQ+ people of color also would like representation,” sophomore Jack Cruz-Alvarez said. “[‘Orange is the New Black’] is an important show. It has a really good plot that focus on a lot of hard hitting issues.”

Another show that includes LGBTQ+ characters regularly is Free Form’s (formerly known as ABC Family) “The Fosters,” which includes an interracial lesbian couple who are the protagonists, their questioning adopted son who is also a main character, his friend turned boyfriend, a bi-curious woman, a transgender female to male character and a bisexual girl that emerges in season three.

“If you put a show on television, regardless of the show, and people are watching it, there’s obviously a need for it,” Talas said. “We’ve seen this in the past with African American shows. “The Bill Cosby Show” created controversy because no one believed than an African American [couple] could be an attorney and a doctor and live this upscale life, because the representations prior to that were in the streets.”

“The Cosby Show” came out in 1984, challenging racial stereotypes by portraying an upper middle class black family with present college educated parents and a child attending Princeton. According to The Museum of Broadcast website, its first season ranked third place in ratings but the following four seasons maintained a first place position, leading to conversations of race in America. At this time, African Americans were often portrayed on television as lower class comedic relief who spoke in slang, were lazy and/or committed crimes, according to a study by The Pennsylvania State University’s  Department of Sociology.

“I don’t see why [‘The Fosters’] would be any different,” Talas said .”If there is an audience out there that wants to see an interracial lesbian couple, they need to have more of it.”

Free Form is the channel on which “The Fosters” was created and airs. The show challenges stereotypes about a marginalized group much like “The Cosby Show,”  but unlike “The Cosby Show,” it takes on controversial topics head on. Free Form is no stranger to the LGBTQ+ community. The channel has also tackled issues such as teen pregnancy, racial profiling, adoption, deaf issues, other disabilities and child abuse. Other Free Form shows such as “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” “Switched at Birth” and “Pretty Little Liars” contain multiple LGBTQ+ characters. “Pretty Little Liars” includes a transgender male to female  character named Charlotte DiLaurentis, although she is not played by a transgender actress, as opposed to Cole in “The Fosters”, who is a transgender female to male played by transgender actor Tom Phelan.