Monday, April 25, 2011

Missing Minority

Those of you who have followed the slow release of data from the Census Bureau (and who hasn’t!) know that the nation’s demographics have shifted considerably over the past ten years. The Midwest, once the metaphorical and population “center” of the nation, is hemorrhaging people faster than Sarah Palin’s campaign team. Part of that change, of course, is the combination of Midwestern urban decay, failing infrastructure (Why pay taxes?), and mass relocations to "sunbelt" areas in the southwest. Another contributing factor, though, is the rapid growth of Latino populations in the border states. Census officials estimated that there were 45.5 million Latinos and Latinas in the United States as of 2009. This represents an almost 29 percent increase from the 2000 Census report of 35.3 million Latino/as.

What has surprised me is that our national entertainment industry has been remarkably slow to reflect this new reality. Latina/os might be the largest minority, but you would be hard pressed to find substantial representations on either broadcast or cable television. Some networks, including Oprah’s OWN, Lifetime, or FX, have zero (0) recurring Latino characters or hosts in all of their 24/7 programming. Those that do exist on other networks are sadly retreads of some pretty worn out stereotypes. Latinos remain relegated to the supporting cast. This is true despite the fact that various corporations have become increasingly hungry to grab a slice of the Latino economic pie.

It strikes me that the most visible characters currently on the air are Latinas. Yet, this is not necessarily good news. Two major roles define the options for Latinas on television: the sex bomb and the steely enforcer. The first has deep roots in this country. Since way back in the nineteenth century, mainstream representations of Latinas have most often presented them as tempting “tamales” who turn out to be “too hot to handle.” Latina women became convenient metaphors that legitimated multiple racialized assumptions as the U.S. contemplated war with its neighboring republic. Latinas were construed as always sexually available to Euro American men even as they were simultaneously presented as duplicitous, scheming, and dangerous. Euro-American travel writers first circulated these types of images to suggest that "immoral" Mexico needed a U.S. invasion to satisfy God’s supposed plan of manifest destiny (You can read about this and many other fascinating elements of nineteenth-century Chicano history when you purchase a copy of NERPoD from a fine on-line book retailer near you).

Such images live on in the conniving and fickle character played by Eva Longoria on Desperate Housewives; Colombian-born Sofía Vergara’s “trophy wife” role on Modern Family; and even Naya Rivera’s role on Glee. The last character, Santana López, hits many of the hallmarks of the stereotype. López uses her sexuality, often presented as irresistible to the white men around her, to satisfy her ambitions or as part of a larger scheme. At the same time, she can be depended upon to enact the “loca” traits that make her untamable. Quick tempered and cruel, López shows she is always ready for a fight. This includes a recent episode where she claimed to have razor blades hidden throughout her hair (!). Perhaps the revelation of her same-sex love interest will redeem this character, or at least steer her from being a twenty-first century incarnation of “wicked Felina.”

Another less noticed, but still identifiably stereotypical role, appears in the police-procedure genre. Many shows, like Law and Order, Eureka, or the doomed Detroit 187 feature the tough Latina enforcer. While I can’t say for sure, it seems like this version of Latina can find some of its roots in Aliens (1982). That film introduced the memorable character Private Jeanette Vásquez, a tough-as-nails marine. Here was a Latina character who got to do things on screen that had previously been reserved almost exclusively for men, including handling some really big guns. She also met her demise memorably in an altruistic blaze of fire, ultimately hugging a grenade rather than being taken by the titular aliens. Reportedly, the Vásquez character left such an impression on Gene Rodenberry that he intended the security officer on Star Trek: The Next Generation to be a comparable Latina figure (which was later dropped when he cast blond Denise Crosby for the role, contributing to Star Trek’s long history of failing to include Latino/as in the future – but that is another entry).

What I call the “Vásquez type” presents Latinas as figures who bend traditional gender conformity through their military/police skills. They are often presented as invaluable to the white leads in solving crimes, battling aliens, or generally kicking ass. They know their way around a gun, wear their hair in a sensible bob or poneytail, and can more than handle themselves in battle. All of that is nice . . . but these Latina figures are also always ancillary to the main white characters. If they provide the muscle, than it is up to their white (usually male) partner to provide the problem solving skills which truly stops the criminals/aliens/mayhem. Representations of their personal lives range from non-existent to deeply troubled. While generally I appreciate their rejection of gender conformity, it can nonetheless becomes a racial marker that only serves to highlight the more authentic masculinity of the (white) male lead and/or the more alluring femininity of the (white) women around them. Latinas become characters who have not quite mastered the mainstream gender rules, and therefore remain outside of society.

Keep in mind that those are the most positive options currently seen on television. Most of the time, television networks prefer to imagine that Latinos don’t exist at all. Even shows set in geographic areas with significant Latino populations manage to sideline those inhabitants or simply turn them into background “color” that spices up the main white characters’ lives. As I have talked about elsewhere, the USA show Burn Notice takes place in Miami but manages to only grant roles for Cubans as either victims (usually women) or as villains (either men or women). Whatever the case, both are easily dispatched after one episode.

For obvious reasons, I am the most sensitive about this phenomena when programs are set in New Mexico. My home state, as everybody knows, has always had a non-white majority population. Recently, the census bureau also revealed that Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in the land of enchantment. Making a show set in New Mexico without showing Latinos is like making a show set in Washington, D.C. without showing idiots. Nonetheless, that is exactly what happens in USA’s In Plain Sight or the critically acclaimed AMC show Breaking Bad. The first, which centers of the blond lead, has a token Latino character who is a Dominican baseball player. Apparently the USA network could only imagine Latinos as recent immigrants, thereby ignoring the Latinos actually residing in the state whose families have been there for generations.

Breaking Bad, also set in Albuquerque, does little better. Like in Burn Notice, Latinos zest up the drab background by providing Spanish-language music, low-rider cars, or colorful expressions. When they aren't providing the literal and metaphorical salsa, they appear as threats to the main white leads. These roles as side characters serve to contrast the normalcy of the two middle-class white characters. Latinos, as dangerous drug dealers, represent an upending of the “quiet” life of the white school teacher and his former student. The series lead, we are told, had no choice but to enter the drug underground. He begins manufacturing meth in a noble attempt to provide for his family after his imminent death from cancer. Latino drug dealers, on the other hand, are shown to be motivated only by greed and violence with few redeeming characteristics. They are almost always recent arrivals in the country.

I am disappointed that television programming has failed to understand or represent the variety of Latino/a experiences in the United States. This is even more troubling when we consider that many (most?) of the nation’s other citizens probably depend on television as the only venue through which they get to know the United States' largest minority. For the most part, it seems that television executives consider Latinos too much of a political hot potato to represent fairly. When they do make an appearance, they enforce the notion that Latinos (and a multi-cultural society in general) threatens to upend the national status quo through their supposedly hyper sexuality and unquenchable thirst for violence.

Some of this might change when media monopoly Comcast launches its new English-language Latino network in 2012. I’m not holding my breath, though.


squadratomagico said...

The single most racially diverse show on television is Rupaul's Drag Race -- though it's not a "mainstream" show and it airs on a small network (logo; I view it online). There certainly have been a number of racial stereotypes brought forth by the contestants themselves in the most recent season of the show (it ends tonight), but I don't find myself bothered by them in the context of drag. I believe it's the only show I ever have watched that is definitively majority-minority in its contestants/cast. The three finalists are Indonesian, Filippino, and Puerto Rican.

In terms of more mainstream shows, some of the characters that leap to mind are Lost's Ana Lucia (very much the character type you outline from Aliens) and Hurley. That show that often introduced characters of color only to kill them off or otherwise write them out of the show very rapidly. Hurley beat the odds, there. And on *Dexter* there is the station chief, Maria; and her husband, a detective named Angel. Angel is portrayed as very likeable, but also as volatile and somewhat macho when it comes to his relationship with his wife.

StinkyLulu said...

My own NERPROD is all about these cycles of latin in/visibility in popular performance so you're preaching to the choir here...

Two observations:

First, in addition to being set in ABQ (as you note), both Breaking Bad and In Plain Sight are also filmed in ABQ, and have been since pilots for each season. So the productions have all kinds of exposure to the actual cultural landscape of NM, the influence of which can be seen incrementally in every aspect of each successive season EXCEPT casting/characterization.

Second, the "Vasquez type" can arguably be seen going back a ways, as Latina enforcers have done so without kicking butt for some time (ala Katy Jurado in High Noon) but the type really does get reinvented with folks like Rachel Ticotin in Fort Apache The Bronx, Goldstein's Vasquez in Aliens, and then the entire ouevre of Michelle Rodriguez.

Sisyphus said...

I want to read NERPoD!!!

Totally agree with your post, but I have two questions: 1) what is the breakdown/visibility in reality tv (squadratomagico has already brought his up) and 2) what about live kids shows like on Disney and Nickelodeon? It seems more diverse but the acting is so broad and horrible I can't bear to actually watch the shows, so I haven't counted.

I got hooked on _Southland_ as part of my being homesick, but caught the series very late in the season. I'll go back and see if there are any interesting characters or just sidekicks.

brian said...

You have some very valid points.
Recently I have been viewing Univision, with an idea of learning the Spanish language.
The writing and diversity are equally apalling.
The problem with minority representation in media,from my point of view,is that the writers are traditionally white ivy-league males.
They have no experience or idea of the minority culture of ANY people of color.
It is nearly impossible to write a nuanced potrayal of a character grounded in stereotype rather than experience.
Showbusiness is just that,a business.And the least common denominator is always the easiest and most expedient way to go.

Anonymous said...

I think these "representations" of Latinos are why I've never felt Latin "enough" to participate in designated Latino cultural events. That part of my heritage seems to stay in another time zone, in another country, until the next time I need to fill out a demographic survey for my company, or explain to a telemarketer that no matter what language they care to market Allegra, it's still ineffective....

GayProf said...

Squadratomagico: I totally agree about Rupaul's Drag Race. Last year I became a bit concerned that the show tended to discriminate against contestants with an accent. This year, though, they seemed to have worked to address that issue. Nonetheless, it still does the best job of representing diversity on television today.

StinkyLulu: I look forward to your own NERPoD coming out!

It could be that the steely enforcer developed from characters like Helen Ramírez in High Noon. I always thought of that character as a sorta hybrid between the "hot tamale" and the "prostitute with a heart of gold."

One could also suggest, it seems, that there are nineteenth-century roots to the steely enforcer. Theories of racial difference often included the notion that people of color did not exhibit as distinctive gender divisions as whites. So the blurring of boundaries could be a residue of that.

Sisyphus: Careful what you wish for... For some people NERPoD has become the Never Ending Reading Project of Doom.

I am curious about what is happening on children's television as well. Since I don't have children or watch it, I am not really sure. I do know, though, that High School Musical, which was set in Albuquerque, totally ignored Latinos. The closest they offered was a Filipino family with an Iberian last name.

Brian: Oh, Spanish language media, like Univision, present some astoundingly retrograde notions of race!

I think that you're right that one of the problems is that those in control of programming have little actual contact with real life Latino/as. From the business angle, though, one would have thought that a savvy individual would have realized they could tap an almost totally ignored demographic.

Rethoryke: Media is powerful in it ultimately does shape what people expect from real life Latinos. Sofía Vergara, for instance, tells a story that she is a naturally blond. Yet, producers in the United States could not fathom that such a thing existed in Latin America and asked her to dye her hair dark. I'm not sayin, I'm just sayin'.

vuboq said...

Having recently read the NERPoD (still not available in electronic format *ahem*), I encourage people to buy/read it. It is not a Never-Ending Reading Project of Doom. It's thought-provoking, insightful, and -in places- quite funny.

As for the depiction of latino/as on the TeeVee, I don't watch TV ... but, I wonder, GayProf, what sort of program would you consider ideal?

GayProf said...

VUBOQ: NERPoD is now available for users of the Nook.

In terms of what to watch, I would hold out until GayProf gets his out sit-com.

Antonio said...

I was watching Glee the other night and wondering what your reaction to Santana would be. I agree that she pushes the "sexual Latina" stereotype pretty far, but her issues with her sexuality may redeem the character. At least we have one non-white LGBT person on the show.

The other minorities on Glee don't fare much better. Tina and Mike are nice but almost all of their dialogue as a couple deals with them being Asian, and they definitely don't get as much screen time as the white couples. Mercedes doesn't have a love life on the show. In fact, we don't know much about her life outside of the club.

GayProf said...

Antonio: My feelings about Santana are up in the air at the moment. On the one hand, her fear about coming out could be a fine explanation for her behavior. But only if they later resolve that by having her become more comfortable with her same-sex desires. I do, for sure, appreciate that there is some effort to have a Latina under the GLBT umbrella. As you note, most representations of GLBT folk remain white as rice.

I agree, too, about the Asian characters (but Mike Chang is hot (I'm not sayin, I'm just sayin')). I wonder, too, about why they felt the need to have the only two Asian characters on the show become a romantic item.

Mercedes frustrates me. It seems like the producers have absolutely no idea what to do with that character.

tornwordo said...

How do you have the time to watch so much TV was my first thought. And you can't turn me against Santana, Gaby or Gloria! I love all of those characters. Is it wrong that they make me happy?

susurro said...

I posted a comment abt the interplay between lesbian window-dressing/lesbians and racial stereotypes in both Aliens and Glee, saying that the outrageousness of the latter serves to erase that of the former through a binary that says the presence of one marginalized identity negates the need to analyze the O/other. My comment got deleted twice by evil blogger. I am too tired to write it again. Maybe on my blog ...

pacalaga said...

There's Dora and Diego, and Handy Manny, in the kid's realm. I don't actually watch TV and neither do my kids, but they've watched those on Netflix and they aren't terrible. Well, besides being kid's shows.

Antony said...

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