How to Change Representations in Media - Identity Week

By Molly Freeman

Photo courtesy of Tess Paras.

Although there have certainly been plenty of parodies created to the hit pop song “Royals” by Lorde, one recent YouTube video took the satire to a whole new level. “Typecast” speaks to the representation of people–especially women–of color in media.

The video was written and performed by Tess Paras and directed by Rebekka Johnson. As the lyrics to “Typecast” point out, many women of color are relegated to sideline characters like the “sassy sidekick,” the “bitchy nerd,” the “oversexed Asian,” or, “urban girls with flavor.”

The video started out as part of an incubator, the CBS diversity showcase, which brought 20 young actors and comedians together to create a Saturday Night Live style sketch comedy show to be performed live. Paras tells BTR that when she noticed a lack of musical numbers, she decided to tackle a serious issue through a pop-culture parody.

Although she performed the piece in front of an audience comprised of studio execs, casting directors, and other people who contribute to the problems addressed in “Typecast” according to Paras, the reactions were positive.

“When it received such a great response–we got a standing ovation on that piece every single performance–I thought okay, well they’re into it and these are the people I would be the most afraid of criticizing me back because I’m criticizing them,” Paras recounts.

After filming the video and posting it on YouTube, “Typecast” quickly went viral and was picked up by sites like Colorlines, Jezebel, and other media outlets that Paras cites as personal influences. As for audience feedback, the video has gained nearly 450,000 views with mainly positive reactions.

It makes sense that the internet community responds favorably to “Typecast,” especially given the overarching conversation about equal media representation that has developed recently.

During her speech at this year’s Essence Magazine Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o spoke about the importance of seeing people who looked like her–people of color–on television as she was growing up. Nyong’o told the incredibly moving story of how she came to view herself as beautiful by seeing women in the media like Oprah Winfrey and Alex Wek.

Although yes, it’s important for people of color, women, and members of the LGBT community to see representations of themselves in media, it’s also necessary that they see representations who aren’t side characters–an argument Paras highlights in “Typecast.”

An ongoing discussion throughout Hollywood addresses the possibility of a female-led superhero movie. Given the success of Marvel and DC films over the past few years, it’s hard to believe that there hasn’t been a superheroine movie released since Elektra back in 2005.

Hollywood may be dragging its heels on producing a superheroine film–let alone a superheroine film starring a woman of color–but the folks publishing Marvel comic books are making strides with their new series, Ms. Marvel series. The newest Ms. Marvel protagonist is Kamala Khan, a young Pakistani-American girl from a Muslim family.

As Mike Rugnetta, host of the PBS Idea Channel YouTube webseries, pointed out in a recent video, “How is Ms. Marvel Changing Media for the Better?” those who think Kamala is helping to make great strides in regard to representation in media might be optimistic, but not necessarily incorrect. He challenged viewers to consider the implications of the Ms. Marvel series.

“From a very young age we’re taught to recognize fictional characters and abilities,” Rugnetta said, “but not fictional interpersonal relationships, social dynamics, or portrayals.”

While media consumers can point to the ridiculousness of a teenage boy being bitten by a radioactive spider and gaining superpowers, they aren’t taught to notice how ludicrous it is that Hollywood hasn’t released a female-led superhero movie in nearly a decade. But even if we’re not taught to recognize the lack of representation, we still yearn for it, as Sana Amanat, an editor at Marvel Entertainment, said during a TEDxTeen Talk.

“[Kamala] came together in response to that global subconscious desire for representation,” Amanat explained, “for those Muslim-American, bacon-sniffing, short nerdy girls like me and for anyone else regardless of their gender, sexuality, race, religion who just feel like misfits themselves.”

Kamala is especially important because she is a main character, and the first Muslim superheroine to headline her own series. As Paras tells BTR that while we may take instant note of people of color in television shows, movies, comic books, and other forms of media, it’s also important to realize the roles they portray.

“Maybe the people of color who are in those stories aren’t necessarily the protagonist and we’re not watching it through their eyes,” Paras points out. “They’re always the corollary character or the friend character or the bad guy–the antagonist–but we rarely see people of color as the protagonist.”

Noticing these patterns is important as we consume media. We need to engage a critical eye on every piece of media and how it portrays historically underrepresented groups of people.

Last summer when Orange Is the New Black premiered on Netflix, audiences fell in love with Laverne Cox, a transgender woman playing a trans woman. Compare that to Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club as Rayon, who is also a trans woman.

While it’s certainly a step forward that two major portrayals of trans women emerged in Hollywood, it must be noted that one was played by an actual trans woman, while a straight white man portrayed the other (as well as who was recognized for their roles and by whom they were recognized).

Of course, both Orange Is the New Black and Dallas Buyers Club can be credited with at least giving the transgender community–albeit just half of its people–greater representation in mainstream media. Similarly, although Ms. Marvel hasn’t completely transformed representation in comic books, it’s certainly helping.

Ms. Marvel or any other piece of media alone is unlikely to un-bigot a bigot,” Rugnetta summed up in his PBS Idea Channel video. “But as far as the goal of fiction is to provide something for us to think with, to portray a world offering fun and challenging experiences, and those experiences happen within communities, I think Ms. Marvel is an awesome bendy, shapeshift-y, step in the right direction.”

A single piece of media, whether it’s a comic book, a television show, a movie, or a YouTube video may not be able to reverse centuries of ideologies. Nevertheless, it can work as a catalyst for further discussions about the issues of representation.

Additionally, since the internet is saturated with user-generated content, online participants have the power to present their own stories, just as Paras did with “Typecast.”

In order to create more diverse representation, we need to create more representation. We need stories about everyone–narratives about women, women of color, people of color, trans women, trans men, gay women, gay men, and so on.

“Ultimately, I always say that the solution is going to be to create more stories and more content that is diverse,” Paras concludes, “that way the representations that we see aren’t just so one-dimensional and one-sided.”

For more from Tess Paras, check out the latest installment of Third Eye Weekly.