I Want More Main Characters Who Look Like Me On TV

Avan Jogia and Kylie Bunbury are some of the few non-white stars of television shows geared toward teens | Source: EOnline

Avan Jogia and Kylie Bunbury from Twisted are some of the few non-white stars of television shows geared toward teens | Source: EOnline

How many shows at the moment have someone non-white at the center of the program? Let me clarify: I don’t mean as the co-star, the sidekick, the best friend, the arch nemesis or the occasional comic relief.

I’m talking the star. The protagonist. The person who is front and center in the promotional campaigns.

Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, not very many.

There just aren’t many non-white leads on TV. Sure, there’s Mindy Kaling and Kerry Washington and Lucy Liu, but Tyler Posey of Teen Wolf and Avan Jorgia and Kylie Bunbury of Twisted are the primary people of color who have top billing in shows geared towards the teen demographic.

That’s pathetic.

When I was a teenager, That’s So Raven was one of the few shows that I loved that starred a young black woman. When I was even younger, there were a lot of sitcoms on the air that starred black families. As nice as that was, there’s nothing like that on the air right now and those are only a couple of shows out of the dozens of others. Don’t get me started on the lack of Latina or Asian or Native American representation in television, either!

Are non-white characters destined to be sidekicks forever? Am I and other non-white chicks supposed to be satisfied that we’re given any representation at all?

This demand for diversity isn’t new or anything that hasn’t been said before. But it’s the fact that we’ve heard it all before, year after year, that makes this even more sad.

When it comes to racial and ethnic diversity in the media, we’ve still got a long way to go. Television has always been at the forefront of breaking barriers, so I’m definitely looking at that medium to really become a game changer.

In the UK, there is a show called Some Girls that actually–wait for it–stars a black teenager. Can you believe it? A show about a black girl and her friends on the air in 2013! Diverse friends at that! Wow, we’ve come such a long way in 2013, haven’t we?

In all seriousness, it’s a great show, but it’s sad that every time I watch it I long for something like it on the air here in the US. Yes, I’m longing for a show staring a girl who isn’t white. Why? Because we have stories to tell, too. It’s hard to explain just how alienating it is to constantly see people who look like you relegated to the sidekick position. From Miranda in Lizzie McGuire to Santana Lopez on Glee, non-white characters certainly have a place but it’s always so limited.

It’s important for us to see ourselves represented in media, in roles that are as dynamic and different as we are. We’re more than just a white person’s best friend, we’re more than just sassy bits of comic relief and we’re more than just tokens! But will the people–white men, mostly–who are in charge of what goes on the air really care about improving representation? I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath. That’s one reason why so many young actors of color have bypassed major networks and have taken to the Internet to star in their own webseries. The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl is one such example of a web show that has gained a huge following, but more are emerging.

Nevertheless, even in the Internet age, the exposure and reach of television is still relevant. Until big network execs agree that the  stories of young, non-white folks deserved to be told, too, we’re going to continue to savor any and all crumbs of representation we can get. Sad, but true.

 

Did you notice more diversity in television when you were younger or today? What do you think needs to be done to increase diversity in the media? Tell us in the comments!

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Posted in: Beliefs, Uncategorized
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  • Nia

    DO NOT IGNORE MY RACE BECAUSE IT MAKES YOU MORE COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR IGNORANCE. DO NOT DISMISS EVERYTHING THAT BUILDS MY CULTURE IN ORDER TO CREATE A MORE WHITEWASHED SOCIETY. We’ve all got a lot of learning to do when it comes to the aspects of our nation, of our world. I understand that some of you may not have not reached the learning curve of social justice quite yet, but seriously, check your privilege. Open your eyes! Read. Because racism is more than hurt feelings; sometimes your race can mean the difference between life and death. Sounds extreme? Well sorry loves, it’s true. This author is not being racist for mentioning race. I applaud her because.it’s about time gurl acknowledged how being a girl is different for people of color.

  • Merryn

    I’m white but have mostly non-white friends, and yeah I’ve noticed this too. I only really watch three American teen shows (Glee, The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars), but all of these show at least a small amount of racism. In The Vampire Diaries the only black character who is really significant is Bonnie, and she is the “best friend”, exactly like you said in this article. Glee is better, as Mercedes, Santana, Tina, and in the last season Jake are all somewhat important, however I think that is one of the main points in Glee; the cast is diverse. For a show that is supposed to be diverse, I do find it slightly worrying that the four characters who get the most spotlight are Rachel, Finn (at least in the first four seasons, RIP Cory Monteith), Quinn and Kurt, who are all white. Also as much as I love her character, Mercedes is slightly stereotypical, although no more than Kurt. Pretty Little Liars is pretty racist too, although at least one of the main characters is mixed-race (I think), and she gets as much spotlight as the three white girls. In the entire 3 and a half seasons that have been on there have only really been 3 black characters and the only other non-white character is Emily, the mixed-race one I mentioned before.

    Also I know this post is mainly about TV shows, but in the Hunger Games book series Katniss is described as having olive skin and dark hair, which could describe someone from any race (apart from perhaps a darker-skinned black person), in fact if anything a Latina or South Asian person would probably fit that description best, yet they reportedly advertised for a white actress. Jennifer Lawrence was great as Katniss, but everyone who could have fitted the part should have been given the chance.

  • Talia

    I agree most shows feature primarily white kids, but I want to mention Shake it Up and A.N.T. Farm which both feature a beautiful and talented black girl as the lead role 🙂 Those are two of my favorite disney shows too ironically enough haha…

  • ashia

    i think what this article is trying to say is that its aggravating to see tv shows and movies that are supposed to be depicting real life(an exaggerated one of course) not show the other types of people that you see everyday(depending on where you live of course).The article only complains about the racial aspect ,but the lack of variety in body types is notable too.you always see same height, straight hair type ,skinny boys and girls .Exceptionally short,tall,or fat people dont seem to be given a “round” character. the one show that i know that does show a weight-y girl is “Austin and Ally”.I cant remember her name, but it is so nice to see the monotony be broken. This is at the fault of whoever makes the show and decides what they want their characters to look like. i hope giving my point of view helps tone down the angry comments 🙂

  • AverageNerd143

    I was going to mention Some Girls, it’s like the best show ever

  • Lana

    Ummm… I’m black, and I don’t really have a problem with the fact that there are so many white stars. I think it’d be cool if all minorities weren’t given stereotypes though–like all Asians are smart or all blacks like hip hop, for example. But honestly, who cares if the main character is white or black or Asian or whatever, so long as the show is good?

  • Alisha

    There’s True Jackson VP
    Or How To Rock

    • Alex

      True Jackson was completely stereotypical! True was shown as a tacky black girl, who was always yelling. The show may have shown interracial dating, but honestly it did nothing for advancing towards better female roles.

  • Jen

    Most of your posts are way more racist than any of these tv shows.

    • Nicole

      I completely agree Jen. It is like every one of her posts has to be about race.

    • Yes, because acknowledging a lack of diversity is racism. Right. Got it.

      • Jen

        No, man. It’s the fact that all you seem to care/talk about is skin color. The fact that a ton of your posts on Gurl are specifically for black girls rather than just for girls in general. The fact that you incorporate race into everything, even in a completely inappropriate context. That is what makes you racist.

        • You obviously have no idea what racism is if you think that my posts, which will be helpful for black girls and other women of color, are racist. Want to know why I write posts directed towards black chicks and other women of color? Because we are not well represented in the mainstream culture. This might be easy for you to ignore if you have the privilege to always see people who look like you well represented in nearly every aspect of the media, but many of us don’t have that privilege. I wish that there were more things in the media that included my experiences and things that would be beneficial to me when I was younger and it is great that Gurl acknowledges that there is a big need for girls who are usually underrepresented and ignored to have easy access to advice that is beneficial to them. You feel excluded from a few posts that are specifically about non-white people? How do you think non-white people feel every time they open a magazine, turn on the TV or go to the movies.

          If being inclusive for girls who usually don’t have the privilege of seeing themselves represented makes me racist, then I’m okay with that.

  • Tara

    I miss shows like The Proud Family, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Cosby Show, That’s So Raven, American Dragon Jake Long, Sister Sister and the like taht featured characters of color as the leads. Still, we’ve had some recent shows with people of color as the lead: Tori Vega on Victorious is half Latina, True Jackson on True Jackson VP was black, Rocky on Shake It Up is black, China on Ant Farm is black, Kacey on How to Rock was black, Alex on Wizards of Waverly Place was half Latina, L’il D on Andre 3000 was black, Travis on Common Law (before it was canceled) was black…

  • Anonymus

    *ratio

  • Anonymus

    Okay, honestly, I understand your point and everything- but there are more white people in america than black. Racism is completely wrong. Not giving a black person what they deserve because they are black is wrong.

    But the fact that more white people have major t.v roles as opposed to black people is definitely not wrong. Again, my point, the ration of white to black people is 5:1. So, naturally, there are more white actors than black actors.

    Seriously, I totally agree with a lot of your articles about your feelings toward society and how often times (unfortunately) it can suck. But this particular instance is not one of those times.

    • CuseGirl

      You’re missing the point. The author isn’t asking for “more blacks than whites”. She’s asking for “more than blacks than the last 15 years of television” and “particularly more non-white actors outside of comedies in leading roles”.

      Also, your correlation between ratio of whites to blacks/non-whites is irrelevant because the ratio of leading roles isn’t even close 5 to 1. It’s probably more like 20 to 1.

      Practically every new show that isn’t a comedy that comes out is lead by a white person. And while television (and film) are not 1 to 1 analogues of reality, they claim they are attempting to create reasonable facsimiles. So if that’s the case, why the refusal to cast non-whites in lead roles? And how come the few times they do cast non-whites, it’s in roles with no back story, rife with stereotypes, and (at times) layered in sheets of racism?

      The author/OP has a legit request of the entertainment industry. She wants to believe that there’s a writer/tv exec who can ever imagine HER as a person with depth, like the Don Drapers, Tony Sopranos, Carrie Bradshaws, and Jethro Gibbs’ of the world.

    • Imani-Allyse

      It’s not only black people it’s all people of color (non whites) and there are way more people who are non white in America than white.

  • Jenny

    I really hate stories like this. If you are so into equality, then stop reading into everything and turning it into a racial debate. Casters for movies and tv shows don’t just pick a white person for the role because they think they need to be white. They pick who they think best suits the role. True equality, like you are trying to impose onto everyone reading this, will only occur when everyone stops noticing race altogether. When people just notice that there is a lead and sidekick on the show, not that there is a black girl, and a white girl. Maybe there are more white girls trying out. Maybe not many Native Americans try out for the shows. Maybe none of them are as suited for the role. Maybe, just maybe it was decided based on something other than race. People like you just try to make race into a way bigger issue than it is.

    • shanna

      That’s actually false. Casting agents send out calls for types. They don’t send out calls for “teen girl”, they send out call for “White teen girl” or “All-American teen girl” (which is code for blonde and blue-eyed). So it’s not about the best person for the job. Please don’t derail this discussion with that bull.

    • Megan

      Couldn’t have said it better Jenny.

    • Actually, casting agents are very specific in the types of people they want for a role. They specify race, body type, etc. Also, if you’re under the impression that the way to solve racism is to stop talking about it, then you clearly don’t really know how racism works.

    • Lanastar

      I’m not supposed to talk about my race, or my culture, which makes me ME? No Thanks. Not fir the Sake of People being Comfortable..