Arts and Entertainment

Racism and Media

At a recent screening of “Jaws” in Massachusetts, actor Richard Dreyfuss shared his views on diversity during a Q&A event. The 76-year-old actor made statements that are being described in the news as “racist, transphobic, and misogynistic.”

Dreyfuss, whose earliest recorded television appearance was in 1964 on the show “Karen,” espouses attitudes toward diversity that are unfortunately prevalent in the U.S. entertainment industry. This perspective results from the deep-seated legacy of racism that both shapes and is perpetuated by the media. Indeed, the Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code, which banned depictions of what was then considered immoral—such as same-sex or interracial relationships—was not repealed until four years after Dreyfuss made his television acting debut.

Dreyfuss’s comments are more than just the rants of an old man; they reflect a deep-rooted legacy of discrimination that shaped the entertainment industry from past to present. Acknowledging this legacy should involve addressing how film and television perpetuate oppression by over-representing stereotypes and under-representing authentic narratives, requiring changes in both content and production.

The restrictions imposed by the Hays Code reflect an attitude toward diversity in entertainment that existed long before the invention of film and television. Before these technologies, early media representations of race were seen in minstrel theater shows, where white men donned blackface and parodied Black American aesthetics and accents. Characters like “Zip Coon” and “Jim Crow” mocked formerly enslaved people by portraying them as unintelligent, violent, and inferior to white people.

In my media and technology studies course, I teach my students that these stereotypes did not disappear as film and television evolved but were adapted for new media formats. I show Slate’s “The Racist History of Cartoons” to illustrate a direct link between late nineteenth-century minstrelsy and twentieth-century animation. Before Mickey Mouse donned his white gloves or powdered his face with black coal, white men used these same aesthetics while performing blackface in theaters across the United States.

Even in the twenty-first century, Black Americans are subject to blackface minstrelsy, as seen in films like Tropic Thunder or when comedians like Sarah Silverman choose to engage in the act. Despite being characterized as entertainment, these caricatures reflect racist ideologies dating back to the colonial era that normalize the treatment of Black people as less than human. Moreover, these ideologies intersect with beliefs, values, and norms about gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, resulting in particularly harmful depictions of Black women and LGBTQ+ people of color.

While various media sectors are shaped by racism and colonialism, examining film and television matters because these media formats significantly influence public perceptions and societal norms regarding race.

Medium theory examines how media technologies influence society’s spatial, temporal, and sensory aspects, shaping our environments and perceptions beyond just the content they convey. From this perspective, film and television create media environments that reinforce racial hierarchies and societal norms. For example, according to the 2022 Hollywood Diversity Report by UCLA, people of color are underrepresented as leads, creators, and writers in television shows. This underrepresentation also has economic consequences: 66.6% of shows created by people of color have budgets under $3 million per episode, compared to 38.8% of shows produced by white men.

According to Stuart Hall, media operates as a mechanism for dominant ideologies, playing a crucial role in shaping and maintaining racial inequalities. Whether this racism is overt or inferential, the media often portrays Black people as the source of the problems they encounter. Tropes such as the slave figure, native, and clown/entertainer perpetuate stereotypes, which persist in modern media by depicting them as villains, criminals, and sexually available figures.

The media’s role in shaping public perceptions of race and racism has tangible consequences for racially and ethnically marginalized groups. For instance, an Al Jazeera video revealed that during the Iraq War, a poll found that nearly 30% of Republicans supported bombing Agrabah. Setting aside the disturbing desire to inflict violence and destruction on Arab people, the issue is that Agrabah is not a real place—it is the fictional setting of Disney’s Aladdin.

The video attributes this bias to Orientalism, which encompasses ideologies that erase, oversimplify, and silence Muslims and Arab people in the media to justify Western domination of the regions they inhabit. In contemporary Western media, Orientalism emerges in stereotypical portrayals of this group as terrorists, backward or uncivilized, and exotic or mysterious. Even in the twenty-first century, popular films, television series, and even music videos continue to perpetuate these tropes, which only serves to justify bias against them.

We must acknowledge the lasting impact of racism on how different racial and ethnic groups are portrayed in the media. Additionally, we should promote critical media literacy that empowers individuals to analyze these stereotypes and advocate for more accurate representation. While media producers encode their content with a “dominant reading” that they intend audiences to take as the primary meaning behind these representations, audiences can actively decode this content instead of adopting a negotiated or oppositional interpretation. If consumers take a critical stance toward depictions of people of color, their refusal to engage with harmful media might prompt the entertainment industry to evaluate the representations they produce and choose more diverse and accurate narratives.

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