Representation matters, your image reflected in media affects your idea of what you’re capable of and your own identity. Stereotypical portrayals of one-dimensional characters and caricatures are detrimental to self-image. Stuart Hall, speaking on the way society’s treatment of minorities, states that difference “can be threatening, a site of danger, of negative feelings, of splitting, hostility, and aggression toward the other” (2013, 288). This is demonstrated by the negative portrays of racial and ethnic minorities on film and television.
“Blacks don’t really look like that, so why is it so appealing to people to think they look like that?” asks Larry C. Levine in Ethnic Notions. How do caricatures grow out of exaggerated traits, and how do they affect the way we perceive people in reality? At what point do these images become our perception, and what does that say about our society, about “the inner desires of the people who create and consume them?” (Levine). These questions are important in assessing the impact these images have had on our world at large, especially on the people these images are supposed to represent.
Harmful caricatures have appeared in media since the beginning of film, from W. D. Griffith films to cartoons, the power of the image has been used at the expense of virtually every minority group. American actress and activist Esther Rolle shared in the documentary, Ethnic Notions, how racial tensions have been in ways molded by harmful caricatures. “Contained in these cultural images is the history of our national conscience striving to reconcile the paradox of racism in a nation founded on human equality一a conscience coping with this profound contradiction… through caricature. What were the consequences of these caricatures? How did they mold and mirror the reality of racial tensions in America for more than 100 years?” (Rolle). These characters, like Sambo, came out of specific historical circumstances. This is demonstrated by the jim crow dance’s absorption into minstrel acts, as shown in the film Ethnic Notions. These distortions came from the slavery era and were used for the purpose of degradation and the justification of horrible deeds.
Starring in a Chuck Norris film, actor Maz Jobrani learned his own professional limitations caused by these stereotypes. Despite his training, Hollywood didn’t want him to act, they just wanted him to play a caricature. Hired to play a terrorist, he was made to dress up in a turban. Reduced to an ethno-religious stereotype, Maz was humiliated. “I started acting in junior high… I was in Guys and Dolls” he said. “In my head, before coming in Hollywood, I thought, ‘I can play anything’ But instead he’d become the latest iteration in Hollywood’s long history of racist casting, reducing his religion and culture to a bunch of villainous, cartoonish psychopaths” (Ronson). Despite his best efforts and intentions, he could not fight the system, so he decided he had to get out.
American actor Danny Trejo has appeared in a wide variety of films and television shows, ranging from Spy Kids to Breaking Bad, but his most common roles are as criminals. Trejo is best known for his role in Machete, which was inspired by the Spy Kids movie, both directed by his second cousin Robert Rodriguez. In Machete, Danny plays a violent “federale” who kills for money. This is in contrast to his original role in Spy Kids which differed from these criminal characterizations. Danny Trejo’s most well-known happens to be his ultra-violent eponymous character in Machete, which aligns with his stereotypical typecasting. It is notable, however, that the director, Rodrigeuz, is latinx himself, so Danny’s role in those films is more self-aware in their stereotyping, more than the average Hollywood film would be. Despite this awareness, the existence of these stereotypical roles still affects how society views groups of people in real life. Even if story-wise it might seem “like an obvious arc… too often this results in furthering negative stereotypes” (Alvarez). American actress Jessica Alba, who stars in Machete and also appears in Spy Kids has a much wider range of characters that she is offered to play because of her ethnic ambiguity. Danny Trejo always plays the same character while Jessica Alba’s characters range.
The National Hispanic Media Coalition pushes Hollywood to include Latinx and Hispanic stories that aren’t stereotypes, whether they be harmful or just not representative. President of the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) Alex Nogales talked about their efforts in Latinos Beyond Reel, “the mission of the National Hispanic Media Coalition is to do away with negative stereotypes. To advocate for telecommunication policy that favors Latinos and other people of color and create opportunities for Latinos both in front and in back of camera. “George Lopez” was not an accident. “Ugly Betty” didn’t just happen. It happened because of the pressure that we put, because of the numbers we showed, and said, “When are we going to be included? Look at your numbers.” The NHMC works tirelessly pushing for fair representation.
Latinx characters are not often chosen to represent the heroine of the story in Hollywood. Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Communication, Federico Subervi talked about this in Latinos Beyond Reel, “in the history of Hollywood, the first film that had a Latina child playing a Latina hero was “Spy Kids” in the year 2000. That’s almost a century after films were introduced to the American public.” I hadn’t realized until I watched Latinos Beyond Reel that the movie Spy Kids (2000) directed by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, was the first film that depicts a Latina girl as the hero. I grew up with this movie, and This character doesn’t have to be Latinx. Carmen Cortez could be any young girl. It isn’t important to the story that she is Latinx, but it’s important to viewers that she is.
One reason Carmen Cortez and Juni Cortez get to be heroes is because you can’t really tell by just looking at them that they are Lantix. They have the advantage in Hollywood of ambiguity and these characters don’t alienate the target audience, the white audience, but are still a form for Latinx representation in media. This phenomenon of white-passing characters being used as a way of representation of minorities is talked about in Latinos Beyond Reel. It is impactful to see people who look like yourself portrayed in media as multi-demansional characters. It means so much to be able to see another Latinx young girl as the hero in a movie. While it is huge to see minority characters portrayed as dimensional characters today, these characters are still almost always white-passing. Mainstream media still has a far way to go to validly show minorities.
Hall, Stuart. “Representation Second Edition.” 2013.
Riggs, Marlon. “Ethnic Notions.” 1987.Picker, Miguel and Sun, Chyng-Feng. “Latinos Beyond Reel.” 2013.
Ronson, Jon. “You May Know Me From Such Roles as Terrorist #4.” Race, Class, and Gender in the United States An Integrated Study. 1 April 2016.
Alvarez, Destiny. “7 tips for non-Native journalists covering Indigenous communities” International Journalists Network. 19 Dec. 2019.
Soderlund, Gretchen. “Week 5: More on Stereotypes.” J320: Gender, Media, and Diversity. University of Oregon. Nov. 2021.