When your favorite Disney movie becomes a 'Problematic fave': What does diversity in media really look like?
We’ve come a long way when it comes to seeing diversity on the silver screen. From Halle Berry’s iconic achievement as the first woman of color to win an Oscar for Best Actress, to "Parasite" winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
But diversity isn’t enough, especially when some the depictions we see on-screen are actually based on stereotypes. That can cause more harm than good.
RadioActive youth producers Marian Mohamed, Adar Abdi, Kouther Ahmed, and Lyn Strober-Cohen dive into media representation, from the characters we watch, to the writers' rooms who created them, and the actors casted to play them.
[RadioActive Youth Media is KUOW's radio journalism and audio storytelling program for young people. This episode was entirely youth-produced, from the interviewing to the writing to the audio editing.]
Podcast highlights, at a glance
Disney, a problematic fave
Gen Z, the demographic cohort born between the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2010s, is considered one of the most diverse generations in the United States, known for embracing a wider spectrum of identities. Yet, we often don’t see that diversity translated to the screen.
Marian: I feel like even if these shows or movies do have people of color in their cast, they’re only being used as tokens. Especially on Disney Channel.
Adar: When we look at all of Disney’s iconic and popular movies and shows from our childhoods, such as "High School Musical," "Camp Rock," "Princess Protection Program," and "Good Luck Charlie," they seem to have something in common: The majority of the cast are white, cis-gender, and heterosexual. Think about it. We didn’t see the first Black Disney princess until 2009.
Kouther: Right. I remember in "The Princess and the Frog," Tiana was mostly a frog for the majority of the movie. We don’t get to see Tiana, a Black woman, navigate 1920s segregated New Orleans, trying to build her restaurant. I wanted to get to know more about Tiana as a Black woman, not as a frog.
Marian: As I grow older and look back at the shows and movies I loved as a kid, I’ve still yet to see a Black girl on-screen that looks like me, that isn’t a one-dimensional character, or based off stereotypes.
"I want to see characters that are just existing"
Teenager Grae Violet says, "I feel like what first needs to happen is -- and this is gonna sound weird but -- separate race and sexuality from [the character] completely, and give them a personality, then infuse [the identities] back. I'll jokingly say to my friends, 'I'm so gay,' but most of the time, I'm just existing. I want to see characters that are just existing, and they happen to be gay or trans or Black or all of the above."
Who gets the role
When it comes to media representation, it’s not just how characters are written, but who’s casted in those roles.
Adar: Let’s take "The Hate U Give." In the book, the main character is a dark-skinned Black girl. In the movie, they casted Amandla Stenberg, who’s light-skinned. This change to the main character erases the presence of dark-skinned Black girls in even the stories that focus on them.
Kouther: Even the book’s illustrator, Debra Cartwright, was disappointed when she saw the casting, saying, “I was hoping it would be a very brown-skinned actress, because there’s so little opportunities in these big movies for dark-skinned actresses.”
Even though a show can claim they have a diverse cast of characters, the real question is, do these characters stand on their own without stereotypes?
Marian: There’s one very specific trope that really gets under my skin --
Kouther: Hold on, let me guess. When the show has a Muslim girl who wears the hijab, and her only character development is taking off her hijab for a boy who only wants to see her hair, which totally goes against the meaning behind the hijab. Then, they show a 5-minute montage of her taking off her hijab, while the boy looks like his eyes are about to pop out of their sockets, and we’re meant to believe it’s a #GirlBoss moment.
Marian: Yes! I noticed that Western media has this weird obsession of wanting Muslim women who wear the hijab to not wear them. The TV show "Elite" did this, making it seem like the hijab is this oppressive object, when truthfully, many Muslim women find empowerment in their hijab, and it isn’t forced on us. It’s our own choice if we want to wear it for ourselves.
Adar: If these TV shows are trying to explore new storylines with characters we don’t usually see in the main cast, then they need to do a better job.
Behind the scenes
Beyond the characters and the actors who play them, there are also the people behind the scenes, like the writers, producers, and directors. Who has the power to decide what stories are told, who gets to tell those stories, and how they’re told?
Gin Hammond is a Seattle-based actor, director, and dialect coach. She talks about how representation was done right in the case of the film “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
“I’m really wondering about the board and shareholders in that film,” Hammond says, “because that is not something you would have seen a couple of years ago. But, it’s being put out there. It’s being supported and promoted as a major motion-picture. There are people on the board who said, this has to be something different, this has to be something we haven’t seen before.”
"Judas and the Black Messiah" made history as the first best picture nominee with all Black producers.
Hammond says she has hope. “You know that phrase, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu'? I feel like there are people who are creating their own tables, and there are so many more ways in which we can all be in touch with each other and continue to hold on.”
This podcast was produced in an advanced producers program for high school and college students. Production assistance from Sonya Harris. Edited by Mary Heisey.
Support for KUOW's RadioActive comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center.