When she watches television, it’s with an eye on diversity, as well as entertainment.
When the television show 30 Rock won the award for best comedy series at the Golden Globes in January 2009, cast member Tracy Morgan grabbed the trophy from the show’s creator and star. “Tina Fey and I had an agreement that if Barack Obama won, I would speak for the show from now on,” said Morgan, who is black. “Welcome to post-racial America!”
Did the media enter a post-racial era with Obama’s campaign and election? What does that mean? Mary Beltrán MS’93, a UW associate professor of media and cultural studies, and Chicano and Latino studies, is examining that idea as she explores not just what we watch, but whom. Before she earned a PhD in media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, Beltrán was a social worker in San Francisco. Many of her clients were minorities isolated at home with only young children and television, and she started to wonder what they were seeing and how it affected them.
Q: How did you first become interested in the concept of a “post-racial America”?
A: I’ve always been interested in how diversity is represented in contemporary film and television. … So it was interesting that as I was seeing a shift away from TV shows that focused specifically on white or non-white families to more diverse, ensemble casts (on shows such as Lost and Grey’s Anatomy) that this term post-racial was being used quite a bit. It’s kind of a useful, catchall phrase that people put multiple meanings on, but often is put out there to talk about an end of racism in American society.
Q: What questions are you exploring in your research?
A: Is there such a thing as post-racial media representation? Are we really seeing improvement in terms of how diverse Americans are represented in entertainment media, or are we just seeing a shuffling of how things look? One of the questions that comes up with television series that have a diverse cast is, who are the stars, actually? Who do we really get to know?
Q: It sounds like the country’s changing population is being reflected in TV and movies. Are there certain people or shows or movies that show this is taking place?
A: Where we can see the biggest changes is actually in kids’ programming, and it makes sense, considering the [U.S.] Census … Latinos are one in five Americans under [age] eighteen, one in four under [age] five. … A number of ’tween stars are of mixed descent. Someone like Selena Gomez, [who] is the star of Wizards of Waverly Place and she’s half Mexican-American, and Demi Lovato [star of the Disney Channel’s Camp Rock and Sonny With a Chance] is also half Latina. … I think it’s pretty deliberate on the part of studios like Disney.
Q: What are some of the broader lessons we can draw from how race is represented in the media?
A: What it means to be the ideal woman or ideal man is still usually the domain of the white characters, even when we’re seeing more nuanced representations. There have only been a few studies that have looked at American children of different backgrounds and how it impacts them in terms of what they are seeing in the media. … I think things are better than they used to be, but unfortunately for kids of color in the U.S., I think they still can come away from their experiences with the media feeling like there’s something not as good about them because they’re not white.
Q: One of the shows you study is Glee, and you wrote that its portrayal of diversity is both “satisfying and frustrating.” Can you explain what you meant by that?
A: It’s a very interesting show in presenting a very contradictory view of diversity and of notions of equality among people of different backgrounds. One reason is it wants to be modern and, in doing so, it wants to represent a diverse group of teenagers and teachers. … The show likes this idea of mashing up songs that are sometimes from different eras, and I think it’s a mash-up of attitudes towards race and racial equality. But to some degree, it’s meant to be satirical, so maybe that’s enough to allow us to continue watching it without being totally offended all the time.
Published in the Winter 2010 issue