It’s not easy being a woman in Hollywood. Nor is it easy to be a person of color. Television and film are littered with sidekicks, tokens, “magic” brown people and shallowly-rendered girlfriend roles. Even the fabulous, Oscar-nominated Viola Davis can’t find good characters to portray. Earlier this year, Davis told Tavis Smiley in an interview:
“It wears me out that there aren’t enough multi-faceted roles for women who look like me…roles when I open up a script and the character goes on a journey, where I see a balance, where I’m not always…this straight-backed, black woman, friend, all-seeing whatever. I’m talking about a human being–a multi-faceted human being that actually lives, breathes and all of that…” Watch…
We have ample illustration of how writers and directors fail women and people of color, but can we explain what it would look like it they got it right?
Alison Bechdel, in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a strip called “The Rule,” (above) introduced what is now called The Bechdel Test, a simple method of determining gender bias in film. It goes like this: One character says she will only watch a film if it:
- Has more than one female character in it
- Who talk to each other
- About something other than a man
To be sure, quality portrayals of women in film require more than that, but this is a good baseline–sort of a minimum standard. You would be surprised how seldom Hollywood can do even this. But even when a film or TV show handles gender well, it often biffs portrayals of non-white people. While the masses have been fellating Lena Dunham for her hot new HBO show, Girls, many of us have noticed that for being set in a city (New York) that is predominantly “of color,” Girls’ protagonists have shockingly-little interaction with non-stereotypical, fully-actualized non-white people.
What is the minimum standard for portrayals of people of color? I’ve been trying to crowdsource a Bechdel Test for POCs. (And not just so I can see my name immortalized in The Winfrey Harris Test. But, y’know it wouldn’t be awful.) I asked a few folks who care about such things for suggestions:
Miz Jenkins offered that a film or show should include 1) one of more named people of color, 2) not in a service capacity (for avoidance of doubt, saving a White person from imminent disaster using only basic common sense constitutes working in a service capacity), who 3) speak in unaffected accents. (If they do have accents they must be authentic and not employed for comedic effect).
Clutch contributor Renee offered that characters of color should be 1) subjects and not objects, and 2) aware of their culture and history.
Arturo Garcia of Racialicious and Jennifer of Mixed Race America both championed Community’s Troy and Abed as examples of quality characters and nailed Ken Jeong’s character Ben Chang as a travesty. Jennifer also lauded Mindy Kaling’s Kelly Kapoor on The Office.
A minimum standard for portrayals of people of color in film and television might look something like this:
- One or more named people of color
- Who talk to each other
- Who don’t act in a service capacity (No magical brown people!)
- Who are reflective of their culture and history, but don’t communicate that through stereotyped action, such as an affected accent
Let’s interrogate this measure. Does it work? What would you change or add?