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:

  1. One or more named people of color
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. Who don’t act in a service capacity (No magical brown people!)
  4. 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?

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  • I remember being so impressed with The Office when they hooked up Kelly and Darryl. I don’t think either of them referenced race in their interaction; they were just two people who worked together and decided to date. None of the white coworkers seemed to find their coupling “logical” b/c they were both PoC, either. People just took it as a matter of course.

    That was refreshing.

  • “Who are reflective of their culture and history, but don’t communicate that through stereotyped action”

    What does this mean? The way I’m reading it, the only way something would be commonly accepted as being reflective of a culture, is if it was based on some sort of stereotype.

    • Do you happen to watch “The Vampire Diaries” on the CW? The show’s sole major character of color is named Bonnie. Even though the show takes place in a (mythical) Southern town, it seems suspiciously devoid of African Americans. Bonnie has little contact with anyone but the show’s white protagonists, and has few needs or wants beyond theirs. The show glorifies the antebellum South. White characters are seen hosting endless balls honoring the area’s founding (slave owning) families and Bonnie is right there with them.

      Now, if the show runners really thought about it, it is unlikely that a young Southern black woman would be down with Confederate fantasies. But they have no sense of her cultural history.The point is that shows can and should recognize a character’s race and culture without resorting to stereotype.

    • Mina

      Preach @Tami!!

      Yes, we know absolutely nothing about Bonnie except that she’s a witch and that she’s only needed to do spells and then we never hear from her again. We don’t know her mom, dad, or if she even has any more relatives. Her mom and grandma are all dead now because they got involved with Elena’s crap. Bonnie sacrifices her life and everything for Elena but does not do anything to save her own family. Now she’s assumed dead, probably not dead, but they needed to kill her because she’s not needed anymore.The only person Bonnie saves is the people she’s romantically involved with (Jeremy and the new guy).

      There needs to be more people of color who aren’t used as tools. Tyler is also Latino (which is why he’s a werewolf) so he serves as a person of color, but again, he is also used as a tool in the show. He is Claus’s tool or whatever, to do his bidding. The Asian vampires on the show weren’t needed either. We just knew the Asian girl and her mom loved each other but we didn’t really know their history. We just knew about them because Jeremy was involved with her, but again, they don’t matter. Only the originals and those who were around back during slavery, matter in the show.

      There’s still prejudice too because all of the black characters are used and abused, killed or tortured and are just tools for the white vampires plans. They aren’t seen as equal or superior to them, even though they have abilities that can make them cringe and weak, the witches (blacks) are still beneath them.

  • That rules out many Black movies and shows where the people are stereotypes. It would be more important to me that the show/movie doesn’t perpetuate negative stereotypes (e.g., criminals, gangbangers, unintelligent people).

    I would also include depictions of Black people only being capable of dancing, singing, rapping, playing as sport and becoming a star being the focus of the movie. There are way too many movies like that so that it’s all some people want to be. Those films have been done to dealth! Multicultural movies would be better too so that people stop limiting themselves and learn how to get along with other people.

    • Mina

      I would like to see more sci-fi movies with black characters in it like Irobot or something where Black people are intelligent, crime-fighters, who don’t get killed from the start.

      Maybe even a movie about a dark skinned nerdy black guy who’s a writer and wants to become a movie director from the hood who falls in love with another dark skinned, skinny, black girl who was raised by white parents. You know the whole, rich and poor, Romeo and Julliet thing but without a tragic end. I’m tired of black tragedy movies, give me a happy ending.

      I wish there were more movies about “Black nerds”. Movies where the characters want to become successful authors, writers, painters, comic book illustrators, scientists, inventors. That is something I’ve been trying to find in movies for years but to no avail. I’d really love to see a movie about a black female inventor who invents a cure for some strange disease or a movie/documentary about blacks from the projects upcycling trash, shopping carts, etc junk to rebuild their community and make it better.

  • Oh this is a good post.

    I’m kinda tired of the mystical negro trope.

    For examples please see Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones and the Oracle in the Matrix.

    I would also like to see a decrease in the number of Blk single mothers when other characters are married mothers and Obese blk women.

    The weight issue spreads across all racial categories in this country but I can only think of Melissa McCarthy as the plus sized White woman who gets work and it’s almost always in a comedic role.

    • In the Racialicious article I linked to [http://www.racialicious.com/2012/04/19/dear-lena-dunham-i-exist/], did you peep the casting notes for some upcoming characters of color on “Girls”?

      I quote:

      JAMAICAN NANNY: Female, African American, overweight, 40s, good sense of humor, MUST DO A JAMAICAN ACCENT. Encounters Jessa in a group of nannies and helps her out.

      Damn! They hit nearly every trope with one character!

    • @Tami- Yea I saw that the other day. That’s exactly why I said I would prefer they didn’t cast one of us versus giving us yet another stereotype.

      Why couldn’t the blk character casted be a bohemian, natural hair having, vegan, brownish in color ,Philosophy grad student debating if taking out 20K for a year abroad to study in France is worth more student loan debt.

      Then they could do an entire episode around the money issue of young 20 somethings compounded by student loan debt and cost of living in NYC.

      Some people like to act as if images on TV and media don’t matter but they do. Birth Of A Nation is all the proof you need.

  • iQgraphics

    but brown people are magical
    mystically too

    • Mina

      There’s also Asian mystical people (Wise one, all knowning monk), Native American mystical people, (witchdoctors, healers, Natives who can see your future or warn white characters about death…hint, hint, Twilight bs), same goes for the Mexican/Latino mystical people too. They always do the same crap with them.

      Dravidian, Black and Native American roles: Healer, witchdoctors, have tons of potions and recipes to see into the future or heal the main character. Help the main character find shelter or safety if they are being hunted. They preach on about peace and non-violence, etc. Usually end up hurt or killed. Can usually transform into some sort of animal or play animal roles. Native = Wolf. Blacks = Black animals (gorillas, crows, etc, monkeys/apes, animals found in Africa (Madagascar), Indians = Elephants, tigers.

      Other black, latino, Native, South/North Indian, roles: Thugs, killers, bad guys, they sing and dance (bollywood, musicals), comedic relief.

      Asian roles: Wise monk, Old man with gray hair, teaches kung fu or some other skill that the main character will need. Will usually be killed and the main character will want revenge. Or they’re all ninjas and samurais…but those with stereotypical Asian features are usually secondary characters or don’t exist (Ex: Naruto, Inuyasha, One Piece, etc) Even Asian authors see these roles and cast white looking or non-stereotypical looking Asian characters with blonde, silver, etc color hair as the main characters. Naruto and Dragonball Z are successful because the characters are blonde…for the latter, can go blonde and green eyed.

    • iQgraphics

      All of the people you listed are considered brown people to me ;)

    • Mina

      Oh ok lol. Well technically we’re all brown, even tan white people.