A Matter of Images: The Negation of My Self in the Media

USA and Mexico Flags

WOMEN IN CINEMA: As a Mexican-American, I had a bi-cultural upbringing. Often, I felt like I was cumbersomely balancing between being Mexican and trying to be white, because I had a nebulous blend of the two experiences growing up. I grew up in a bilingual household and spoke both English and Spanish. My mom made menudo and lasagna for dinner. I attended my friends’ quinceañeras and sweet sixteens parties. On birthdays, my mom made cake and flan. I listened to Britney Spears and Selena on the radio. I was called a “wetback” and “white-washed.” I dipped my fries in Tapatio and ketchup. I knew who Betty La Fea was before America Ferrera played her. I’ve swung at both softballs and piñatas in my backyard. Pop-culture taught me who Oprah was, and my mom taught me who Cristina (my namesake) was. And I probably knew “La Cucaracha” before I knew my ABCs.

I was raised by Mexican parents with conservative views, but I was also, simultaneously, raised by the American media with inherently white-oriented spectatorship in mind. So, naturally, I had a skewed perspective of what my identity was. I was very much the product of the media, growing up on American television, ingesting the ubiquitous image of desirous white-American life. The constant barrage of white faces on my family’s small television was a novelty, offering a glimpse of the projected ideal life, while conspicuously negating the familiar – my own language, my own culture, my own life.

It’s only in retrospect that I can admire my culturally dichotomous upbringing as an auspicious one. Because, at the time, I felt that my Mexican ancestry was something I wanted to hide. I can recount on one occasion, a friend in high school asked me which of my parents was the Mexican one. I, of course, answered that both were Mexican, but I shamefully admit now how much pleasure it gave me that I could pass for at least half white. My light skin, which runs in my mom’s side of the family, is still a bit of a consternation to the curious ilk. A few years ago, I visited an elementary class for a piece I was writing for a college course about how overcrowding impacts English Language Learners (which I found tremendously impacts them). After much persistence from the instructor, I nervously agreed to talk to her class about myself. After answering a few silly, innocuous questions (“Do you have a boyfriend?” “Do you like Justin Bieber?” “Do you know my friend Daisy?”), some of the Mexican girls in the class began asking me about my ethnicity. Was I Mexican? Were my parents Mexican? Did I speak Spanish? Could I say something in Spanish? The instructor got a little embarrassed and asked them to think of other questions. It was only afterward that she apologized to me in private, realizing what I knew the whole time that they were just trying to identify with me.

Hilary Duff as Lizzie and Lalaine Vergara-Paras as her best friend Miranda.

I remember being riveted when I discovered bell hooks in college, reading her famous essay, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” She talked about watching white characters on television, with what she termed was an “oppositional gaze,” because to engage in its images, as she put it, was to negate her own image. As I think more about it now, it was not unlike my curious gaze growing up, when Disney began airing series aimed at tweens, such as “Lizzie McGuire,” a show about a white girl played by then-Disney star Hillary Duff. Although I got swept up in the Duff craze – I begged my mom to buy me Duff’s first music c.d. and “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” when it came out on VHS – it was never lost on me that Lizzie’s best friend, Miranda Sanchez, a Mexican girl around my age, at the time, who spoke little Spanish at home and only English around her white friends, was a character that hit closer to home. Yet I never connected to Miranda as much as Lizzie. Perhaps it was those horrible graphics, now that I think about it, where a cartoon version of Lizzie externalized everything she was thinking, cementing a connection between her unspoken thoughts with her spectators. Or it could be the fact that Miranda was nothing more than an ethnically decorated side-kick, created to serve her best friend, never offering us a glimpse into her lifestyle; her family; her quirky siblings; her over-protective parents; her home; her own dilemmas, unique voice and interpretations about her surroundings. When it came to people like me, there was little representation of it on television or elsewhere. So, of course, I gravitated towards Lizzie. Hooks said that “there is power in looking,” and I couldn’t agree more.

It was Henri Tajfel and John Turner, two famous social psychologists, who helped develop social identity theory in the late 70s and 80s. Social identity theory is the theory that a person’s sense of self – or who they are – is based on their group memberships. But could the relationships we have with the people or groups around us be similar to the images we surround ourselves with? According to a study by Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, “cultivation research has shown heavy viewers to be more likely than light viewers to report perceptions of reality consistent with TVs messages” and “Learning from exposure to television images of Latinos, then, is likely to have implications for real-world intergroup interactions with Latinos.”

As I get older, it doesn’t surprise me when people are curious about my ambiguous-looking ethnicity. People look to others, especially people in the media to identify with. When there’s a victory for a prominent Mexican, members in the Mexican community are ecstatic. It’s why so many of us were excited about Alejandro González Iñáritu and Alfonso Cuarón, two Mexican filmmakers, winning Best Director at the Academy Awards for the last two consecutive years. However, when it comes to being a Latino or Latina in the media, success comes at a lethargic pace. So when I found out that a Mexican actress was recently cast as a bond girl, my appropriate reaction was: “what the hell took so long?”

Actress Stephanie Sigman

Last month, when the 007 official website announced that Stephanie Sigman (“Miss Bala”) would be the first Mexican bond girl in the upcoming “Spectre,” alongside Daniel Craig, I was delighted and surprised. Delighted, initially, that a real Mexican actress was portraying the first Mexican character in the longest running film franchise of all time. But then surprised to learn how much duress the filmmakers were under to reach such a casting decision.

One of the many e-mail exchanges that was leaked during the Sony Pictures hacking scandal were a string of e-mail communications between Sony producers and the Mexican government. After the casting announcement was promulgated, The Los Angeles Times wrote that due to budget concerns, the filmmakers allowed for script changes “in exchange for $20 million in ‘incentives’” from Mexico. The article cites a report by Taxanalyst.com that states the film’s studio executives at Sony Pictures and MGM were looking for tax cuts after being over budget and sought help from the Mexican government in the form of incentives in exchange that they alter the script to include some of the following:

  • that filmmakers highlight Mexico City’s skyline, including aerial shots of “modern Mexico City buildings”
  • Sigman’s character, Estrella, had to be played by a “known Mexican actress”
  • the character of assassin Sciarra (played by Monica Bellucci) could not be Mexican
  • Mexico City’s mayor, originally written as the assassination target, would be changed to an international officer
  • and law enforcement officials described as “special force” would replace Mexican police
Gina Rodriguez accepting her Golden Globe award.

Mexico has become famous for banning films with Mexican villains in it or films that portray Mexicans in a derogatory fashion. And their precaution is not unjustified. It seems the Mexican government has not forgotten how Hollywood has unkindly depicted them in the past and continues to do so now. The Mexican man was, after all, Hollywood’s first bad guy, as is evident in films such as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

When it comes to the portrayal of minorities in the media, Hollywood has a despicable reputation. In recent years, Hollywood has gained stride in what had been termed a banner year for African Americans in 2013, with films like “12 Years a Slave,” “The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station,” not to mention hit-shows like “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” earning prestigious accolades and high ratings in the last few years. Yet when it comes to the state of Latino representation, the same cannot be said.

When it comes to television, Latinos are underrepresented. Series like “Cristela” and “Jane the Virgin,” which earned star Gina Rodriguez a Golden Globe earlier this year, are outliers. Often sites report how Latino representation is making strides on Cable and Broadcast networks, and while this may be the case, they still don’t reflect the Latino population accurately.

While it’s true there’s a lot more diversity on television, compared to ten or even five years ago, Latino characters were underrepresented on television, according to a study conducted by UCLA’s 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report: Flipping the Script. The study states that Latino characters account for 5.6 percent of characters, although they constituted 17.1 percent of the population in 2013. White characters accounted for 63.1 percent of all characters, which matches the white share of the population in 2013. And African-Americans were slightly overrepresented, accounting for 17.4 percent of all characters and constituting 13 percent of the population in 2013. The study also reported the following:

  • Minority leads were more prominent in sitcoms, while white leads were more prominent in dramas
  • White actors account for more than three quarters (77 percent) of cable scripted roles…Latino actors account for just 3 percent
  • Television network and studio heads were 96 percent white and 71 percent male
  • Broadcast scripted shows with diverse casts continue to excel in ratings
  • Ratings continue to peak among cable scripted shows with casts that reflect nation’s racial diversity.

Many networks have jumped on the diversification bandwagon in recent years. But what does it mean to have racial diversity? Are Latino characters background characters? Are they regulars on the series or contributing to tokenism? Are they stereotypical characters such as criminals, gangsters, farm workers, law enforcers, housekeepers, Latin lovers or the sassy Latina? According to an annual report conducted by the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Latino representation on television isn’t that great. The report rates the Latino inclusion and diversity performance of ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC during the 2013-2014 season, which states all networks got an overall “mediocre” rating for scripted and unscripted actors, except FOX, which received a mediocre/good rating for scripted and unscripted actors.

This means there’s not enough Latino regulars on these series. So, when the media reports that more and more networks are diversifying their cast with more Latino actors, this could mean there’s one marginal Latino character in the background with few lines and doesn’t reflect the growing Latino community.

Why are Latino representations so important? Because with over 50 million in the U.S. right now, Hispanics are the single largest ethnic group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Currently, the Hispanic population in the U.S. stands at 16.7 percent, according to the Bureau, which claims that one in every three babies born will be Latino. And they are expected to make up more than 30 percent of the population by 2050, according to a 2011 Nielsen report.

This means that Latino viewers are the most important for networks. The Nielsen Company found that Hispanics in the U.S. have over $1 trillion in purchasing power. And with so many white roles on television right now, networks would be judicious to hire more non-white actors because the U.S. Census Bureau projects a majority-minority population by 2043.

The same can be said about the film industry.

Catalina Sandino Moreno in "Maria Full of Grace"
Catalina Sandino Moreno in “Maria Full of Grace”

Looking back at the history of the Academy Awards, the Latina has been grossly misrepresented and stereotyped. Firstly, no Latina has ever won in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category. Winners in the Supporting Role category include: Rita Moreno in “West Side Story”  and Penelope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Nominated roles like Moreno’s in “West Side Story,” Adriana Barraza‘s in “Babel,” Katy Jurado‘s in “Broken Lance” and Catalina Sandino Moreno‘s in “Maria Full of Grace,” despite some great performances, often perpetuate ethnic stereotypes. What is disturbingly ironic is the fact that the Oscar statue was inspired by a Mexican. In 1929, the statue’s design supervisor Cedric Gibbons asked Mexican director Emilio Fernandez to pose in the nude for a sketch. The sketch later became the basis and inspiration for the now famous statuette, created by artist George Stanley (a fact that is unscrupulously absent on the Oscar’s statuette page.)

As stated, Hispanics have a lot of buying power with television. The same can be said about film – and studies project this will certainly be the case as the population increases in the coming years. An estimated 17 percent of films in 2013 starred minorities in lead roles, according to UCLA’s report, yet minorities bought 46 percent of movie tickets that same year, 23 percent being Hispanic. The UCLA report also found:

  • Overseas accounts for 70 percent of total annual box office; Multiethnic casts yield better global box office returns
  • Films with relatively diverse casts enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts and the highest median return on investment
  • Likelihood of winning an Oscar plummets with cast greater than 30 percent minority
  • Film studio heads were 94 percent white and 100 percent male

The most recent Fast & Furious sequel, “Furious 7,” starring Latina Michelle Rodriguez, has already grossed $1.3 billion worldwide since it’s release earlier this month. The film is an example of a film with a multiethnic cast doing well overseas. Its foreign box office gross, over $1 billion, accounts for three quarters of its total gross with 75.6 percent, according to boxofficemojo. One of last year’s highest grossing films, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” also featured a somewhat multiethnic cast, with actors that include: Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel (voice), Djimon Hounsou and Benicio Del Toro. While many of the top-grossing films of last year had a predominantly white cast – “American Sniper,” “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” – films like “Furios 7” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” could set a hopeful precedent.

oppozitional-gazeWhen hooks said there is power in looking, I know she wasn’t specifically talking about my gaze. She was talking about a black female gaze towards a system of “white supremacy” at a time that was severely poor at representing minorities, specifically African-Americans. Yet, sad to say, we’re still living in an era of entertainment aimed at predominantly white and phallocentric spectatorship. I recently read an article by Variety, stating that Hollywood is putting more stock in women-centric films, citing the recent success of such hits as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Disney’s “Cinderella” and the recent installment in the Divergent series “Insurgent.”  Not to sound bitter or to put down the amazing work and findings that Variety puts out, but what the article really meant was that Hollywood is putting more stock in films about white women.

With the exception of “Hot Pursuit,” starring  Sofia Vergara, and “Magic Mike XXL” featuring Jada Pinkett Smith, most of the female-oriented films Variety mentions are coming out this summer feature white women: “Trainwreck,” “Spy,” “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Tomorrowland.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a more voluble champion of women at the forefront of film than myself (believe me when I say I’ll be first in line to see “Trainwreck” this July, and I’ll probably see “Spy” on opening weekend). However, I can’t help but lament at the lack of more diverse representation on the big screen.

Television and film has changed a lot since the days I was watching Disney. I used to think I had to like “Grease” in front of my white friends, while pretending I didn’t know all the lines to “Selena” (“It’s a bustier!” “Bustiquela? Es un bra!“) I didn’t realize there was something more powerful happening to me that perhaps happened to a lot of other people, also. The inordinate amount of white images made me feel as if I was lacking in some way. That’s not the case now, but at 12 or 13 one certainly feels that way.

Although I’m still working out some lingering resentment from my past, I have no qualms about who or what I am. I proudly state I’m Mexican to anyone still curious. I wish there were more people in the media who echoed those sentiments, though. All the time I spent trying to negate an important part of myself, I wasted for a homogenized, white-washed experience that is as pervasive as it is perniciously banal. Hooks talked about “looking” as if it was a tool, a cerebral weapon, that should be used “as a way to know the present and invent the future.” If there really is power in looking, let’s make sure we’re inventing the future with the right images.