There’s a look that people give me when I bring up representation in Hollywood.
It’s a look that says, “oh god, here we go, she’s banging on about diversity again.”
It’s an eye-roll or a side glance to another person in the conversation that tells me they’re uncomfortable with this subject. It is an uncomfortable subject, because no matter how much you liked the latest Star Wars films or Marvel movies, there is something fundamentally wrong with an industry that continually denies women of color a seat at the cinematic table.
Growing up, I didn’t even know this conversation existed or that I should expect—or even demand— to see people like me on both the big and small screens, and I worry now that if we don’t make representative change in Hollywood young girls of color will continue to devalue themselves like I did.
I was born in London to a white mother and Tunisian father, but he was out of the picture before I turned one. My mother met my white stepfather not long after, and they’ve been together ever since; and, though I love them with all my heart, they didn’t realize how different my brown childhood experience was to their white one.
Up until my tenth birthday, I lived in the multicultural area of west London and went to a school that looked like a United Colors of Bennetton ad. My best friend, Olive, was Nigerian and my class was filled with kids from white, Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Eastern European backgrounds. We were in the cartoon phase of our entertainment intake, watching the likes of Pokemon, Recess, and the X-Men animated series on TV and Disney films at the cinema. Even though Aladdin had come out three years earlier, Pocahontas was the first movie that I’d watched that had offered me a character of color that I could really identify with. Princess Jasmine needed rescuing, Pocahontas did not.
As a child, I didn’t realize how problematic the Disney film’s heavy use of cultural creative license was. That’s why this dark-skinned, dark-haired and free-spirited woman became my first role model of color– which were few and far between in the Nineties. Even then, Pocahontas was an animated character whose singing voice was performed by a white woman so she was hardly the most authentic figure to look up to.
Going into my teen years, I had moved out of London, to the Northern town of Doncaster, where I was no longer one of many ethnic faces at school but pretty much the only one. All my friends were white, with English rose skin and straight hair, while my olive skin and thick brown, curly hair set me apart from the rest. And what movies were teen girls like me watching at the time? Legally Blonde, Mean Girls, 10 Things I Hate About You, 13 Going On 30, Cruel Intentions, Miss Congeniality – all films with white leads, and pretty much a white supporting cast. But not one featured an Arab-looking girl who looked like me with a speaking part.
Seeing these types of films made me ashamed of my ethnicity. I’d go to school after the Summer holidays and be more embarrassed by the tan that had made my skin darker and begged my parents for straighteners so I could tame my hair and straighten away the “otherness” of my appearance. It took me years to finally accept that my natural curls were beautiful, and that my olive skin was covetable, but at the time I wanted to look like my white friends and the white girls on screen.
Looking back on it now, I felt a little like Pecola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, because, like her, I was associating the whiteness in movies, TV shows and of my friends with beauty, but all the while equating my darkness with ugliness. The fact that I had racist slurs used against me during high school – I was called a Paki (I’m not from Pakistan), a mongrel, and told I should be put in a cage and sent back to Tunisia – only intensified this lack of self-worth for myself and my ethnic aesthetic. I would look at the likes of Kirsten Dunst, Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Michelle Gellar the same way that Pecola looks at Shirley Temple, subconsciously wishing I could achieve that “beauty” in order to feel better about myself. What I should have been wishing for is more movies like Gurindar Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham or Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball, which both positioned women of color in not just strong, central roles but also as desirable characters who retain both their femininity and feminism.
Back then I was not “woke'” to the affect a lack of representation in cinema had on my sense of self-worth. Now I am, and I’ve realized that it’s not just about aesthetics. It’s not just about seeing dark-skinned people like me onscreen but also what they’re actually doing. Riz Ahmed didn’t think he could work as an actor because he didn’t see Asian faces like his on TV, but thanks to the support of his family (and financial aid), he got into drama school and has now led HBO TV shows and starred in the biggest sci-fi franchise of all time.
But, he knows he’s the exception to the rule. While giving Channel 4’s annual diversity lecture at the Houses of Parliament, he pointed out the importance of young people of color seeing themselves in characters onscreen to feel like they belong in society:
“If we fail to represent, we are in danger of losing people to extremism. In the mind of the ISIS recruit, he’s the next James Bond right? Have you seen some of those ISIS propaganda videos? They are cut like action movies. Where is the counter narrative? Where are we telling these kids they can be heroes in our stories, that they are valued? People are looking for the message that they belong, that they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and that despite, or perhaps because of, their experience, they are valued. They want to feel represented. In that task we have failed.”
Meera Syal pointed out that it’s the same in British TV, whereby South Asian characters are either stereotypes or non-existent, because all the dramas are set during a time in history where only white stories mattered:
“It’s a conservative climate with lots of period pieces and lots of nostalgia. When people think of stuff with South Asians in, it tends to be programs like the upcoming Rochdale abuse drama [Three Girls]. Of course it’s not like those things don’t happen, but if that’s all that TV is doing, it looks like that’s the only thing Asians do. It’s a problem. If there were five or six or seven shows on TV featuring South Asians, then absolutely Rochdale is a worthy subject to investigate – but it’s about context. We should also be thinking about stories that just show us as people, not issues.”
Meera is right. We need to make sure that Hollywood and television aren’t filling diversity quotas by throwing in stereotypical ethnic characters and storylines as if this is the only experience of racial minorities. Not every Arab woman has a Muslim background and not every Arab man is a terrorist. This is something I discussed recently with Priyanka Chopra, whose Baywatch character, Victoria Leeds, is not defined by her ethnic background:
“It’s not easy to look the way I do and be able to demand or command parts that are ethnically ambiguous, but that’s what I want. I think that the world of entertainment needs to be like that. The best person for the job should get the job instead of what you look like, where you come from. I’m an actor, it’s my job to be able to conform into whatever you’ve written, and with me – with Quantico and with Baywatch – I think both were really big wins. Whatever I do going forward I don’t want to be put in the stereotype of what Bollywood is expected to be, or what Indians are expected to be, what someone brown is expected to be or what even a woman is expected to be.”
As an entertainment journalist of color, I feel it’s my duty to my younger self– and to young girls and women of color– to ensure that the conversation surrounding representation and diversity never stops but translates into action. I want to see a Star Wars film with an Arab woman leading the Resistance rather than a petite white girl with brown hair. I want to see Joss Whedon’s Batgirl played by a Latina woman or the role of Black Cat in Silver and Black go to an actress of Iranian descent. I want Hollywood to represent the multicultural world we live in today, and not 100 years ago.
How do we do this? By getting more directors like Ava DuVernay, Karyn Kusama and Amma Asanta making movies and writers like Desiree Akhavan, Nahnatchka Khan and Sarah Hess penning scripts— because the more racial representation we have behind-the-scenes, the better chance we have onscreen.
We need white people in the entertainment industry to stop getting defensive over the critique of Hollywood Whiteness, but rather acknowledge that their privilege is preventing more people of color from stepping into the spotlight. To understand that a white woman taking a white man’s role isn’t a win for feminism when women of color don’t get a role at all.
What’s good, Scarlett and Tilda?
So I will take these side-eyes and eye rolls because they are a reminder that there is still work to be done, that the issue isn’t over until young girls, like I used to be, can find a woman of color to look up to every time they visit a movie theater or turn on the TV.