Wednesday, March 22, 2023
HomeLatest NewsImmigrants on TV: Portrayals can shape attitudes about people, policy - USA...

Immigrants on TV: Portrayals can shape attitudes about people, policy – USA TODAY

a2bd5126 89b6 47f2 a46a 662009f21099 poster


Viewers of shows with regular or recurring immigrant characters are likelier to report deeper understanding of immigrant lives, to see diversity as valuable to society and to feel comfortable enrolling children in schools with immigrant majorities, a recently released report found.

“Television can have that impact on audiences, affecting how they treat their neighbors in real life,” said Sarah Lowe director of research and evaluation for Define American, a Los Angeles-based organization promoting accurate depiction of immigrants in the entertainment industry.

But despite progress over the last two years in how and how often immigrant characters are portrayed, the study found that troubling trends persist, notably overrepresentation of such characters as linked to crime and underrepresentation of certain populations in comparison to their real-life share.

“When characters and communities are underrepresented, it can render their real-life counterparts invisible to society and limit what they might envision for themselves,” the authors concluded. “And when these characters and communities are overrepresented, it can place their real-life counterparts under unfair pressure and give society a false sense of knowledge about immigrants.”

The 2022 report, “Change the Narrative, Change the World: The Power of Immigrant Representation on Television,” is the third such study from Define American in partnership with the Norman Lear Center Media Impact Project at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“What people see on the screen directly influences how our community is treated in real life,” said Brenda Victoria Castillo, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, citing what she described as a negative spectrum of immigrant portrayals ranging from criminal gang members to maids. “These portrayals reinforce negative stereotypes that can have a direct effect on discriminatory policies, particularly immigration, border protection and racial injustice.”

‘They feel like she’s a friend’

Report researchers studied portrayal of 167 immigrant characters on 79 scripted shows airing between July 2020 and June 2022 and surveyed viewers of four shows with immigrant storylines about their attitudes toward real-world immigrants.

Those shows – “Bob Hearts Abishola” (CBS), “Never Have I Ever” (Netflix), “Roswell, New Mexico” (CW) and “The Cleaning Lady” (FOX) – were selected for what Lowe said was their authentic portrayal of immigrant lives, driven by creators and writers who share that lived experience.

“We fall in love with characters because of the details, and when you look at these four shows they are rich with detail about the immigrant experience that evokes what immigrants feel, see and do in real life,” Lowe said.

In addition to surveying 1,272 viewers of the shows, researchers surveyed viewers who had never seen the shows, finding that characters can influence people’s views about immigrants and immigration policies.

For instance, viewers of “Roswell, New Mexico” – about a diner operator in failing health who has kept his undocumented status hidden for years – were more likely compared to nonviewers to report greater knowledge of immigration issues and understanding of the sacrifices people make to emigrate.

And viewers of “Bob Hearts Abishola,” a sitcom about a Detroit man who suffers a heart attack and falls for his Nigerian immigrant nurse, feel affection for Abishola as part of what researchers call parasocial interaction.

“They feel like she’s a friend,” Lowe said. “When audiences see immigrant characters on TV, they can develop a kinship. It’s why we binge-watch things – to fall in love with a character, or to lean into it when a character faces a challenge.”

Such results varied little among those with different political leanings, Lowe said, citing “The Cleaning Lady,” a crime drama whose lead character is an undocumented woman.

“It’s not all progressives watching these shows and singing to the choir in the actions they take after watching these shows,” Lowe said. “These shows are meeting people in the political spectrum where they are with good television. Writers can’t do anything else, or they’ll be canceled.”

Overreliance on criminal stereotypes

Among the study’s positive findings were that representation of Black and Asian immigrants more than doubled since 2020. The portion of Asian immigrant characters rose from 12% to 27%, accurately reflecting the population’s immigrant proportion in real life (28%).

Black immigrant characters rose to 16% from 7% in 2020, with “Bob Hearts Abishola” accounting for four in 10 of all Black immigrant characters alone. However, even without that show, Blacks comprised 10% of all immigrant characters in 2022 – the group’s real-life representation.

“We’ve seen some big gains,” Lowe said.

However, crime shows and procedurals featured six times as many immigrant characters in 2022 than in 2020, with the portion of immigrant characters featured as either perpetrators or victims nearly doubling to 42% from 22%. In 2018, the figure had been 34%.

“That is now at an all-time high,” Lowe said. “It’s perpetuating this idea that immigrants are associated with crime.”

For example, while Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) immigrants comprised 9% of immigrant characters – compared to 3% in real life – many such characters relied on harmful stereotypes, the report said. For example, in an episode of CBS’s “FBI: Most Wanted,” she said that while two Middle Eastern characters suspected of being terrorists turn out not to be, “that’s not good representation.”

Louise Cainkar, a sociology professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who has studied MENA representation, was not surprised.

“Given the U.S. population’s fixation on MENA persons as terrorists and the bulk of government defense and aid dollars spent there, we should expect high representation, but largely negative,” Cainkar said. “And this is what the research shows.”

Calls for more nuanced, complex characters

Meanwhile, the study found that the portion of Latino immigrant characters fell dramatically, from 50% in 2020 to 34% this year, trailing that group’s 44% real-life share. Half of all such characters were from Mexico.

“This is further proof that groups like National Hispanic Media Coalition need to keep our foot on the gas and continue conversations about how representation in media can make an impact,” Castillo said. “We need more stories rooted in authenticity that show our contributions to this country.”

And despite considerable gains in Asian immigrant portrayals, researchers found that Pacific Islander, or Pasifika, characters, were virtually nonexistent.

Define American hopes its research will prompt TV writers to avoid stereotypes while telling real-life stories with more nuanced characters and detail, calling for more immigrant characters in recurring roles and characters reflecting more intersectionality – for instance, transgender immigrants or those with disabilities.

“We’re seeing characters that are still very one-note,” Lowe said. “The deeper we dig into reality and the lived experience of immigrants, the more we uncover rich details that are nonexistent in our media. Ultimately, we fall in love with characters and rich experiences that we’ve never heard before, but that we know in our gut come from an authentic place.”

- Advertisment -

Most Popular

Recent Comments