Breaking stereotypes in your drawing room

20 years ago, if an American switched on his television, he would most likely be viewing a show with a full white cast. Fast forward to 2017, shows like Quantico, Sense8, Black-ish and Master of None have revolutionized the casting of characters in TV shows.

The scenario for non-Caucasians in the United States a couple of decades ago was so bleak that the Indian scientist in the 1988 comedy sci-film Short Circuit 2 was played by a white actor, Mat Fraser, who was painted brown. When Indians did land a gig, they were largely made to play stereotyped roles, such as a cab driver or a convenience store worker.The 1980’s and 1990’s was a period of cultural insensitivity and people of color found it difficult to break stereotypes. In the early days, when blacks did play a character, it was never the lead role and they were often cast as comic clowns. Black people were rarely included in shows with white characters and this led to the prominence of shows with an all black cast, also called as black sitcoms, back in the 1970’s.

Times are changing however, and we have become more racially sensitive than before. There is growing acceptance in the industry when it comes to casting non-whites in TV shows. Research shows that audiences prefer to watch shows with which they can relate to and casting plays a major role here. This was especially true of black sitcoms, which were popular among the black community for their realistic portrayal of black people. Recent surveys that have been conducted also conclude that median household ratings were highest among those programs where at least a third of the cast members and writing staff belonged to the minority communities of America.  If shows were to make a lasting impact on viewers, they would now have to employ actors from more diverse backgrounds.

Overcoming both racial and gender barriers, Priyanka Chopra has become the first South Asian woman to headline an American network series, and she doesn’t speak with an Indian accent in the series.( why is this necessary?) Quantico generally received positive reviews and was widely praised for Chopra’s performance, with critics complimenting her as a great asset to the series.

Then there is Sense8, a show that epitomizes diversity not only in terms of race, but also in terms of culture, religion, gender and sexual orientation. It features eight main characters from seven different countries that include USA, Mexico, Kenya, India, Korea, Iceland and Germany. It also has four characters that identify themselves as part of the LGBTQ community. A show such as this is able to reach a larger and more diverse audience. A wider target audience would mean that more people will be able to relate and connect with at least one of the characters on-screen.

Black-ish, first aired in 2014, is one of the more recent black sitcoms that received widespread acclaim. Then there is Master of None that has Aziz Ansari both creating and acting in the show. Aziz Ansari was born in ColumbiaSouth Carolina, to a Tamil Muslim family from Tamil Nadu, India.It had the critics raving over its simple yet finely executed concept of rom-com.

All’s not rosy though, as the numbers are still low when it comes to percentage of non white writers and executive producers who are employed in television. While recent years have helped in reversing certain trends in the industry, there is still a long way to go before we see proportionate representation of whites and colored people, in a TV show.

— An article by Sanjivi Jagatheesan and Tania Gupta.

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