Hollywood has some work to do when it comes to depicting the experiences of the U.S. immigrant population.
A new analysis of programs from the 2017-2018 season shows that TV fails to portray immigrants accurately. Immigrants are underrepresented on the small screen, with some subgroups in particular lagging behind in representation. But they’re often overrepresented in the ranks of stigmatized, marginalized groups like criminals and the incarcerated.
These depictions can have insidious effects, Noelle Lindsay Stewart, entertainment media manager of the immigrant advocacy organization Define American, told HuffPost.
This kind of pervasive misrepresentation “makes it much easier for wider society to view people as less than them, not fully human or deserving of compassion and understanding,” Stewart said. “All of this turns that misrepresented community into an easy target or scapegoat for why the rest of a society doesn’t have everything it wants or needs.”
For the report, researchers examined 143 episodes from 47 TV shows, including “Modern Family,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “The Good Fight” and “Better Call Saul.” They looked at how immigrants and immigration issues were depicted in these shows, and then measured their findings against reality.
Though immigrants make up about 14 percent of the U.S. population, they represent just over 10 percent of characters on the shows the researchers watched. Nearly half of these immigrant characters had fewer than 10 speaking lines.
Despite study after study showing that both authorized and unauthorized immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans, television still depicts more than a third of immigrant characters as being somehow associated with crime, the researchers found. Another 11 percent of immigrant characters were associated with incarceration. In reality, the foreign-born population represents less than 1 percent of people incarcerated at the state and federal levels in the U.S.
As a group, researchers found, immigrants are also portrayed on TV as less educated than they are in real life. Seven percent of immigrants on TV have bachelor’s degrees, while 17 percent of actual U.S. immigrants do. And while 13 percent of immigrants have a postgraduate degree, only about 3 percent of immigrants on television do.
“We can’t definitively say that it directly impacts policy,” Stewart said of the findings. “But it does impact culture, and culture ultimately dictates policy in some form or another.”
In terms of the racial breakdown of immigrant characters the researchers observed, Latinos made up the largest share at 40 percent. Mexican immigrants alone made up a fifth of all immigrant characters, although the study notes that in real life, the number of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. has been declining for the past decade. Asian immigrants, the fastest growing immigrant group in the U.S., only made up 16 percent of immigrants on the shows the researchers studied. In reality, they constitute 26 percent of the immigrant population.
Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees, managing director of creative initiatives at Define American, said content creators in entertainment often pull storylines from the news. And because the media is predominantly focused on Latino immigrants and issues at the U.S.-Mexico border, immigrant issues affecting the Asian community tend not to receive much attention on the small screen.
“I do, however, feel like there will be a shift toward more Asian narratives in general with the popularity of projects like ′Crazy Rich Asians’ and ’To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ on Netflix,” Voorhees said.
The study also found that undocumented black immigrants are underrepresented, while immigrants from Middle Eastern countries ― who account for about 4 percent of U.S. immigrants ― are actually represented at a higher rate on TV, accounting for 11 percent of immigrant characters on the shows studied. White immigrants are likewise more common on TV (24 percent of immigrant characters) than in real life (18 percent of U.S. immigrants).
Part of the research breaks down immigrant characters by accent. More than 75 percent of immigrants on TV speak with an accent, the researchers found, and about 29 percent of them have a heavy accent. Stewart told HuffPost that characters with accents can definitely be a positive ― they help normalize the idea that there’s no single way to sound “American.” They could also potentially serve to demonstrate that a good grasp of the English language isn’t the only indicator of intelligence, she said. However, TV characters with accents aren’t always portrayed so three-dimensionally.
“Historically accents from basically anywhere that is not Western Europe or Australia have been exaggerated on TV in a way to make caricatures or tropes of immigrants instead of characters that are reflective of real people,” Stewart said. “So we don’t want people to stop speaking with accents on TV, we just want them to come from a place of accuracy and dignity.”
Voorhees said that many of these misrepresentations can be improved upon with the help of more people of color in writers’ rooms. Other experts have made the same recommendation. Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA, previously told HuffPost that diverse representation in writers’ rooms can make a difference.
“All the research I’ve done in recent years that looks at writers’ rooms finds, over and over again, that writers’ rooms led by people of color and/or women tend to be more diverse and tend to develop storylines and characters that are different than what you get when there’s a white male leading things in the writers’ rooms,” Hunt said then.