Immigrant characters on mainstream TV remain disproportionately likely to be associated with crime and other negative stereotypes that don’t accurately reflect immigrant life in the U.S., a new study reveals, underscoring the importance of nuanced representation on screen.
Examining 129 characters from 59 scripted shows on broadcast, cable or streaming networks that aired during the 2018-2019 TV season, the study, published Wednesday by the immigration advocacy group Define American and the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center, found little improvement in the stereotyping since their previous report in 2018.
About half of the immigrant characters in the study were Latinx, a slight overrepresentation when compared to the U.S. population (44% of immigrants in the U.S. identify as Latinx). The researchers found that storylines involving Latinx immigrants, or even stories involving immigrants in general, have disproportionately focused on undocumented immigrants detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Middle Eastern immigrant characters were also overrepresented — though the study notes that it was largely the result of only one show, Hulu’s “Ramy.”
Researchers found some improvements from their 2018 study, such as a much lower percentage of immigrant characters depicted with accents (47%, down from 77% in 2018).
About 22% of the immigrant characters were associated with crime, down from 34% in 2018 — but still disproportionately high, compared to actual crime statistics.
On many levels, portrayals of immigrants on TV remain unchanged. Immigrant characters who are women, Black or Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI) were still underrepresented, according to the study. The level of AAPI representation actually worsened slightly: to 12% of characters, down from 16% in 2018. And when AAPI immigrants do appear on screen, they are likely to be portrayed with the “model minority” stereotype, the researchers said.
TV also continues to fail in intersectional representation of immigrants. While the number of LGBTQ immigrant characters on TV was mostly consistent with the population as a whole, transgender immigrant characters were nonexistent.
“Transgender migrants in particular face widespread persecution in (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facilities, but for the second straight year, there were no transgender immigrant characters on TV,” the researchers wrote.
Also, there were no undocumented Black immigrants in these shows, even though there are over 600,000 undocumented Black immigrants in the U.S. And like in many parts of the entertainment industry, disabled characters rarely, if ever, appear on these major TV shows (only about 2% of the characters in the study were depicted as having a disability).
The study also underscores the importance of pop culture representation in informing and broadening people’s views.
The researchers surveyed 940 TV viewers, showing them scenes from CBS’ “Madam Secretary,” NBC’s “Superstore,” and Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” which all have featured extensive and well-developed storylines involving immigrant characters. They found that after viewing these shows, participants were more likely to have “inclusive” and “empathetic” attitudes toward immigrants. The participants also were more likely to speak to friends about immigration issues, attend rallies and events in support of immigration, and/or contribute to charitable causes.
Conversely, in stressing the importance of portraying immigrants accurately and in a representative way, the researchers warned against “heavy-handed immigration storylines that make viewers feel pressured or manipulated,” which “may backfire, particularly with more conservative or religious audiences.”
The study urged the entertainment industry to take a number of steps that include “hiring more immigrants as writers and consulting with the immigrant community” when developing shows and storylines. They also called on show creators to “avoid perpetuating myths of immigrants as criminals,” focus on more underrepresented immigrant communities and develop regular or recurring immigrant characters to broaden the range of stories on screen.
Read the full study here.