BY DANIEL GREEN
PHOTOS BY KEITH I. POLAKOFF
Oralia Urias always knew that she wanted to have a career in the theater. As a child, she would perform skits for her family. “I did sports, and I did everything (else), but I kind of quit things,” Urias said. “Theater was the one thing I kept going back to, and I knew it was going to be my career.”
She got serious about theater in high school after seeing an improv group from Cerritos College perform at her school. Once she started attending Cerritos, Urias auditioned for the group and was accepted.
Since transferring to Cal State Long Beach, Urias has worked with the Cal State Long Beach theater department on some of its plays and has stage-managed some of the shows.
However, finding roles off-campus has been harder, mostly due to the fact that she finds it hard to find roles that she can see herself in.
“I usually run across scripts with male protagonists -- very male-driven plays or female roles that are not of color or it is not specified,” Urias said. “A lot of people, when it’s not specified in a certain script, they automatically assume it’s a white person.”
“Sometimes it’s a double-edged sword to look as Hispanic as me. I have darker skin, dark complexion and dark features, so they look at me, and say oh, she can play that role.” she said.
Despite making up 50.8 percent of the population, women only made up 29 percent of protagonists in the top 100 grossing movies of 2016, according to a study by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen. Surprisingly, this is a record high for women in films, and is up 7 percent from 2015.
People of color also struggle to find places in television and film. A study out of UCLA found that in 2014 they were underrepresented in film leads three to one and three to one among film directors, despite representing close to 40 percent of the population.
Urias admits that finding roles for women can be tough since there are not a lot out there. “The woman's roles tend to be minor or the guy’s girlfriend, friends,” she said. “I know that I would always be cast as the maid or the sister.”
Dr. Oliver Wang, an associate professor of sociology at CSULB, studies issues of popular culture around race and ethnicity.
“One of the major problems is that nuanced, fully fleshed out characters are tend to go to people who are in dominant positions of power in society,” Wang said. “That is typically white men, to be followed by white women, and then to a much, much smaller degree, you get to see the characters written or cast for persons of color.”
This lack of representation gives audiences a misguided view of the different demographics that make up the population of the United States. Many characters played by people of color tend to run together and are not fleshed out. This is seen in how actors are cast into roles that are stereotypical and shallow. Wang states that one of the problems is that these characters are not written beyond their culture or ethnicity. Rather than write these characters as fully fleshed out people, they are written to fill an image or role.
“Their racial background is key to knowing or understanding the character,” Wang said. “Whereas, white lead actors and their “whiteness” is not key part of their character, it is occupation, their age, whatever their relation is to the other characters. Their whiteness is incidental to that, as opposed this white person’s color is invisible. When you are a person of color, you are being cast racially or ethnically.”
While some actors may be able to fulfill roles that are ordinarily offered to people of color, others can be left out if they do not fit the mold. Urias has had friends who have missed out on roles because they do not physically fit the image that was expected. One friend of Urias has missed out on Hispanic roles due the fact that she is lighter-skinned, and was not considered “Hispanic looking”.
“The media has put this vision of what a certain ethnic group looks like, and they don’t realize that there is so much diversity within each ethnicity and each race. But the media just accepts the stereotype every single time,” Wang said.
Dr. Shanti Pillai, an assistant professor in the theater arts department whose research focuses on contemporary performance in India, has known many actors of color who have struggled to find roles and build resumes.
“The roles available tend to be very narrowly defined, and speak to long-standing histories of dominant images of people of the non-Western world, which means most people on the planet. Most of what you see is modern versions of very old, tired, ideas about who people are,” Pillai said.
Pillai believes the main problem is that the media’s portrayals affect how different groups see each other. By presenting an image that is stereotypical the media creates a skewed image of different groups. For someone who has never met someone from a different culture or ethnicity, the media may be the only exposure they have with other groups. The problem is worsened by the fact that the media has become harder to avoid in recent years.
“We are surrounded by media, even more than a decade ago,” Pillai said, “So we are receiving images that tell us about who we are, and who others are continuously.”
A Time Magazine cover in 1993 depicted a portrait of “The New Face of America,” poised to usher in the age of multiculturalism. However close the age of the internet and rapidly changing ideals have brought us to that horizon, much work remains to be done.