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Criminals, prisoners, and lots of accents: How immigrants are (mis)represented on TV

A new study quantifies how immigrant characters are portrayed on TV -- and how far those depictions fall from reality.

Art by Adam Peck
Art by Adam Peck

Where, exactly, did then-GOP nominee Donald J. Trump get the idea that Mexico was “not sending their best” people to the United States but rather was infecting the nation over which he hoped to preside with “drugs,” “crime,” and “rapists”?

His statements were totally in character — wildly racist, obviously inaccurate — and yet if one were to theorize, in a more generous way, how a person might come to be so misinformed about the nature of immigrants in the U.S., one can find some clues on Trump’s second-favorite medium (after Twitter): Television.

A new study, “Immigration Nation: Exploring Immigrant Portrayals on Television,” tracks the disparities between immigrants on scripted TV shows and immigrants in real life. The data, culled from 143 sample episodes from 47 different series that aired in 2017 and 2018, reveals the distance between on-screen portrayals of immigrant characters — who are overwhelmingly Latinx, undereducated, and involved in criminal activity — and their real-life counterparts.

“Asian immigrants were completely underrepresented and black undocumented immigrants were almost invisible.”

The study was produced by Define American (the media and cultural organization founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas) and The Hollywood Reporter in partnership with USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment, Media, and Society. Shows under review included critically-acclaimed series like Silicon ValleyBroad CityMaster of NoneGlow, and Jane the Virgin, alongside the NCIS franchise, Shondaland staples Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder, and animated stalwarts like The Simpsons and Family Guy.

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Asian immigrants, black undocumented immigrants, and female immigrants in every racial group are underrepresented on screen, the study found; immigrant characters on TV are overrepresented as criminals or incarcerated, and they’re less educated than immigrants in reality.

“We talk a lot about representation as far as actual people on screen, but we don’t really have conversations that go beyond meeting a quota or hitting percentages and focus on: how are these characters portrayed? What do those do in affecting our culture and how we see cultures?” Noelle Lindsay Stewart, entertainment media manager at Define American, told ThinkProgress by phone. 

Take, for instance, the data point about the overrepresentation of Latinx immigrants. “What that does is convey this idea to the general public that that issue only affects Latinx people, and that undocumented people can only be coming from Mexico or Latin America,” Stewart said. “There are large populations of undocumented people coming to America who are black. Asian immigrants are one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. [But] we saw Asian immigrants were completely underrepresented and black undocumented immigrants were almost invisible.”

“The association becomes that Latinx equals legal troubles, or not being here in the country legally; maybe they’re a criminal.”

That issue is compounded by the nature of that representation — the repeated images of, say, Mexican immigrants as undocumented drug dealers and violent criminals. “The association becomes that Latinx equals legal troubles, or not being here in the country legally; maybe they’re a criminal,” Stewart said. “It affects people’s perceptions of an entire community. It also means leaving out other communities that are vulnerable. Black undocumented immigrants are detained and deported at alarmingly high rates, and we don’t talk about that at all — and why would we, when we don’t see them that way?”

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Stewart said she’s sensed a push — as immigration stories continue to make headlines — among TV writers to address one of the most volatile and pressing issues of the day. But good intentions don’t necessarily result in good television.

“A lot of times, people are very well-intentioned but maybe not are getting this quite right,” she said. “They want to have an immigrant character, they want to address these high-profile issues we see in the news, but they don’t know how to do it, or they’re doing it from a place of assumption and not having enough diversity in the writers room to have the first-hand perspective, or the research capacity to make sure that they’re portraying a character or a storyline that is accurate and humanizing.”

As similar studies on race and gender representation have shown, behind-the-camera inclusion leads to better on-screen diversity. “If you’re writing about immigrant characters, do you have any immigrants in your writers room? Do you have any on your production team?” Stewart asked. These stories will be better served by the insight of someone with that lived experience, “not just some guy in Burbank making assumptions.”

In contemplating the ways that people see immigrants depicted on television, Stewart said, she and her colleagues at Define American “started thinking about, how does that affect how people vote, how they treat people in their communities, in their lives? How does it cause them to feel when they hear someone speaking another language in the grocery store?” 

Pop culture is a space where people who might not think immigration “affects them directly” can “start really feeling bonded to communities that are under attack,” Stewart said, citing the oft-referenced example of the popularity of Ellen DeGeneres and Will and Grace “playing a role in changing the culture to make it more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community.”

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The aim — which seems extremely obvious but, well, here we are — is not to “push an agenda,” Stewart said, but to get writers to think about “how are you creating the best characters? The best storylines? A character that is just their immigration story or is just a domestic worker in a show is not going to be nearly as compelling as one that has layers and is built out, and isn’t perfect and isn’t a criminal. There are levels to what they are. Which is what you do with every other character! We see it so much more with white, American characters. Why not have that same depth with all characters?”