It’s not easy being a woman in Hollywood. Nor is it easy to be a person of color. Television and film are littered with sidekicks, tokens, “magic” brown people and shallowly-rendered girlfriend roles. Even the fabulous, Oscar-nominated Viola Davis can’t find good characters to portray. Earlier this year, Davis told Tavis Smiley in an interview:

“It wears me out that there aren’t enough multi-faceted roles for women who look like me…roles when I open up a script and the character goes on a journey, where I see a balance, where I’m not always…this straight-backed, black woman, friend, all-seeing whatever. I’m talking about a human being–a multi-faceted human being that actually lives, breathes and all of that…” Watch… 

We have ample illustration of how writers and directors fail women and people of color, but can we explain what it would look like it they got it right?

Alison Bechdel, in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a strip called “The Rule,” (above) introduced what is now called The Bechdel Test, a simple method of determining gender bias in film. It goes like this: One character says she will only watch a film if it:

  • Has more than one female character in it
  • Who talk to each other
  • About something other than a man

To be sure, quality portrayals of women in film require more than that, but this is a good baseline–sort of a minimum standard. You would be surprised how seldom Hollywood can do even this.  But even when a film or TV show handles gender well, it often biffs portrayals of non-white people. While the masses have been fellating Lena Dunham for her hot new HBO show, Girls, many of us have noticed that for being set in a city (New York) that is predominantly “of color,” Girls’ protagonists have shockingly-little interaction with non-stereotypical, fully-actualized non-white people.

What is the minimum standard for portrayals of people of color? I’ve been trying to crowdsource a Bechdel Test for POCs. (And not just so I can see my name immortalized in The Winfrey Harris Test. But, y’know it wouldn’t be awful.) I asked a few folks who care about such things for suggestions:

Miz Jenkins  offered that a film or show should include 1) one of more named people of color, 2) not in a service capacity (for avoidance of doubt, saving a White person from imminent disaster using only basic common sense constitutes working in a service capacity), who 3) speak in unaffected accents. (If they do have accents they must be authentic and not employed for comedic effect).

Clutch contributor Renee offered that characters of color should be 1) subjects and not objects, and 2) aware of their culture and history.

Arturo Garcia of Racialicious  and Jennifer of Mixed Race America both championed Community’s Troy and Abed as examples of quality characters and nailed Ken Jeong’s character Ben Chang as a travesty. Jennifer also lauded Mindy Kaling’s Kelly Kapoor on The Office.

A minimum standard for portrayals of people of color in film and television might look something like this:

  1. One or more named people of color
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. Who don’t act in a service capacity (No magical brown people!)
  4. Who are reflective of their culture and history, but don’t communicate that through stereotyped action, such as an affected accent

 

Let’s interrogate this measure. Does it work? What would you change or add?

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  1. Janice

    Movies that portray Black males escorting Black females on peaceful, issue-free laughter-filled dates. And have them discuss unusual topics.

    I’d like to see a great decease in the number of films that portray Black males verbally and physically assaulting Black females. Particularly in contrast to Black male characters affectionately interacting with white females, Latinas, etc in the same movie. This formula appears in a staggering number of films. For example: “ANY GIVEN SUNDAY” – Black man smiles at white woman and asks her on a date. CONTRAST- Black man argues with Black woman and curses her out. “THE STREETS OF BLOOD” – Black boy calls his princess-gown-wearing younger sister (about 4 years old) a “bit**.” CONTRAST- Black man smiles at white woman dining with him. “IRISH JAM” – Black man violently kicks Black woman in the face as he escapes from her via the window. CONTRAST – Black man playfully interacts with white woman and he marries her. For a lot more of these Black female-white female contrasts visit the blog: sistahwise.wordpress.com

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  2. Socially Maladjusted

    mmm!

    interesting topic

    black characters must survive to the end of the film – not merely be there to see the white hero complete his (crooked) objectives and safely home to his blond wife & kids,

    I can almost get with a “subliminal” message that says – black people who help white people get killed, But ‘almost’ is still a million light years and never gonna happen away from where you’d need to get me, to make me co-sign white people’s genocidal fantasies. .

    Simply – no matter how foolish they are, I don’t like to see people who look like me being hurt by white people – In the real world or on screen.

    We could avoid that problem if we make it that the black character has his own agenda, and is not simply a bit part player (or pawn) in some WHITE AMERICAN agenda, eg – protecting america from “terrorists”.

    You might wanna give the brotha a few lines expaining why he aint down wid whitey’s cause.

    There should be CLASS diversity in the representation of so called “positive” or “role model” black characters. I’m sick of seeing “bl?ck” role model characters, who are little more than blacks in white midddle class face. (weave and all)

    Why does every “positive” character have be some hotshot buppy – the black lawyer, black super cop . . . etc etc rar?

    Why can’t a blue collar working man whose first language is EBONICS – be positve? Why can’t a HOOKER be positive as was done in Pretty Woman and Trading Places?

    Dialogue between black characters should contain some in-community politics that reflect the DIVERSITY of opinion among blacks.

    Not all black people want to look like white people – act like them, talk like them, think like them or love them.

    WE ARE NOT A MONOLITH – right?

    LMAO!

    In fact – I believe that insightful dialogue between black characters, in a movie would, be very enlightening to those with little exprience with blacks and destroy a hellova lot of assumptions about who the BAD nigros are and who the GOOD black people are –

    :-)

    Might have to write the shit myself coz I’ve never seen this done well in any film featuring blacks.

    If race relations crop up in the story the black character should always establish his non-racist credentials as follows .

    I’m not racist – I like white people as much as white people like me.

    LMAO!

    and that’s my wish list.

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  3. I’m not so sure about “Who are reflective of their culture and history, but don’t communicate that through stereotyped action, such as an affected accent”

    When dealing with actual cultures, yes, but perhaps that should be reworded to deal with fictional worlds? Also, does that include things that someone outside their culture would react the same to? I mean, they could be responding correctly, but without their culture playing a part.

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  4. I posted a link to this on my tumblr and rawkblog (http://rawkblog.tumblr.com) responded drawing my attention to the POC Bechdel Test developed by AngryBlackWoman a couple years ago: http://theangryblackwoman.com/2009/09/01/the-bechdel-test-and-race-in-popular-fiction/

    Thought you might find it useful.

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