By: Kaamilah Moola
Colorism has assuredly made its mark on a multitude of industries. However, for ordinary people of color, many see the effects of these deep rooted colorist values and beliefs ingrained into the Hollywood industry. I wanted to share my perspective on the matter—as a girl of color and an avid consumer of Hollywood’s content.
After watching Netflix’s TV series, ‘Hollywood’, I noticed that my feelings of exclusion were shared by many individuals. The series depicted the rise of progression within the Hollywood industry circa 1947. The show illustrated the divergence from the norm when casting the first ever African American woman as the romantic lead. It’s no doubt that Hollywood, then and now, have somewhat of a compulsion when casting white women, or white passing women, as the love interest. The ‘girl next door’ with blonde hair and blue eyes has always been emblematic of the epitome of men’s desire.
Now I could go on a tangent arguing that women shouldn’t base their self worth on the industry equating their value to what Hollywood deems desirable. However, the fact of the matter is that Hollywood plays an instrumental role when it comes to self image, including: truly having the ability to shift this paradigm simply through representation, or by associating ourselves with a character whom we identify with—a point I will elaborate on later.Lack of representation is dangerous. I see how the importance I assign to the matter may seem somewhat extreme, but think about it. More than half the people I know have a Netflix account, or watch at least one movie or episode a week. Constantly seeing people who look like you being cast as characters that embody a negative stereotype can behave as a factor that unfavorably affects our self image, consciously or not.
Undoubtedly, there have been multiple breakthroughs with casting or even employing people of color at all in Hollywood. Some of Hollywood’s greatest actors are people of color, for instance, Morgan Freeman, Viola Davis, Samuel L. Jackson and many more. But what still flourishes is the stereotypical personalities in which the majority of actors of color are assigned to. I’d like to specifically address the characters played by actors of Asian and South Asian ethnicity. The staple Indian or Chinese stereotype entails being academically excellent, heartily oriental or awkward when assimilating to the ‘norm’ (which is already an issue as disowning one’s own culture to fit in to western ideals of ‘normal’ is inherently a product of imperialism), and for women— being unattractive.
To use Netflix as an example again, the coming of age TV series “Never Have I Ever” is emblematic of this. The show portrays a group of girls of color: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ramona Young, and Lee Rodriguez, who werecassigned to play characters that are academically intelligent, find it challenging to fit in, presented as quirky and weird, and have trouble finding a significant other. By the end of the first season, each of the girls end up finding a partner, which to me was perceived as slightly degrading as this read as sort of an accomplishment for the character of Devi—deeming her ‘worthy’ because the most desired male character had developed feelings for her (a girl of color).
Without being overly critical of the show, there were definitely breakthroughs in regards to how a woman of color was viewed as desirable. The lead role of Devi, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan—an actress of South Asian ethnicity—ended up having two boys at her “disposal” at the end of season one, which is an ode to the positive, changing dynamic of how we view a South Asian woman’s attractiveness. This, coupled with the fact that Mindy Kaling, a woman of South Asian ethnicity, directed the show, speaks to its progressiveness that I’d definitely applaud.
To develop on the point discussed earlier in regards to the way in which Hollywood affects our self image; I’d like to share some observations of my own. To start, often men of color are presented by Hollywood as being infatuated with white women, using them to symbolize the epitome of beauty. I’m a South African woman of South Asian ethnicity, with my identity rooted in Indian culture. Despite South Africa having issues of its own after apartheid, I would classify those issues as leaning more towards that of race and politics, issues I identify with less than I do with issues in Indian culture. South Asian culture is known to be heavily doused in the molasses of colorism, definitely manifesting itself into one’s preferences when choosing romantic partners. Just to give an example, China and India are by far the largest consumers of skin lightening cream in the world, occupying more than 50% of the market (Abraham 2017). From what I have witnessed, the majority of girls who are praised for their beauty have extremely Eurocentric features—light eyes, skin, hair etc. I especially tend to hear males, particularly those of color, praising white women the majority of the time for their attractiveness. I don’t intend to assign a direct correlation between the romantic preference of men and the lack of representation of women of color as romantic leads in Hollywood, as I have established that its embedded values in culture play a massive part in this as it stands. However, I do believe there is a connection.
The negative connotations that are assigned to women who are less conventional looking by the Eurocentric standard of beauty is certainly something that the media reinforces. I recognize that colorism is something that is deeply ingrained into our society, undoubtedly owed to matters of nurture as opposed to nature. However I find it comforting to see a steady increase in the representation of women of color in Hollywood.
Ohri, Anu, 2017.“Why Are Brown Girls Never the Love Interest?” Gal-Dem. Accessed October 29, 2021.
Goonatilleke, Yethmie. n.d. “Why We Need More South Asian Representation in Film.” The Glen Echo.
Accessed October 29, 2021.
La Force, Thessaly. 2018. “Why Do Asian-Americans Remain Largely Unseen in Film and Television?” The
New York Times. Accessed October 29 2021.
Abraham, Mary-Rose. 2017. “Skin Lightening: The Dangerous Obsession That’s Worth Billions.” Quartz
India. Quartz. Accessed October 29 2021.