The television and film industry is far behind in terms of the women's movement, and when it comes to women of color the imbalance is only heightened. It remains the last bastion of close-minded behavior in terms of the way human beings are viewed and those who care to look can easily recognize this discrepancy.
Though there are more African-American and ethnic minority women onscreen than ever before, the fact remains that women of color are greatly under- and misrepresented; often falling into "specialty-act" roles or negative stereotypes, lessening their power in Hollywood as well as their worth in the industry.
On television, particularly daytime TV, black households are a key audience, bringing in the much-coveted Neilsen ratings, as well as advertising dollars and press; a fact seemingly recognized in the networks' ads for detergent and cleaning supplies, pedaled by African-American women. Yet at the same time there is barely a black storyline, let alone anyone of color onscreen.
In my novel, Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva, this disparity is addressed by the protagonist, Calysta Jeffries, herself a woman of color, who dares to fight against the deeply engrained disparities of the soap opera industry. As well as her best friend Zylissa, who strives to be considered for roles, as she doesn't fit into the popular LL, i.e. "light skin, long hair" category that is somewhat more acceptable. These characters represent two different perspectives inside Hollywood; one trying to break down barriers from the outside and be seen, while the other, having achieved a great deal of success, works to change the bigotry she faces everyday, attempting to break down the far-less-talked-about internal barriers.
When Calysta does stand up to the network that employs her, for taking full advantage of the audience numbers her TV persona brings in while denying her basic requirements supplied to the rest of the cast such as suitable wardrobe and a hair stylist, she is immediately and unceremoniously terminated. A general consensus is in place, not only amongst the executives but the cast as well, that she should keep her mouth shut and head down, be grateful for whatever scraps are thrown her way. The message is clear: Don't rock the boat or you'll be thrown overboard.
Of course the only way to ever achieve significant change is to speak up and make yourself heard. Not always the easiest thing to do when fighting against an established and deeply rooted school of thought, but always necessary. In a time so progressive, with a strong African-American leader at the country's helm, the close-minded discrimination of Hollywood seems antiquated. Yet the painful absence of qualified brown people in front and behind the lens remains, affecting everything from soap operas to feature films. The camera doesn't lie, and it is still out of focus.
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