President Trump, members of his administration and some conservative politicians get a lot of grief for their use of the term “real Americans.”
The grief is justified, because, at best, the term implies that certain citizens of this country — residents of the Midwest, say, or folks with “working-class” jobs — are somehow more American than others, which is just ridiculous. At worst, the term is dog-whistle short-hand for “white people who are tired of having to share this country’s resources with anyone whose face, faith or family might look a little different from theirs.”
Either way, the phrase is regularly mocked and decried by late-night hosts and members of “liberal Hollywood” who are active in politics or on social media.
Yet Hollywood does more to perpetuate the myth of “real Americans” than any politician, or any other cultural force in the world.
Go to the movies, turn on whatever screen you use to watch the art form formally known as television, and what do you see? A wide array of stories revolving around a fairly narrow group of people, mostly white, mostly male.
If you were a newcomer to this country or planet, looking, as historians and cultural anthropologists often do, to the stories we tell as a reflection of our national identity, how would you define a “real American”? Besides a detective, doctor or someone possessing a superpower.
Even with the often-frightening tsunami of content provided by a proliferation of new platforms, black people, Asian people, Latino people, LGBTQ people and women all remain remarkably underrepresented when it comes to the stories we tell on our various screens.
I say remarkable because we remark on it all the time. We are waist-deep in awareness — #OscarsSoWhite, diversity initiatives, inclusion riders, colorblind casting and a slew of studies to empirically prove what we already know. The most recent, from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, pointed out that among 1,200 popular films released between 2007 and 2018, only 3% had Latinx leads or co-leads. Even the initiative itself faced criticism in January for leaving Latinos out of its “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair” study, which broke down statistics for black, Asian and female directors.
For the record, the group formerly known as Hispanic or Latino, makes up 18.3% of this country’s population. So, you know, not even close.
Put its money where its mouth is, that’s what. And be willing to lose some of that money.
If “liberal Hollywood” really wants to help end the racial and cultural divisions encapsulated in the phrase “real Americans,” making a movie or series or two with nonwhite leads isn’t going to cut it.
We need lots of them, and we can’t freak out about it when some flounder or fail. Most movies and television shows flounder and fail. But no one says, “Well, I guess there’s no audience for white leads any more.” No, they just make a whole bunch more, hoping a few will stick.
So we have to stop thinking of “Black Panther” or “The Terror: Infamy” as grand experiments, the success or failure of which will determine how audiences will respond to nonwhite casts or stories.
And I don’t want to hear that those stories “just aren’t out there.” The trend toward novel-adaptation alone opens all sorts of doors. And in this city, as I am writing this, all sorts of people are writing all sorts of scripts.
The problem is networks and studios and streaming services are only willing to buy scripts they believe will make money. Which is fair. Except they base their choices on the sorts of projects that have made money before, which is not. As there are far more films and series revolving around white people (see all those studies), there are many more hits that do the same.
And so the cycle continues. Even though, historically, great films and successful series rarely come from trend-watching; they come from people who are trying something different.
Like, say, “Crazy Rich Asians” or the oeuvre of Shonda Rhimes.
When Netflix dropped “One Day at a Time,” many considered it proof of Hollywood’s “diversity-speak” hypocrisy. Here was a show that did precisely what all the various initiatives hope to achieve — hilariously reflect a real yet nonwhite American family (which included the brilliant Rita Moreno!). But the devotion of its small audience, a hallmark of many Netflix shows, was not enough, and off it went.
Here’s hoping it brings success, and an Emmy or two, to Pop TV. Here’s hoping “Vida” doesn’t fold under pressure of being the other Latinx-led show on television, and that “Claws” will continue to get the attention it deserves, and “The Terror: Infamy” will thrive, and “Harriet” will be a blockbuster hit.
But even if they don’t, or it isn’t, these are the stories we have to keep making, in greater abundance and not just because more than half of Americans are tired of not seeing themselves represented on screen.
All those studies, with their depressingly low percentages, don’t just reveal Hollywood’s inability to include or represent one group or another; they remind us of all the stories we don’t get to see or hear or tell. They remind us that even as screens get bigger and smaller and more numerous, as streaming platforms make more film and TV available than ever before, we are still only getting a small part of the bigger picture.
Hollywood likes to play it safe, even though safe has led not only to a monochromatic landscape but all the various financial issues currently plaguing the entertainment industry. You want a bigger audience? Broaden the stories you tell.
Which makes now the perfect time to break the cycle; if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got. And if you keep making stories about one group of people, you can’t mock the president for tailoring his message the same way.