Third World Corner Perspectives: “Changing Stereotypes in Television,” a Panel with Laverne Cox, Aasif Mandvi, and RJ Mitte

From left to right, Dean Mary Grace Almandrez (Director of the Third World Center), Aasif Mandvi, Laverne Cox, and RJ Mitte. Photo courtesy of the Brown Daily Herald.

Hello and welcome! We are Dolma Ombadykow and Olivia Veira. We’re both first years and will be blogging the Third World Center perspective for the Bruin Club blog this year! It’s going to be excellent.

Last night, Brown Lecture Board hosted a panel on “Changing Stereotypes in Television” moderated by Dean Mary Grace Almandrez of the Third World Center (TWC). The panel included Aasif Mandvi, Laverne Cox, and RJ Mitte.

  • Aasif Mandvi has been a correspondent on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart since 2006, was part of a Broadway production of OKLAHOMA! in 2002, and has also been seen on the big screen.

  • Laverne Cox is best known for her role in the Netflix Original Series, Orange is the New Black. She is the first transgender woman of color to star in a mainstream television series and goes all around the country to voice concerns around gender expectations.

  • RJ Mitte played Walt Jr. in the hit television series, Breaking Bad, and shares cerebral palsy with that character. He is currently working on ABC Family’s Switched at Birth and is also “involved with several organizations that raise awareness of equality and diversity.” Biographical information came from the Lecture Board website.

The Brown community was encouraged to submit any questions they had for the panel, and Dean Almandrez moderated the discussion for 45 minutes, with 15 minutes afterward dedicated to a Q&A with the audience.

Almandrez: “What do you think of your acting, and do you consider it a form of activism?”

Mitte: When playing a role, “you live in [it], people can relate to [that]” and continued to say that his role as Walt Jr. allowed people to see aspects of everyday life that they may or may not otherwise see and that he finds it important that “we have real characters”.

Cox: “Our job does affect people, it has the power to change minds and hearts.” My “acting has informed my activism” and that “folks who have interacted with the character have changed their attitude towards transgender individuals.”

Mandvi: “Because The Daily Show portrays me as the “‘brown’ correspondent, the activism part was thrust upon me.” As a South Asian, Mandvi argued that he gets to say certain things on the show that otherwise wouldn’t be addressed, but he was cautious to use the word activism. “I hate to use the word activism, I just … stand in front of a green screen.” However, he does recognize that he is one of the only “out” Muslim-Americans on television, his position is politically charged, and he believes it does “more for tolerance” than some other, more organized entities focused on awareness.

Almandrez: “How do you navigate between representation and tokenization?”

Cox: “Tokenization is frustrating for activism.” “There is a difference between stating “inclusivity” and then actually listening to the individuals [being tokenized]. She emphasized that she has been tokenized in many of her own projects, and raised the idea that individuals have to use themselves as a token to raise difficult conversations.

Mandvi: “There is a difference between writing someone as an ethnicity instead of as a human.” He recalled a script he encountered when he first entered the business. After reading it, he said to the writer, “I’m glad you have written a role for a South Asian, but I don’t think you’ve ever met one. No one talks like this.”

Mitte: “Writers write people into boxes of what they think their life is like, and it is their roles as the ones being tokenized to turn the box into something that will change the writing, to change the direction of these roles.”

Mandvi: “People will write from what they know,” and that, since most of Hollywood is old, rich, white men (Cox added “cisgender”), that diversity needs to be added here. He joked, “people love white people on television, they’re easier to light.” Mitte added with a laugh, “that’s why I’m here.”

Almandrez: “Can you influence the writing?”

Mandvi: “On The Daily Show, I have a lot of say in what I says on air, due to the nature of the show. The writers will often come to me for my “South Asian expertise.”

Mitte: “we see so much bigotry in the industry, and the thing is, they’re usually wrong.”

Almandrez: “What were some barriers you had to overcome?”

Cox: “Getting a job. We’re lucky, most actors don’t work”

Mandvi: “the inherent nature of this business is that they want to reduce you down to a thing they can market and sell.”

Cox: “It’s important for us to bring humanity to our roles.” She went on to explain that earlier in her career, she played the role of a transgender sex worker again and again, and because this was a stereotype being perpetuated, she felt it necessary to go beyond what the writing allowed for the character.

Almandrez: “Who are the roles models you have emulated?”

Mitte: “I have a really strong support team, and my family has pushed me and supported me…but at the end of the day, I have to believe that I can do it. I’m the only person that can let me down.”

Mandvi: “I never thought of myself as a brown kid in a white industry…until people started saying something. The dream had nothing to do with my identity.”

Cox: “I prefer the term possibility model. [In that case,] Candis Cayne, the first out transwoman on primetime television. I didn’t think it was possible until Candis Cayne.”

Almandrez: “Why did you start acting, and why do you continue to act?”

Cox: “You have to be in love with it.”

Mitte: “There was nothing else I could do…I was always picked last for sports…this was all I had.”

Almandrez: “What can we do as viewers to push for more representation in the media?”

Mandvi: “Hollywood is a business. People will demand to watch what they want, it’s all about advertising.”

Cox: “[That’s the beauty of Netflix]. I don’t know if our show would be possible anywhere else…I have never seen a show with this many women of different colors, shapes and sizes. I didn’t know if people would go for it, but people when wild for it. I started thinking, ‘maybe we can do it’. [It relies on] profound characters.” She added that someone once said that “People don’t go to the movies to see actors, they go to see themselves.” She added that “you can write to networks, social media is more powerful than you think. After there was pushback from the Katie Couric interview with Carmen Carrera on social media, Couric responded, referring to the experience as a “teachable moment.”

Mitte: “It all starts with authors writing true stories.”

Mandvi: “The entire industry has changed in response to social media. The downside, you can end up with something like Justin Bieber. The upside, things like Orange is the New Black become possible.

Cox: [Re: Netflix], “We’re changing the whole industry.”

Highlight from the Q&A Section

“How can you be funny without reducing yourself to a stereotype?”

Mandvi: “I’ve walked away from things I didn’t want to represent. Sometimes, you can compromise with something written in a reductive way and raise it above the stereotype.”

Cox: “This brings into question the intersectionality between diversity and capitalism. Images are being reproduced because of capitalism,”

Mandvi: interjects – “white people.”

Cox: “And some that I won’t name are even recreating the stereotypes.”

Mandvi: interjects – “Tyler Perry.”

Cox: “But you can also place [marginalized peoples] in these same narratives that are being reproduced so that the narratives themselves can begin with change.”

Mandvi: “There’s a difference between the cheap laugh and dealing with that space between being who I am and what the business does to reduce me”

Cox: “Satire is effective to continue the narrative. How can we create spaces to laugh at ourselves? I think some racist and sexist jokes are funny. Is that a problem? The public can break down barriers.”

Mandvi: “It all has to do with intent. For example, the intent of using an accent — is there a human being behind that accent, or is this character written in for the accent, to perpetuate the stereotype?”

Cox: “Using humanity as the strongest tool against reductive stereotypes is key.”

———-

All in all, the discussion was really powerful and thought provoking.

As a note for the upcoming week — application decisions are coming out! Please try not to sweat, you will end up in the place you’re meant to. Good luck!

As always,

Olivia & Dolma

olivia_veira@brown.edu

dolma_ombadykow@brown.edu

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