In an increasingly globalised world we are faced with the challenged of “…[ensuring] that the mediated public sphere is truly inclusive and diverse” (Metykova 2016, p. 81). The representation of people and groups in the media is fundamental to how we produce meaning and construct our own identities. However, in mainstream media and most notably in film and television, female, ethnic and LGBTQI perspectives are largely excluded. Characters, voices and stories from these groups account for an underwhelming proportion of the media landscape at large, but moreover, marginalised groups often have little control over how they are presented in dominant media channels.
In 2016, researchers at the University of Southern California found that while people of Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern or other origin, accounted for 37.9% of the US population, only 28.3% of all speaking characters in US entertainment were ethnically diverse (Smith et al 2016).
Moreover, at least half or more of all stories across films, television and streaming services did not include at least one speaking or named Asian or Asian American character (Smith et al 2016). Among other groups, Americans of Asian descent have historically been excluded from the media in a number of ways: “the number of roles rarely reflect the actually percentage of Asian Americans in the United States, actors are forced to repeatedly embody tired and offensive stereotypes, and they are frequently relegated to the role of a sidekick or background character” (Lopez 2015, p. 6)
In her book, Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for cultural citizenship, Lopez (2016) argues that cultural citizenship is innately connected to the media: “in order for individuals to feel like their cultural practices are accepted and that people like them are included within the nation, they must see themselves and their specific communities represented within the media” (p. 13). Representation is fundamental to a person’s sense of belonging, but furthermore it is a key indicator of tolerance and respect in wider society. A lack of representation is harmful in a number of ways, but limited representation is also detrimental to a group or culture’s image in the public imagination. Sociologist Dr. Bhoomi Thakore asserts that, “people who are not seen as assimilated into American society are treated as other and are often ridiculed as a result” (Pocratsky 2017). Consequently, popular media not only needs to include culturally diverse stories, but also a range of perspectives that disrupt racial stereotypes and explore the changing roles that different ethnicities play in American society (Lopez 2015).
While popular media in the US currently fails to reflect the diversity of the American population, progress is (slowly) being made and the last few years have seen a marked improvement in the representation of south Asian identities (Mahdawi 2017). The Mindy Project, which aired in 2012, was the first US network TV show to ever star an actor of south Asian descent. This was a very progressive step for media diversity, with Mindy Kaling challenging gender and racial barriers by being the lead actor, creator and writer of the show (Lopez 2015). Similarly, actors Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani have moved into the spotlight in recent years, exploring topics such as racial profiling, discrimination, stereotypes and even interracial love in their comedy performances and TV shows.
Looking beyond conventional media forms, it is interesting to explore how artists are harnessing the participatory nature of social media to share their stories and embrace their cultures. The rise of digital and social media has enabled individuals to bypass the restrictions that are hindering change in industries such as film and television: “rather than be subject to traditional gatekeepers, desis are doing it for themselves” (Mahdawi 2017).
Maria Qamar is a Pakistani-Canadian artist who challenges cultural appropriation, subverts stereotypes, and improves representation for both women and the south Asian diaspora, one “Indian meme” at a time (Aggarwal-Schifellite 2016). Qamar primarily uses Instagram to share her artwork, self-described as an amalgamation of American pop art and Indian soap opera. The content of each piece is firmly rooted in her South Asian heritage, and in this way, she is partaking in an individual intervention against the lack of cultural diversity in the media (Khan 2016). However, Qamar’s Instagram page Hatecopy, goes one step further and also functions as a community for people to share their experiences, fostering intra-cultural and cross-cultural dialogue that can’t be achieved through the mass media alone. It is clear that Qamar’s work is highly valued both in North America and around the world – she has an Instagram following of over 100,000 users, and she often hears from fans who deeply connect with the material (Khan 2016).
“I get DM’s and messages all the time. They say, ‘this stuff is so relatable and this happens to me and my friend all the time, how did you even know?’ I just say, ‘I’ve gone through it too’… I guess we’ve all gone through it, I’m just putting these feelings into a shareable medium.”
Following her success online, Qamar has gone on to author and illustrate her own book, Trust No Aunty, which explores the experience of growing up as a South Asian girl in North America. Although the medium has changed, her goal remains largely the same: “… this book was written specifically for the South Asian diaspora — for girls like me who are figuring out how to hold onto our traditions while also navigating this new culture we’ve adopted” (Pasquarelli 2016).
This example of global media intervention can be examined in three key ways. Firstly, Hatecopy engages with the notion of “digital diaspora”, which is defined as an immigrant group or descendant that uses the media to make virtual networks “[concerning] either the homeland, the host land, or both, including its own trajectory abroad” (Laguerre 2010, p. 50). Laguerre (2010) argues that although the digital divide exists and is problematic, there are still positive aspects of digitisation that have the potential to empower diasporic communities. In this way, Qamar is both empowered by social media, and is empowering others through the platform of Instagram.
Qamar’s work also exemplifies the “spreadability” of media, a concept introduced by Jenkins, Ford & Green (2013). According to their thesis, audiences are increasingly using media texts to make their stories heard and to connect with others. Furthermore, individuals have agency within the media landscape, transforming material through production and commentary, and ultimately shaping their everyday media environment. Qamar herself mentions the “spreadable” nature of Instagram content in an interview with Lenny Letter (Aggarwal-Schifellite 2016).
“If you see something you like on Instagram, you’re going to tag your friends, you’re going to share it. It just moves well. I don’t think you get that with any other platform.”
Furthermore, while Qamar creates real and honest cultural material that is not ‘watered-down’ for the masses, she is not afraid to shy away from humour, and often satirises her own experiences. Zimbardo (2014) argues that humour has the potential to play a valuable role in normalising and challenging representation, and this is definitely true of Hatecopy. Like many other artists from south Asian descent, as well as other backgrounds, Qamar uses humour to create a dialogue around cultural representation. The importance of her work lies its ability to expand the range of identities in the media, and the attention she garners only reinforces the need for diverse and inclusive perspectives in both popular culture and the global media landscape.
Aggarwal-Schifellite, M. 2016, ‘How Instagram’s Hatecopy Speaks to the South Asian Diaspora’, Lenny, March 16, viewed August 6 2017, http://www.lennyletter.com/culture/interviews/a305/how-instagrams-hatecopy-speaks-to-the-south-asian-diaspora/
Husen, N. 2016, ‘The Desi Instagram artists tackling cultural appropriation’, Dazed, December 11, viewed August 6 2017, http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/28716/1/art-that-puts-a-kick-in-cultural-appropriation
Jenkins H 2006, Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide, New York University Press, New York
Jenkins, H Ford, S. & Green J 2013, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, NYU Press, New York
Khan, N. 2016, ‘Pakistani Hatecopy Artist Maria Qamar Shares Advice and Vision’, Brown Girl Magazine, January 6, viewed August 6 2017, http://www.browngirlmagazine.com/2016/01/pakistani-hatecopy-artist-maria-qamar-shares-advice-and-vision/
Laguerre, M 2010, ‘Digital Diaspora’, in A Alonsa & P Oiazarbal (eds.), 2010, Diasporas in the New Media Age: Identity, Politics and Community, University of Nevada Press, Nevada
Lopez, L. 2016, Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship, New York University Press, New York
Mahdawi, A. 2017, ‘From Apu to Master of None: how US pop culture tuned into the south Asian experience’, Guardian, May 10, viewed August 20 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/may/09/from-apu-to-master-of-none-how-us-pop-culture-tuned-into-the-south-asian-experience
Metykova, M 2016, Diversity and the media, Palgrave Macmillan, New York
Pasquarelli, O. 2016, ‘Why Maria Qamar turned her art into a guide for girls growing up in South Asian families’, CBC, August 4, viewed August 6 2017, http://www.cbc.ca/books/why-maria-qamar-turned-her-art-into-a-guide-for-girls-growing-up-in-south-asian-families-1.4232133
Pocratsky, B. 2017, ‘Representations of South Asian Characters in U.S. Media’, The Sociologist, blog post, May 22 2017, viewed August 19 2017, http://thesociologistdc.com/all-issues/representations-of-south-asian-characters-in-u-s-media/
Smith, S Cheiti M, Pieper K 2016, Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment, USC Annenberg, viewed August 20 2017, http://annenberg.usc.edu/pages/~/media/MDSCI/CARDReport%20FINAL%2022216.ashx
Zimbardo, Z 2014, ‘Cultural Politics of Humour in (De)Normalizing Islamophobic Stereotypes’, Islamophobia Studies Journal, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 59-81