As immigration policy continues to be a crucial topic in the news, a new report from Define American and the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg shows the television industry still has a long way to go when representing immigrant stories in narrative series.
The report, entitled “Change the Narrative, Change the World,” finds that half of the immigrant characters on television were judged to be Latinx, with 21% judged to be white and only 12% Asian/Pacific Islander (API), 10% Middle Eastern and 7% Black. The characters were also predominantly straight and male, with women being represented in 43% of immigrant characters and LGBTQIA+ (6% — with zero transgender immigrant characters for the second year in a row).
“There are definitely some promising findings in the study, findings that provide me with hope. But there are still many areas in which immigrant representation can improve,” says Jose Antonio Vargas, founder, Define American. “The study really highlights the importance of taking an intersectional approach to inclusive storytelling. We’re still seeing undocumented Black immigrants, immigrants with disabilities, and more not receive the level and type of representation those communities deserve. And that has a real impact. For example, Black undocumented immigrants are detained and deported at higher rates than other ethnic groups. But their stories are largely left off-screen and left out of the larger narrative around immigration.”
The surge in Latinx immigration stories might have something to do with dominant news headlines about the Trump administration’s response to immigrants influencing showrunners and their writers’ rooms: the majority of characters with storylines related to immigration were Latinx (61%) and when it came to more character-driven stories, Latinx representation only made up 36%.
The most common storylines for immigrant characters are about deportation (29% of episodes), ICE (25%) and discussions about being “illegal” and/or “undocumented” (22% of episodes using the term “illegal,” 17% of episodes using the term “undocumented,” and 63% of characters with identifiable statuses overall being undocumented or asylum seekers).
“In reality, only 24% of the U.S. immigrant population is undocumented,” says Sarah Lowe, associate director, research and impact, Define American. “So what might first appear to be an exciting win — greater representation of undocumented people in television — turns out to be a little lackluster. The Latinx experience continues to carry the storyline and stereotype of predominantly representing those crossing or who have crossed without authorization at the Southern border. The border has powerful stories that need to be told but an overrepresentation in comparison to reality can give audiences a false sense of perspective.”
Additionally, 22% of immigrant characters on television are given stories that deal with crime and 10% of immigrant characters had stories associated with incarceration.
These numbers were pulled from 60% of immigrant characters that were series regulars or long-term recurring, and 40% of guest stars (appearing in fewer than five episodes).
This new report came after analyzing depictions of 129 unique immigrant characters across 97 episodes of 59 scripted narrative shows that aired between August 2018 and July 2019, with the purpose of the report also looking at how the depictions of immigrant stories on the small screen affect their audiences. After surveying 940 American adults who reported that they “occasionally viewed one episode or more of” shows with prominent immigrant storylines specifically on CBS’ “Madam Secretary,” Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” and NBC’s “Superstore,” responses showed that watching even fictional characters discuss and go through immigration issues make the viewer more likely to take action on immigrant-related issues themselves. The most prominent reason for this was that viewers “who saw the storyline most often felt empathetic, angry, sad or disgusted while watching,” the report says. (It is worth noting that the survey included viewers who identified as liberals and those who identified as conservatives, so the type of action they felt compelled to take after watching the storylines was a mixed response.)
“At Define American, we really do believe that changing the narratives in television to include nuanced portrayals of immigrants ultimately helps change our world for the better. But we wanted to be rigorous in our investigation of that belief. Especially in this moment in history, we need to know if our assumptions are correct and, if not, change them and shift our work,” says Lowe.
The aforementioned three series were selected for a deeper research dive because “in the 2018-2019 season, they all had good stories and great characters that reflected the real life conditions for undocumented people in America today,” Lowe continues. “We have consulted on multiple seasons of ‘Superstore,’ but we also know that all three shows have diverse writing staffs and consult with people who have had the lived experiences they are writing about. The addition of the survey to our research was to divide the shows’ regular viewing audiences into those that had seen the storylines and those that had not. We wanted to determine if seeing the specific immigration storylines influenced their attitudes, behavior, or knowledge in the real world. And we were reassured and inspired to see the impact it had.”
Going forward, Vargas wants “showrunners to challenge themselves and their staff to craft stories about immigrant characters that don’t reduce them to their immigration status or a charity case waiting to be saved by the citizens in their lives. Treat immigrant characters the way you would treat white, cis, citizen characters, and give them identity and conflict that isn’t exclusively defined by their immigration status or country of origin.”