Role models matter. We look up to them. We want to be like them. Growing up, though, I didn’t really have any.
During lockdown, I’m rewatching a lot of TV shows from my youth. It’s noticeable how few of the leading characters are anything other than white, male and straight.
Women got pretty short shrift. Laverne and Shirley, Cagney and Lacey, Juliet Bravo and The Gentle Touch stood out because their female protagonists were so rare.
Even then, all of these leading ladies were white.
Black characters on TV and in film were mostly either villains or jive-talking stereotypes. Starsky and Hutch‘s Huggy Bear, say, or The A-Team‘s B A Baracus. I’m struggling to remember a black lead character on mainstream TV before the mid-1980s, The Cosby Show and Miami Vice.
As for Oriental characters, these pretty much fell into one of three stereotypes: martial artists (Bruce Lee), mobsters and villains (Oddjob, countless police procedurals) or takeaway owners. And even when the hero of a TV series – Kung Fu – was a Shaolin monk, he was played by a white American actor, David Carradine.
As for LGBTQ+ characters, that was a complete non-starter.
It was the same in so many other walks of life too. Top sportspeople tended to be white – at least, the ones with big celebrity profiles were. Politics was a bastion of white maleness. Ditto business.
Where were my role models?
As a result, growing up as a Malaysian-Chinese, I didn’t have any heroes from my culture. At the time, the thought never really occurred to me. It was just how things were.
I was racking my brains recently for an Oriental role model other than Bruce Lee. The best I managed was an obscure BBC police drama from the early 1980s called The Chinese Detective.
I recall this caused quite a stir in the Chinese community because it was a unique occurrence. I also remember that the show did tackle issues such as racism and discrimination too. Pretty ground-breaking stuff for the time.
However, one Oriental lead is a pretty scant return from my childhood, isn’t it?
Better representation means more role models for everyone
While we’re a long way from true equality – as the Black Lives Matter movement has so recently illustrated – things have improved between my childhood and my kids’. As progressive as Friends was in other ways, there is no way today you would commission an ensemble show comprising six white heterosexual leads. Although I remain cynical that casting calls for shows often represent something of a box-ticking exercise. Got to have the black character, and the gay one, and …
Having said that, it no longer raises an eyebrow to see a same-sex couple in a soap. That made front-page headlines when EastEnders did it in the late 1980s. Batwoman is openly gay. Supergirl is a female-led show which includes both gay and transexual characters. It even devoted an entire season arc to addressing the topical issue of discrimination against (alien) immigrants and refugees.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, one of my favourite comedies, is particularly noteworthy here. Its ensemble includes not one but two black characters. There are two Latinos. And two who are LGBTQ+. This enables those characters to be defined by more than the box they tick. Raymond Holt is a police captain who happens to be gay, as opposed to being the gay police captain. Amy Santaigo is defined more by her OCD personality than her ethnic background. And so on. They even did a story – yes, an episode of a comedy show – that focussed on how one of the team became a victim of racial profiling.
The bottom line is this: it now jars if a show doesn’t have a representative, multi-ethnic, diverse cast. This is a good thing. There remains a long way to go – as the Me Too movement showed – but we have definitely made progress.
What our kids see
Our kids are thoroughly modern. They don’t label people by their skin colour. But they are hyper-aware of the importance of equality and non-discrimination in their world, far more so than I ever was at their age. They can watch two men kissing on TV and regard it as perfectly normal. We can discuss why Black Panther was such a culturally significant film. Kara can (and does) treat Mulan as a role model because she ethnically identifies with her. I still wish she had more Oriental role models, but at least she has plenty of female ones to look up to in a way girls of my generation didn’t.
Maybe one day we’ll get to the point where every minority group is appropriately represented in entertainment, sport, business and every other field a child might aspire to excel in. Maybe our grandchildren will be spoilt for choice when it comes to finding role models they can relate to. Wouldn’t that be great?