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Pedro Pascal and Jenna Ortega Shouldn’t Be Exceptions in Hollywood
July 23, 2023
By Arlene Dávila
Ms. Dávila is the founding director of the Latinx Project at New York University.
Corporate America’s treatment of Latinx people as a homogeneous monolithic group, instead of the diverse demographic it is, has for decades perpetuated stereotypes of Latino authenticity. These stereotypes have disproportionately depicted Latinos on TV and in movies as Spanish speakers that hailed from Latin America and shared a particular Latin “look.”
In Hollywood, this narrative has reinforced the notion that we are a niche market that is separate from the mainstream, which could be served through the importation of programming that is cheaper to produce in Latin America over programming that is produced in the United States.
That’s why it was exciting to see Jenna Ortega and Pedro Pascal make Emmy history this month. For the first time two Latino actors were nominated in the lead acting category in the same year, for the hit shows “Wednesday” and “The Last of Us.”
Though Latinx people make up 19 percent of the U.S. population, they account for less than 5 percent of actors cast in speaking roles in the nation’s top-grossing films. Additionally, representation in the media industry as a whole stands at a mere 12 percent, with the majority of positions being service oriented, like cleaning services and security. These numbers have remained stagnant for decades, which is outrageous when you consider that they make up nearly half the population of Los Angeles County.
Why has the media industry been so unwilling to acknowledge and address this growing demographic of potential viewers and consumers?
Latinx creatives have told me that many executives in Hollywood don’t understand why they are outraged by how few Latinx people appear in films and television shows. After all, there is already a variety of streaming offerings from Latin America and Spain. But there is a profound difference between these markets.
We wouldn’t mistake the experience of Indigenous Mexicans living in Mexico for the experience of a fifth-generation Chicana. This is why many in the industry are identifying as Latinx — a term that signals gender inclusivity and recognition of our racial and ethnic diversity — to call attention to a pattern of exclusion of Latinx writers and creators that are representing the U.S. experience.
The globalization of Spanish language media has only widened the existing gaps between the robust development of movies and shows produced in Latin America and the limited opportunities for Latinx writers, directors and showrunners in the United States. In recent decades, Latin American media companies have benefited from investments from American streaming conglomerates like Netflix, the lower costs of producing and importing programming in Latin America and investments by governments in the region that support their film industries.
While streaming platforms offer a wealth of series and films from Spain and Latin America, there is a lack of representation of stories written by Latinx people that reflect their experiences. While actors and writers from Latin America have had the opportunity to expand their résumés with credits from global serials produced by platforms like Netflix, am*zon and Max, Latinx actors and audiences have fewer roles to choose from. The leads cast in series like “Wednesday” and the “Last of Us” are rare exceptions.
Research shows that in the United States, Latinx actors are often cast in the roles of lower-class characters, criminals or immigrants. The gap is wider still for Afro-Latinos. In shows produced in Latin America, the majority of actors cast as leads and heroines are blond and white, while darker-skinned actors are often relegated to secondary roles, housekeepers or criminals, if they are represented at all. Additionally, Latinx writers face extra barriers when entering a shrinking industry, as highlighted by the writers’ strike.
The few productions that have been written or created by Latinx people and have represented our communities in real and personal ways have been canceled after a few seasons. When shows like “Gentefied,” “Vida” and the “Gordita Chronicles” were shut down despite positive reviews, writers and fans alike were left wondering why. In the age of streaming, algorithm-driven decisions make it difficult to determine what counts as success with transparency, especially when algorithms are biased against new content.
Latinx audiences remain avid consumers of films, TV and other media, even if they don’t see themselves reflected. Some may question why media conglomerates should change and invest in original content and programming or cast Latinx actors and writers when the cheaper importation-based model is so profitable and seemingly successful. Yet they should evolve because those formulas have historically left Latinx audiences mostly untapped. There are generations of talented scriptwriters, producers and filmmakers who have been underutilized and countless rich stories and ideas that have yet to be told. Film and TV that represent the experience of Latinx communities in the United States enrich the media ecosystem by offering a more accurate representation of American demographics.
Additionally, we must address the negative impacts of the media’s import-heavy formula for Latinx audiences, which limits opportunities and perpetuates the perception of Latinx people as foreigners rather than fellow Americans deserving equal visibility on television and movie screens.
It’s worth noting that Latinx people are not the only group excluded by the globalization of streaming. That Ms. Ortega and Mr. Pascal received recognition raises the question of whether we have reached a crucial turning point. It’s worth considering how we can leverage the current SAG-AFTRA and W.G.A. strikes to also address issues of representation and investment in productions that will provide working opportunities for Latinx actors, writers and showrunners alongside matters of pay equity for media workers.
Finally, it is time to consider the global appeal of entertainment featuring Latinx actors. I want to see more roles for actors like Ariana DeBose, the first Afro-Latina to win an Oscar, for a supporting role in “West Side Story,” and productions by filmmakers and MacArthur “genius grant” awardees Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra, among many other outstanding Latinx creatives.
I often wonder what it would look like if Hollywood dared to recognize that Latinx talent is not an exception.
Arlene Dávila, the founding director of the Latinx Project at New York University, is the author of “Latinx Art: Artists, Markets and Politics.”
The recently released Barbie movie has provided an opportunity for a bipartisan coalition of commentators and elected officials to see value in its dissection.Credit...Kenny Holston/The New York Times, Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters, Jim Wilson/The New York Times, Alex Brandon/Associated Press, Warner Bros. Pictures via Associated Press
‘Barbie’ Movie Gives Left and Right Another Battlefront, in Pink
Political figures of all types grabbed for the legs of a doll-turned-movie-turned-cultural moment, with predictable results.
By Matt Flegenheimer and Marc Tracy
Last week, Representative Matt Gaetz and his wife, Ginger, arrived at a Washington reception for “Barbie” in matching pink, grinning in photos along the “pink carpet,” mingling among guests sipping pink cocktails, admiring a life-size pink toy box.
They left with political ammunition.
“The Barbie I grew up with was a representation of limitless possibilities, embracing diverse careers and feminine empowerment,” Mrs. Gaetz wrote on Twitter. “The 2023 Barbie movie, unfortunately, neglects to address any notion of faith or family, and tries to normalize the idea that men and women can’t collaborate positively (yuck).”
When another account scolded Mr. Gaetz, the hard-right and perpetually stunt-seeking Florida congressman, for attending the event at all — citing the casting of a trans actor as a doctor Barbie — Mr. Gaetz replied with a culture-warring double feature.
“If you let the trans stop you from seeing Margo Robbie,” he said, leaving the “T” off the first name of the film’s star, “the terrorists win.”
The non-terroristic winners were many after the film’s estimated $155 million debut: Ms. Robbie and Greta Gerwig, the film’s director, finding an eager audience for their pink-hued feminist opus; the Warner Bros. marketing team, whose ubiquitous campaigns plainly paid off; the film industry itself, riding “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” to its most culturally dominant weekend in years.
But few outcomes were as nominally inexplicable (and probably inevitable) as the film’s instant utility to political actors and opportunists of all kinds. For a modern take on what was long a politically fraught emblem of toxic body image and reductive social norms, no choice was too small, no turn too ideology-affirming or apparently nefarious, for a bipartisan coalition of commentators and elected officials to see value in its dissection.
“I have, like, pages and pages of notes,” Ben Shapiro, the popular conservative commentator, said in a lengthy video review, which began with him setting a doll aflame and did not grow more charitable. (He said his producers “dragged” him to the theater.)
“I took a tequila shot every time Barbie said patriarchy … only just woke up,” wrote Elon Musk. (Mr. Shapiro, diligently but less colorfully, said he had counted the word “more than 10 times.”)
“Here are 4 ways Barbie embraces California values,” the office of Gavin Newsom, the state’s Democratic governor, wrote in a thread hailing Barbie as a champion of climate activism, “hitting the roads in her electric vehicle,” and of destigmatizing mental health care.
If there was a time in the culture when a giant summer film event was something of an American unifier — a moment to share over-buttered popcorn through big-budget shoot-’em-ups and sagas of insatiable sharks — that time is not 2023.
And, as ever, the political class’s performative investment in “Barbie” — the outrage and the embrace — can seem mostly like a winking bit.
What to make of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Democrat of Michigan, posting a Barbie meant to resemble herself beside the Instagram caption, “Come on Barbie, let’s go govern”?
What does it mean, exactly, when Senator Raphael Warnock, Democrat of Georgia, says of himself, “This Ken is pushing to end maternal mortality”?
Certainly, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, has summoned practiced gravity in accusing “Barbie” of working to appease the Chinese. (Some Republicans have fixated on a scene that features a crudely drawn map that supposedly depicts the so-called nine-dash line, which indicates Chinese ownership of oceanic territory that is disputed under international law. Vietnam has banned showings of the movie in the country over that image.)
“Obviously, the little girls that are going to see Barbie, none of them are going to have any idea what those dashes mean,” Mr. Cruz told Fox News. “This is really designed for the eyes of the Chinese censors, and they’re trying to kiss up to the Chinese Communist Party because they want to make money selling the movie.”
The response on the right is not a one-off. For a generation of conservative personalities, weaned on Andrew Breitbart’s much-cited observation that “politics is downstream of culture,” Hollywood and other ostensibly liberal bastions are to be confronted head-on, lest their leanings ensnare young voters without a fight.
Recent years have provided ample evidence, some on the right say, for a “go woke, go broke” view that progressivism is bad business. Last year’s apolitically patriotic “Top Gun: Maverick” was a smashing success, as was this year’s kid-friendly “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” By contrast, critics on the right contended that Disney’s remake of “The Little Mermaid,” with its title character portrayed by the Black actress Halle Bailey, failed to match its producers’ hopes. (Of course, there is no way to trace exactly what determines any movie’s success or failure, and many observers adhere to the screenwriter William Goldman’s axiom: “Nobody knows anything.”)
“Barbie” cannot be said to have gone broke. But its purported politics, conservatives have argued, did damage it by making it less entertaining — “a lecture,” in the words of The Federalist’s Rich Cromwell, “that self-identifies as a movie.”
Kyle Smith, a reviewer at The Wall Street Journal, complained that the film “contains more swipes at ‘the patriarchy’ than a year’s worth of Ms. magazine.”
The film seems at times (gentle spoiler alert) to be engaging with “the patriarchy” ironically, infusing it with knowing Southern California vapidity, décor that seems inspired by hair metal and a heavy emphasis on weight lifting and “brewskis.”
When it comes time (less gentle spoiler alert) to reclaim Barbie Land, the Barbies distract the Kens by indulging their tendency for exaggerated gestures of malehood like playing acoustic guitar and insisting on showing a date “The Godfather” while talking over it.
Mr. Shapiro has sounded unconvinced that the movie is broadly in on its own jokes.
“The actual argument the movie is making is that if women enjoy men, it’s because they have been brainwashed by the patriarchy,” he said in his review.
He called the film, with a straight face, two hours he will rue wasting as he sits on his deathbed.
“The things I do,” he said, “for my audience.”
Anjali Huynh contributed reporting.
Matt Flegenheimer is a reporter covering national politics. He started at The Times in 2011 on the Metro desk covering transit, City Hall and campaigns. More about Matt Flegenheimer
Marc Tracy is a reporter on the Culture desk. More about Marc Tracy