The lack of diversity in mainstream media has never been more hotly debated than now. From the widespread outrage over whitewashing in films like “Ghost in the Shell” and “Aloha” to Joaquin Phoenix’s speech at the 2020 BAFTAs where he noted that Hollywood “send[s] a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here,” viewers and members of the industry alike have finally taken it upon themselves to challenge the media’s long-held perception of what a marketable person looks and sounds like.
But as with every large-scale movement rooted in the intent to better society, there are those who trivialize its cause by making superficial and often unsettling adjustments to their content in order to label it “diverse.” Films and other forms of mainstream media often include words in other languages to supposedly boost authenticity — a practice that, when executed poorly, leaves viewers feeling uncomfortable at best and appropriated at worst. Even our favorite childhood Disney films and their modern day live-action remakes and adaptations often make use of this strategy. “Beauty and the Beast” — both the animated classic and the live-action remake — is set in France but features little to no French apart from the occasional “bonjour” to remind the audiences of the setting.
Novelist Jeanine Cummins, who has described herself and her family as mostly white “in every practical way,” faced similar backlash for her controversial new release “American Dirt” about Mexican migrants. The novel was lauded with praise by household literary names like Stephen King and John Grisham, was one of Oprah’s book club picks and was even hailed as a “‘The Grapes of Wrath’ for our time.” While she attempted to convey a harrowing, raw tale about immigrant experience, augmented by Spanish words and phrases, Cummins ended up presenting a narrative that left many Latinx readers uncomfortable. Writer Myriam Gurba said, “‘American Dirt’ fails to convey any Mexican sensibility. It aspires to be Día de los Muertos but it, instead, embodies Halloween.” An L.A. Times review of the novel called Cummins’ use of Spanish “stiff sentences that sound like Dora the Explorer teaching a toddler.” Words in foreign languages, though touted as a sign of the improving state of diverse representation in media, are rarely used in a meaningful manner that contributes to a narrative. They simply act as an easy way for media creatives to add an intriguing, authentic backdrop and play it off as an inclusive effort to play second fiddle to the true main character, English.
The issue arises when these efforts of diversification display a clear lack of effort or research, with accents botched by clearly non-native speakers and language conveyed in its most stereotypical form. These errors often betray a lack of respect for the community being portrayed, despite trying to sell their content as authentic samples of communication, media and entertainment ultimately deliver a depiction or representation. Languages other than English are too often used in media as “flavor,” something meant to attract the viewer’s attention and, in the current climate where many view diversity as a selling point, an additional bonus that enables the creators to pose as socially conscious creatives intending to produce a message of authenticity. This line of thinking in and of itself is flawed — authenticity of language is determined not only by the words that are spoken, but also by whom and in which context. By sprinkling bits and pieces of language in content simply for effect, and additionally often giving these dialogues to non-native speakers, the media proves they are not interested in using languages other than English to convey any actual information or move a story forward — they only intend to embrace the language when it is convenient for them, often as cringeworthy moments of comic relief or sincere but failed attempts at representation.
And yet, this same trivial treatment is not reciprocated when English is the language in question. Depictions of broken English are at most mildly accented, and often not even that — no matter how comfortable the character is meant to be with the language. And while foreign films may make use of English, there is typically a purpose to such additions beyond just adding “texture.” Much of this staggering inequality stems from the fact that, in the Eurocentric world we unfortunately still live in, the deep-seated effects of imperialism are still felt — exemplified in the arena of the written and spoken word. A 2016 study by the World Economic Forum published a “Power Language Index” meant to rank languages based on which allowed speakers to “best engage in life from a global perspective” gave English a score of 0.889, placing it at more than twice as powerful as Mandarin, the next closest language. The world expects people to understand and communicate in English, and the media epitomizes this burdensome belief by treating languages apart from it as tokens to add superficial legitimacy to their content.
True diversity cannot arise from the now accepted practice of choosing a cultural flavor of the month to represent disingenuously and perfunctorily through a few mumbled phrases of a language. Mainstream media must wake up to the countless ways in which the ever-present lack of diversity is manifested today, beyond casting choices and Oscar nominations. Fixing these glaring gaps in our acceptance is crucial — but it will take a rallied effort, a cultural shift and an overturning of our historically entrenched perceptions of global dynamics to replicate the true diversity that exists in our world on our screens.