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‘Real people’ crucial for TV, speakers say

Characters of different races, gender identities and abilities promote understanding, panel says

“People don’t go to movies to see you, they go to movies to see themselves,” said “Orange is the New Black” star Laverne Cox. This truism suggests the need for more relatable TV characters, representing a wide range of human experiences, she said.

Cox, along with television stars Aasif Mandvi and RJ Mitte, questioned social norms in media in front of an enthusiastic Salomon 101 audience Sunday night, discussing their own transcendence of stereotypes and the work that still remains to be done.

Mandvi plays a foreign correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” providing satirical insight into the experiences of Muslims and South Asians in America. Cox plays Sophia Burset, a transgender woman in a female prison, on the Netflix series. Mitte, who has mild cerebral palsy, portrays Walter White Jr., son of the meth-making protagonist, on “Breaking Bad,” which won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 2013.

When questioned by the panelists, audience members confirmed with raucous applause that they had seen the three series.

Director of the Third World Center and Assistant Dean of the College Mary Grace Almandrez moderated the panel ­— hosted by Brown Lecture Board — directing student-submitted questions to the actors for 45 minutes before moving on to an audience question-and-answer portion.

Almandrez’s first question immediately shifted the focus from the speakers’ roles as television stars to their work as activists — work the three have taken on by raising awareness about marginalized groups through their TV characters.

“I was a transgender person who was very interested in talking about transgender in the media … and ‘Orange is the New Black’ has given me a bigger platform,” Cox said.

“People don’t think about wheelchairs and those kinds of things,” Mitte said, noting that viewers do not often consider the daily lives of people different from themselves.

Mandvi, in his typical comedic fashion, initially deflected the question. “I got into acting to sleep with girls,” he said, before adding that being portrayed as the “Senior Brown Correspondent” or “Muslim Correspondent” on the political satire program thrust activism upon him.

“I hate to use the term activism because there are people who are out there risking their lives as activists, and I’m just making goofy faces in front of a green screen,” Mandvi said. But ultimately the widespread publicity of the show allows it to promote understanding and tolerance, he added.

Cox told a story about a woman she met in Canada. The woman told her watching Cox’s character in “Orange is the New Black” allowed her to start a conversation with her partner about being transgender.

Writers and producers play a critical role in enabling TV shows to confront stereotypes that may be associated with characters of certain races, religions or abilities, panelists said.

“Tokenization is the difference between writing someone who is an ethnicity as opposed to a human being,” Mandvi said. “I would go and read for a South Asian character and say to the casting director, ‘I’m glad you wrote a role for a South Asian character — it’s unfortunate you’ve never met a South Asian.”

Writers create characters based on “what they think a person is like, and they don’t have any clue,” Mitte said. “I’ve learned if you are a good enough actor, you can take what they wrote to try to box you in and use it as leverage to transcend the stereotypes,” he said, adding that he has never had that problem with “Breaking Bad,” as writer Vince Gilligan focuses on creating characters who are realistic people.

Even on “Orange is the New Black,” a show that transcends the need for central male characters, social norms still influence the production process, Cox said. The protagonist, a white woman who finds herself incarcerated with black, lesbian and transgender women, was described by the producers as a “gateway drug” for audiences into this world, Cox said. “It’s unfortunate that the media needs that.”

Mandvi quipped, “People love white people on television. They’re easier to light.” He added, “The inherent nature of this business is that (Hollywood producers) want to reduce you down to an idea that they can market and sell.”

This profit-driven system often cuts actors out of the decision-making process. Actors can try to elevate compromising material beyond the level of tokenism, but ultimately having characters representing real people “starts with the script, and the director needs to be on board,” Cox said.

Mandvi is involved in the creative process of “The Daily Show,” due to the sketch-style segments and his “expertise” on situations related to Muslims and South Asians, he said.

But Mandvi’s situation is unusual for actors, Cox noted.

The speakers discussed the choice actors often face between accepting a role in an unstable job environment or passing on it because it is not something they want to represent.

“I used to bring a lot of complexity when I would say, 'Get out of my cab,’” Mandvi joked. “It’s a personal choice. You have to pay the rent.”

The power to destroy the need for stereotypes within Hollywood, all three maintained, lies in the hands of viewers. “Hollywood is a business, and they ultimately are creating what people will watch and demand to see. It’s up to you guys,” Cox said.

The actors were optimistic about television’s direction, partially due to advancements in social media.

“What’s great about this day and age is that with social media you have the power to push back” against inequalities, Cox said, relating a recent incident in which Katie Couric’s interview with Cox and another transgender woman sparked Internet outrage over the “objectification” in Couric’s line of questioning, which focused on the physicality of transitioning.

With such public platforms, users intent on social justice are fighting back against obvious intolerance, Mitte said. “If you are that hateful person, people will see you for that and throw you out on the street,” he said.

Cox asked the crowd how many people had cable, eliciting only a few hand raises, before asking how many people had Netflix, to which the vast majority of hands shot up.

She expressed hope that this shifting landscape toward television that does not rely on advertising will spark the creation of more “profound human characters” with whom audiences can identify regardless of race, gender or ability.


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