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Representation of immigrant characters continues to be a work in progress, according to the third study between the immigrant culture change organization Define American and the USC Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project.
Over the past two television seasons, representation of Black and Asian Pacific Islander (API) immigrant characters at least doubled, but that coincided with a drop in Latino representation from half of all immigrant characters to just 34%. That underrepresents the actual proportion of U.S. immigrants who are Latino, which is 44%. On the other hand, API immigrant characters’ 27% share (up from 12% in 2020) is now proportionate with reality. (However, this is primarily because of an increase in Asian characters; Pacific Islanders continue to be marginalized within the umbrella identity.)
The new report, which builds on findings released in October 2018 and September 2020, analyzed 167 characters across 169 episodes of 79 scripted series that aired or streamed between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2022.
Whereas the number of immigrant characters associated with crime dropped in 2020, the trend has rebounded and is now higher than ever, even though immigrants in real life statistically commit less crime than native-born citizens. The 2018 study found that 34% of immigrant characters on TV were associated with crime (as perpetrators, witnesses and/or victims), a rate that dropped to 22% two years later. But now, 42% of the immigrant characters on TV appeared on crime shows and procedurals, six times more than in 2020.
On the other hand, the 2022 report observed “slight but notable improvements” in intersectionality of immigrant representation, highlighting five characters with disabilities (up from three in 2020), three undocumented Black characters and two transgender characters (up from none in 2020).
The researchers also examined how narrative portrayals of immigrant characters shaped audience perceptions of and attitudes toward immigrants in real life through surveying 1,272 U.S. TV viewers, including comparing more than 500 viewers each of select titles with prominent immigrant characters with an equivalent sample of viewers who did not watch that particular show.
Viewers of CBS’ Bob Hearts Abishola felt a strong parasocial connection to Abishola, the Nigerian immigrant female lead (played by Folake Olowofoyeku) of the Gina Yashere-created sitcom. The sense of friendship corresponded with a likelihood to agree that immigrants are valuable contributors to society.
Viewers of Fox’s The Cleaning Lady, which depicts a Cambodian doctor (played by Elodie Yung) who comes to the U.S. seeking medical treatment for her son but gets caught up in organized crime, reported that the drama helped increase their understanding of what ICE raids and immigration detention centers are like.
And viewers of Netflix’s Never Have I Ever – about a teenage girl navigating high school and love triangles and living with her immigrant mother, grandmother and cousin – also felt a parasocial connection to the mother character, Nalini, which led to an increased likelihood to support increased U.S. immigration, even when they had limited real-life experiences with immigrants.
“Define American’s research is showing how characters like Nalini can actually help people to be more understanding toward immigrant experiences,” said Poorna Jagannathan, who plays Nalini, in a statement. “When you invite a three-dimensional character like Nalini into your home through your TV, you certainly are inviting someone who is different than you. But instead of focusing on those differences, you start looking for the commonalities: like the challenges of raising a teenager, or empathizing over the grief in losing a loved one, or reflecting on being a single parent. Audiences are creating relationships with these characters that are then informing how they’re interacting with immigrants in real life. There is more empathy, understanding and nuance to these interactions, and that is such a powerful thing.”
Olowofoyeku, Yashere, The Cleaning Lady creator Miranda Kwok and Linda Yvette Chavez, creator of Netflix’s Gentefied, also reflected on the importance and findings of the new Define American report below:
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