Humanizing Stereotyped Roles on Television: Laverne Cox, Aasif Mandvi and RJ Mitte

“That’s the tricky thing about this system [capitalism and Hollywood].

It’s not about replacing bodies. It’s about changing narratives.”

-Laverne Cox

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Tonight, we saw Laverne Cox, Aasif Mandvi and RJ Mitte (of Orange is the New Black, The Daily Show and Breaking Bad respectively) at Brown University’s panel “Changing Stereotypes in Television.” They spoke about their experiences of bringing multi-dimensionality to typically stereotyped identities on television. Unique to most well-attended panels at Brown, the panelists were not all able-bodied cis-gender straight white males. In fact, none of the panelists identified as such. (*snaps to Brown Lecture Board*).

And, for the first time, Brown Lecture Board presented a panel rather than a single speaker, allowing for a multiplicity of voices and ideas. The balanced panel of humor, realness and optimism was moderated by Mary Grace Almandrez, the well-loved Director of the Third World Center and Assistant Dean of the College.

Eager to see Laverne Cox, we were the first people to arrive in the auditorium, arriving at least 40 minutes earlier than socially acceptable.

Here’s the highlight reel of quotable moments and our take on it:

  • “I am really honored to be a vessel for all of the amazing conversations that have happened because of Orange is the New Black” – Laverne Cox

    • Laverne gave a personal example of how characters on television can change ideas about under-represented identities.
  • “The inherent nature of this business is that they want to reduce you down to something they can market and can sell” – Aasif Mandvi

    • The larger problem with mainstream consumer media is the commodification and ‘boxing in’ of individuals. Oh, capitalism…
  • “We talk about the character of Piper as the ‘gateway drug’ [in order to sell the show]… The reality is, people love to see white people on television” – Laverne Cox

    • We all laughed, but we know it’s true.
  • “I’m the only person that can let me down… People will try to hold you back – but they are only trying. You let them succeed, you let them take your life… The human will is very strong.” – RJ Mitte

    • RJ Mitte on his role model: his own self-belief. Impressive personal strength and accountability!

We were delighted to see the panelists recognizing their different experiences in the acting realm as well as their different relationships towards their responsibilities in their identity communities. (Especially on the part of RJ for humbly admitting that his disability transcends boundaries of race and religion in a way that works to his advantage).

The crowd-sourced questions included: acting as a form of activism, navigating between the necessary representation of marginalized identities in the media vs. tokenization of those identities, and what viewers can do to push for more accurate representations. We were most struck by the Q&A about the role that comedy plays in perpetuating stereotypes. People that are Other-ed are often the “butt of jokes,” as put by Laverne Cox, but the panelists spoke about how a smart sense of humor, recognizing intent, and a critically engaged public can be apt tools for raising awareness.

Aasif Mandvi honestly acknowledged the limits of his reach:  “I hate to use the word ‘activism’ because I feel like what I ultimately do is basically make goofy faces standing in front of a green screen”. While that furthers conversations around representation of South-East Asians and Muslim Americans he does not dedicatedly campaign and organize around these issues. Aasif did not glorify his influence as a famous POC, but rather gave kudos to those engaging in more proactive forms of activism.

This lead to a conversation about the importance of social media in inciting change. Laverne mentioned how it was “that pushback from social media” that caused Katie Couric to publically recognize her misguided line of questioning and identify the experience as ‘a teachable moment’. In answer to a question on what we, as viewers, can do to push for more accurate representation – the takeaway was to just speak up. To voice concerns on twitter, on facebook, on instagram – to mobilize around instances of misrepresentation and call to question those in positions of public authority.

Photo by Blog Daily Herald
Photo by Blog Daily Herald

It is when under-represented identities are used to tick a box of inclusivity, that tokenizing and silencing of diverse perspectives occurs. Laverne responded to a question on how to navigate between representing identities without tokenizing them by illuminating the frustration that occurs when trans* activists are used as the token trans* voice  (even in LGBTQ communities). She acknowledged that it is a possible choice to use one’s tokenized position as a platform. Yet she made sure to underline that inclusivity for the sake of a facade of proper representation is not progressive. “The issue is if we just have someone there to say that we are being inclusive, but we’re not listening to their voice. It is a problem,” said Laverne Cox.

After all, they agreed, viewers are in a position to decide what is acceptable and unacceptable because Hollywood exists to cater to the public. We can vote with our viewership, but we can do more than that, and speak out for increased representation. Because when it comes down to it, we all want to see ourselves represented on TV, and in all major forms of media.

And, when it was all over, they all paused for a selfie before leaving the stage.

Check out our live tweets from the event:

By Anastasiya Gorodilova and Chanelle Adams

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