In the moving acceptance speech she delivered after winning the Emmy for the lead role in a drama, Viola Davis succinctly summed up the problem facing women of color in the television industry. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” she said. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Davis has deservedly been championed across the press and social media for her speech, which went on to cite the trailblazing work of other black actresses and industry figures who she says redefined what it means “to be a leading woman, to be black.”
As challenging as it is for black women to find roles, there’s another group of women her words apply to who are even less visible on television. While black women accounted for 13% of female characters on prime-time television this year, Latinas made up just 4%, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film (pdf).
Yet Latinos are actually the largest minority group in the US, accounting for about 17% of the population, compared to 13% for black Americans.
These statistics don’t diminish Davis’s point. Black women most certainly are still underrepresented, as are other minorities. Women overall get only 40% of speaking roles on all broadcast, cable, and Netflix programs, according to the report. So although the proportion of black female characters looks like it matches the percentage of the US population that’s black, black women (and all women) are starting at a disadvantage because overall they have a smaller piece of the pie.
But the numbers show that the problem is even more acute when it comes to Latinas, and the Latino population in general. Earlier this year, an AP analysis of regular cast members in prime-time shows on the major networks—ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox—found that “only Fox and ABC have Latino representation of as much as 10 percent.”
That was true even though many of the networks had clearly begun taking diversity into consideration, increasing their number of black cast members. The analysis noted that “ABC, NBC and Fox now have a higher percentage of blacks in prime time than there is in the general population—a significant change over 1999.”
Notably, Latino representation on TV in the US has actually declined over the few past decades, even as the Latino population has grown. The situation is especially pronounced when it comes to leading roles. A large-scale study (pdf) released last year by Columbia University in collaboration with Hispanic advocacy groups found that, in the 1950s—the decade when Nielsen ratings were introduced—Latinos were about 2.8% of the population and yet accounted for 3.9% of the top leading roles on TV. By the 1980s, Latinos were nearly 7.7% of the population and held no leading roles.
To be sure, there have been some notable roles played by Latinos in recent years. America Ferrera was the lead in the show Ugly Betty, which lasted four years until it ended in 2010, and Eva Longoria had a major role on Desperate Housewives until its last episode aired in 2012. (With the loss of those two shows, however, by 2013, Latinos again played no leading roles, despite reaching 17% of the population.)
Currently, Gina Rodriguez stars in Jane The Virgin, which debuted last year, Sofia Vergara has won over fans and critics with her character on Modern Family, and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black features several Latina characters.
Sure, that’s progress, as Rodriguez, the Golden Globe-winning star of Jane the Virgin told the Associated Press, but it was hard-won. “Ten years ago, when I was looking at that screen and didn’t see myself at all, I knew there was no place [for me],” she said. “Or I was too out of the box, too much of a risk.”
These roles for women also point to another shift in how Latinos are depicted on TV. Despite the gender gap that favors men in television, Latino men have vanished from sight while Latina actresses have become relatively more prevalent. Between 2010 and 2013, the report found, Latina women played 11.8% of female supporting roles, while Latino men made up just 4.9% of supporting male roles. The trend was similar when it came to leading roles. “The current gender economy suggests that media decision-makers view Latinas as more culturally desirable than Latino men,” the report noted.
The researchers also looked at the way Latinos were represented in mainstream television and film. Latina women, it concluded, tended to be highly sexualized, or they were maids. Sometimes they were both, as in the Lifetime drama Devious Maids.
Latino men, on the other hand, were often blue-collar workers or criminals.
“The consequences of this gap are far-reaching,” the report states. Broadly speaking, it skews public perception of who Latinos are and what US society actually looks like. “It also sanctions hostility toward the country’s largest minority, which has already become the majority in many cities, including the media capitals of Miami and Los Angeles.”
Clearly the television industry needs more black women like Viola Davis in leading roles. But the numbers prove it needs more Latino actors in those roles as well.