During acts of violence in the United States, we tend to racialize the perpetrator and stereotype their motives. However, a white active shooter’s race is never part of the headline. Their motives are humanized as we lament on the poor mental health services of the US. Of course, anyone who commits mass murder suffers from mental health issues, yet white shooters’ racial or ethnic group isn’t part of the dominant conversation.
As a constant criticizer of how race and gender are handled in US media, watching a US-made TV shows is always a multi-layered experience. On one hand, I admire the work producers and actors put into a well-told story. The cinematographic aspect of filmmaking is one of my favorite parts of watching stories on screen. I absolutely love the intriguing build-up in HoC, and appreciate Frank breaking the fourth wall to intimately catch us up. On the other hand, TV is also a microcosm of our current society. The choices made reflect the values of the creators and producers, and influence our understanding of reality. While the credits rolled on the first episode, I noticed the majority of the names sounded white. Then, I checked myself, and thought about the millions of people of color in the US with “white-sounding” last names, and held my criticism. While I researched the diversity of the cast, I found out Latin-American character Linda Vásquez is played by Indian-American actress Sakina Jaffrey.
Before we move on, it’s important to note Sakina Jaffrey presented us with an excellent, albeit white-washed, performance as Chief of Staff. This isn’t a critique on her. If the character was written about an Indian-American, I would feel nothing but utter excitement to see a woman of color play a prestigious position on a wildly famous show. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.
By casting a non-Latina for their role of Chief of Staff, HoC is saying one of two things: no qualified Latinas exist for the role, or they are not prioritizing to find one. According to Couture Rani, actress Sakina Jaffrey was Executive Producer David Fincher’s first choice for the role of Vásquez, which, if it’s true, answers our question. They neither prioritized hiring a Latina actress nor found anything wrong with casting a non-Latina to play one. Their decision sheds light on the politics of interchangeable brownface, which on some level is different than a white person playing a Latina, but it’s the same degree of wrong. More importantly, the malrepresentation of a group of people affects public perception and strengthens prejudices.
On the very first episode, Underwood introduces Linda Vásquez as the White House Chief of Staff, “She’s a woman, check. She’s Latina, check. But more important than that, she’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.” Clearly, being a woman of Hispanic heritage is important to the fictional story, but what does casting a non-Latina say about those behind House of Cards?
Here are four issues/critiques stemming from the casting decision:
Perpetuance of a Negative Latina Actress Stereotype
Without any research, I can think of a couple of Latina actresses off the top of my head who would have fit perfectly into the role of Linda Vásquez. Lauren Velez (LaGuerta on Dexter) and Sara Ramirez (Dr. Torres on Grey’s Anatomy) have excellently portrayed powerful women on TV. Latinas are usually seen in the media as quiet, subservient maids; sultry, gold-digging mistresses; or as SNL’s skit showed, as ignorant, sex-driven loudmouths. Casting a non-Latina for the Chief of Staff role perpetuates the myth that capable Latina actresses aren’t available to fill complex and powerful roles.
Superficial Cultural Understanding
If they were set on Sakina Jaffrey to play the role, why didn’t they just write the Chief of Staff as an Indian-American woman? Why is it so necessary to have the character be Latina, when faced with the possibility of not having a Latina play the role? Is it too far-fetched to have an Indian-American woman in a powerful position?
Latinos make up the second largest ethnic group in the United States. It’s reasonable to place a Latina in a powerful position in Congress. There’s a social responsibility, or a “checklist” as the show describes, to having a Latin American woman as Chief of Staff. In that case, does social responsibility only hold on a fictional show? Is there no responsibility to the poorly represented Latin American actresses?
The makers of the show believe it’s more important to portray the story as culturally responsive, rather than actually integrating it into their hiring practices. Part of being culturally responsible is to acknowledge different groups and forgo mix-and-match games as a means to an end. House of Cards is superficially responsive, placing their needs above culturally ethical practices.
“It’s Not Visibly Shocking So It Must Be Okay”
There’s a clear and strong consensus against impersonating a black person or an asian person on screen. How I Met Your Mother was met with an outrage of criticism earlier this year when they aired an episode co-opting different aspects of Asian cultures. The internet flipped, not only because it’s not okay, but because it’s visibly not okay. However, Latinx appropriation is less obvious because we’re an ethnic group made up of any combination of races. Stick an ambiguously dark-featured person and call them Linda, or María, or Carlos, and you’re set. The shock level is significantly less than when someone does blackface, but that does not make it any less offensive. The same violation is occurring: someone outside of the culture, unaware of the lived experiences of a marginalized group of people, is pretending to be a member of that group, while simultaneously stealing a role that doesn’t belong to them. It’s one hundred percent morally wrong and offensive, even if it’s easy to get away with it due to the racial diversity of the Latinx community.
A Missed Opportunity
Media representation has significant effects, not only on those being misrepresented, but on those in the dominant group who depend on media portrayals to shape their understanding. It’s particularly important for people who experience low levels of representation and high levels of stereotyping. On screen, Latinxs are usually portrayed as maids, mistresses, gardeners, or thugs. Linda Vasquéz could have been a small victory for Latinxs and an educational moment for those with limited understanding of us. House of Cards robbed the Latinx community and the Indian-American community of an adequate victory. Instead, we were substituted for one another and given a consolation prize.
Some may argue that the point of acting is to take different roles and changeable characteristics and make them your own. Race and ethnicity are not one of these wearable roles. It’s wrong to perform blackface or yellowface, and it’s certainly wrong to perform (interchangeable) brownface. Treating race/ethnicity as a wearable trait was decided for us long before we thought we had the right to speak up. It’s always been wrong, and will continue to be wrong, to benefit from cultures while the owners are pushed to the side. It’s detrimental and downright offensive when a non-Latina gets the recognition, fame, and money for portraying one on screen. A brown Latin-American woman and a brown Indian-American woman are not interchangeable.
We switched over to VoIP phones at work and recently set up my new voicemail. I never set up the old machine, or any voicemail ever, where I had to say my last name. I usually only say my first name on my personal line.
I found myself re-recording & listening to my name at least 10-15 times. I switched between the Spanish and English pronunciation of Villarreal. I was quick to give up any accents, written or verbal, on my name as I started learning English and acculturating to the United States. The less ethnic my name sounded, the more likely I was to be accepted. Now, years later, when I’m no longer ashamed to be different, and hold much pride in my Latin@ culture, I find myself wanting to embrace it more and more. Part of me wanted to leave the Spanish pronunciation and part of me knew recording the English version would be easier and more comfortable for everyone. I find myself in a similar situation in many moments throughout my days, straddling Latin@ and U.S. values, melding them, and making them my own. With that same spirit in mind, by the nth-teen time, I recorded my last name in Spanglish, blending two of my identities into something unique and personal: Villarreal (vil-uh-rrhe-al).