Master of None: Combatting The Negative Effects of Cultivation

In Dana Mastro’s article “Effects of Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping” in Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research; Third Edition, she posits that “images of race/ethnicity on television not only have the potential to provide (mis)information about who racial/ethnic minorities are, but additionally offer evidence to corroborate (mis)perceptions regarding why they should be viewed in a certain way” (Mastro, 326). Television is an extremely powerful medium. It has the ability to shape our perceptions of society and culture as a whole as well as tell us where we – as a race, ethnicity, gender, age group, or sexual orientation – fit into the broader cultural sphere. On television, we are able to see fabricated depictions of reality that distort actuality and present us with an image of the world that can infect our minds and shape our views of culture as a whole. The idea of the social theory of “cultivation” is that television is an extremely influential medium – and while it may not change our direct actions and behaviors in the real world, it can shape our perceptions of reality (which in turn can alter our behaviors, ideas, and cultural values). For example, if we are constantly inundated with depictions of violent crime on television, we may not actively commit violent crimes in an attempt to mirror the content but we may believe the world to be an overall more violent place. And when we believe that there is a greater quantity of violence in the world, we can become desensitized to it and subsequently react towards it differently.

The idea of cultivation theory is especially problematic when it comes to portrayals of race on television. Mastro’s article discusses the fact that minorities are almost always underrepresented in television, or when they are overrepresented it is only in certain stereotypical roles. For example, African Americans are seen nearly exclusively in sitcoms and crime dramas, their presence in advertising is inversely equivalent to the value of the product being sold, they are more often shown alongside prejudicial information in crime reports, and they are overrepresented as crime perpetrators. This is especially problematic in that young African-Americans watch these shows or news reports, and come away with a certain view of their own race that is inaccurate and misrepresented.

Aziz Ansari, with his new Netflix show, Master of None, attempts to combat the problems with cultivation and racial stereotyping and typecasting in television. The first two episodes alone features a diverse cast of characters – an Indian lead character (Ansari), his three best friends (a white male, an Asian male, and a black lesbian), an interracial married couple, a traditional Indian family, a traditional Asian family, multiple black friends, and a white married couple – who are not placed in boxes due to their race. Ansari uses real Indian actors – including his own parents to play his parents in the show – and focuses on the struggles of adulthood and life as a minority. Ansari plays an actor on the show, and is constantly facing racial prejudice everywhere he turns, including auditions that require him to use an Indian accent, auditions that require him to have a stereotypical Indian job, racist casting directors, studio executives that mock his race in accidentally forwarded e-mails, and studios that refuse to place two Indian people in lead roles because it will hurt their viewership and cause the show to be seen as an “Indian sitcom” and not “a show with a few Indians in non-traditional, fully developed, non-stereotypical characters in lead roles.” Ansari discusses this not only in the show, but also in interviews. On The Tonight Show a few nights ago, Ansari described his white best friend on the show to Jimmy Fallon by saying, “We gave him a stereotypical white role – he’s a fully rounded character.” While this elicited laughs from the crowd, it also revealed a sad truth about racial insensitivity and misrepresentation on television.

Ansari realizes how damaging it is to allow minorities to watch their own races misrepresented, mocked, and deemphasized on television (and especially the implications this has for children who grow up with a certain fabricated view of their race as portrayed on television, as he discusses this in several places in the show itself). Cultivation is a real and present threat to people’s perceptions of the world, and it can be especially dangerous when it misrepresents minorities – especially to the children watching. Shows like Master of None are attempting to combat this, while creating highly entertaining, humorous, and thought-provoking content at the same time.

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