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Growing up, white women see themselves everywhere — on TV, at the movies, in the half-dozen white American Girl Dolls, and so on. And we’ve never questioned our right to that, skipping straight ahead to demanding better female representation, smart, complex characters who represent our messy lives. These critiques are valid, of course; but until we’re explicitly pushing for women of color to be at the forefront of our representation efforts, we’re just another part of the problem.
For women of color growing up in America, movie and TV characters that looked like them weren’t easy to find, and those they did were often treated as racial stereotypes or the butt of a joke. Black, Asian-American, Middle Eastern, and Latina celebrities who have become role models for their own communities have all opened up about how difficult that was for them to find growing up. Both Mindy Kaling and Gina Rodriguez recall watching The Cosby Show growing up, just to see people who even slightly looked like them on TV.
“That was the closest I came to seeing anyone like me represented on screen in a positive light,” Rodriguez told the Washington Post. “When I watched Full House, I never existed. I was never portrayed. And when I did see us, we always had a very inferior position in life.”
Jennifer Lopez, Viola Davis, and more stars have all shared the first movie or TV character who made them feel seen — and they make powerful points about the importance of representation in Hollywood along the way. Simply put, it’s hard to reach for something you’ve never seen, to dream bigger than the world around you suggests is possible. These stars want something better for the next generation.
Read on to hear which Hollywood roles inspired these celebs.
A version of this story was originally published in August 2020.