Off Script: Hollywood, stop pushing the tragic mulatto trope

Marissa Martinez, Opinion Editor

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The Bold Type is a Freeform show about three women who work for the fictional Scarlet magazine, a publication similar to Cosmopolitan. The show feels like a contemporary reaction to Sex and the City, a program about a group of female friends that often came off as unrealistic and insensitive. In The Bold Type, the characters work (to varying success) through a variety of social issues that affect millennials, ranging from job instability to the gun debate to getting tested for the BRCA gene.

Kat Edison, one of the main characters, works as a social media director and is often compared to the other, older department heads. Outspoken (to a fault) and innovative, she is a great example of black female empowerment and, frankly, inspires me to go after what I want. While her relationship with another woman wasn’t always written well, Kat generally seemed to be a well-rounded character.

But something was missing — her race. Whether purposefully casted or otherwise, the Scarlet office is definitely on the whiter, more female side. Of the secondary characters, only two other black men work at the office, as a writer and fashion editor. Despite the clear lack of people of color at the magazine, Kat’s bisexual identity is arguably much more central to her character’s development than her biracial one. Race is rarely mentioned — if at all — in the first season of the show. While race or ethnicity do not have to be a person’s primary identity for them to still be a “valid” person of color, it seemed odd that no one spoke about it, especially in 2017.

This changes when Kat has to write a short bio for the website as a department head at the beginning of Season 2. She openly struggles throughout the episode to write “first black female department head” in her statement, claiming a variety of excuses, most notably that she didn’t know how to “pick” between white and black and “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.” (Although, to her co-worker’s point, Kat is as black on the inside as she is white.) While she eventually did include the word “black,” the entire episode left a sour taste in my mouth and almost made me not want to keep watching.

The United States is made up of about 9 million multiracial Americans, according to the 2010 Census, which is an increase from about 6.8 million in 2000. That relatively small number is steadily growing, leading some to predict our country will be majority-mixed by 2050. It is certainly naive to claim that rise will fix racism by itself (in the same way that President Obama’s election in 2008 did not single-handedly lob us into a post-racial America), but it is comforting to know the concept will potentially be more accepted in a few decades.

However, pop culture — specifically television and film — hasn’t caught up with this societal trend yet. Much of the multiracial representation is really biracial, usually the result of a white parent and a black one. The issues talked about are often constrained to the trope of “having to choose.” The character is too white for the black kids, too black for the white kids. They get caught up in having to code-switch, or fluidly change mannerisms, in order to fit in, which exhausts them. A strained relationship with one parent extrapolates itself into how the child racially identifies for the rest of their life.

These common themes all fall under the trope of “the tragic mulatto.” The term mulatto came from the Portuguese word for “mixed breed” and was spread during colonization to the Americas. It is now considered outdated and derogatory in the United States, although mulatto, mestizo and similar terms are used regularly in other countries. The word came to encompass the children plantation-owning whites would have with their black slaves. There was something “mystic” about their light-skinned children, who could pass for white. In early mentions in fiction, the characters who passed would be able to live blissfully without knowing their black ancestry, while those who didn’t were considered black by the “one-drop” rule, and therefore, less privileged.

Some credit the “tragic mulatto” trope to author Lydia Maria Child, who wrote “The Quadroons” in 1842. In the novel, a free woman finds out her grandmother was a runaway slave, which automatically makes her a slave as well, and she commits suicide after experiencing the horrors of slavery. Other references to this hopeless identity came from books like “The White Girl,” written in 1929 by Vara Caspary. In the novel, Solaria passes for white but is revealed to be mixed by her brother’s dark skin. She eventually kills herself by drinking poison, unable to bear society’s distaste for her black heritage.

Eventually, through novels like these, and like “Passing,” “Imitation of Life” and more, the “tragic mulatto” became synonymous with a stereotype we recognize well today: a bitter biracial person (often female) who faces self-hatred and discrimination from both sides. It also presents a toxic narrative: that miscegenation, or mixed-race marriage, is to blame for mental illness and should be stopped.

While these ideas can certainly hold some truth depending on the person, there is a lot more complexity to being multiracial than just “choosing.” As the mixed population increases in this country, those layers will only skyrocket as well.

Yet pop culture is still stuck in a version of the (now laughable) mulatto trope. And, like much of Hollywood’s ignorance of people of color, the popularized artistic narratives shared as of now hold a strong divide from reality.

There are so many important conversations that hold the same artistic value as this stereotype that simply aren’t written about right now. Production companies are completely missing the complexities of being multiracial in the (idealized) melting pot of America, thus sidestepping the important realities of how we interact with race in this country. More importantly, this lack of representation shows that society is stuck in the mindset that multiracial people only suffer from a limited range of problems, while ignoring the very real issues we do face on a much more regular basis.

I have yet to see a solid characterization of being black and Jewish (no, Glee’s attempt does not count). Several of my friends exist fully in both spheres but often face pushback from the Jewish community, as well as a lot of inappropriate questions about conversion or family structure that a white Jewish person would never have to field. Another problem I’ve noticed is the fear of darker-skinned Asians going to Asia to meet family members. Myself and some of my peers have felt apprehensive about traveling to more homogenous countries and being mocked by strangers or having our entire identity invalidated due to what we look like as black Asian-Americans.

Just as white America gets to work through its myriad problems through media, mixed Americans deserve nuanced representation on the screen as well. While we can often relate to characters who are one race and match their experiences to our own, there is still a lot of conversation to be had about the way we navigate this country, which treats race in a highly specific way in comparison to other nations.

Yes, the dual (or more) identity crisis does happen — often due to the internalized stereotypes non-mixed people place on us — but there are so many layers to this problem. Having a well-rounded, relatable character in a movie or TV show would definitely not fix these day-to-day issues, but it would normalize our existence and expose other people to more than one type of narrative.

Before writing this column, I tried to list some positive representations of fictional, mixed characters. I eventually had to settle for problematic ones as well and still came up short of the examples I wanted. There is a growing range of good to not-so-good representation, from Miles Morales, a black and Latino iteration of Spider-Man in the comics and movie who speaks English and Spanish at home, to Sam White, the main character in Dear White People, who thinks she has to fight to be considered black by her peers and falls into the self-hating category many times. Even Black-ish, a TV show about the intricacies of being black in suburban America, takes a few jabs at Rainbow Johnson, the black and white matriarch of the family, and delegitimizes her claims to blackness frequently during the first seasons.

Hopefully, these stereotypes will become a thing of the past as Hollywood gains representation of all kinds. Maybe we’ll see more characters whose multiracial identities intersect with religion, ability, sexuality, socioeconomic status, etc. Maybe my children will see themselves represented properly on TV and use those characters to help shape how they view their world.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at marissamartinez2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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