*This post of mine was also published in The New York Times/Women in the World.*
Sexism in Hollywood has gotten so bad that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has urged federal and state civil rights agencies to investigate “the systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and television industry.”
“Blatant and extreme gender inequality in this large and important industry is shameful and unacceptable,” says Melissa Goodman, director of the ACLU SoCal’s LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project. “The time has come for new solutions to this serious civil rights problem.”
The organization states that in 2014, a third of all network shows hired no female directors, and almost 70 percent of all television episodes were directed by white men. The ACLU also recognizes that systematic discrimination keeps women from accessing equal opportunities, and notes that when it comes to directors, depressingly, there are fewer women working in TV and film in 2015 than twenty years ago.
The situation is even worse for women of color. As a South Asian woman I still jump for joy when I see any actress whose appearance remotely resembles mine. But there can only be so much enthusiasm heaped on the Mindy Kaling or Frieda Pinto who comes around every decade in a sea of white actors. Forget about behind the camera, I am still trying to see more of us just make it onto the screen.
So it is a big deal that Bollywood superstar, Priyanka Chopra is being featured in a major U.S. network’s fall lineup, in the thriller Quantico. The new ABC series stars Chopra as FBI recruit Alex Parrish, a woman trying to prove herself at a tough Marine Corps boot camp when she is accused of being behind a major terrorist attack.
One look at the show’s just-released trailer makes plain that Quantico has the potential to be in the same league as ABC’s major hit shows like Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, both of which feature African-American women in strong lead and supporting roles; not just as token minority faces or, worse, playing a role that perpetuates stereotypes of race and gender.
“There is a very big stereotype with Indian actors, and you get only Indian parts,” Chopra told Reuters in a 2013 interview. “There is a stereotype that there’s a certain accent and there’s a certain vibe. I felt a lot of that and I really want to be able to change that, for people to be proud of their roots.”
And she’s been doing just that. Chopra has been steadily and strategically making her entryway into the American market, lending her voice to a lead in Disney’s Planes last year, and to a hit single with pop star Pitbull. The casting of Chopra in Quantico from a huge pool of talented Bollywood actresses is no small feat—a breakout that many South Asian mega-stars, including Aishwariya Rai, failed to achieve.
Although Chopra, the former Miss World, has starred in countless major Bollywood blockbusters, a quick glance over her body of work shows that she has extended herself by playing characters beyond the bombshell role. She portrayed an autistic girl in India’s 2012 Oscar entry, Barfi!, and starred as the iconic Indian Olympic gold medal boxer Mary Kom in a biopic of the athlete.
But Chopra’s casting as Alex Parish could change the game for South Asian women, and women of color in general, in American TV and film.
Her level of success in the series will be major news in Bollywood, but she is waging a tougher battle in Hollywood. If Quantico is a hit with viewers, it could accelerate access to roles for women of color, both behind and in front of the camera.
Watch the Quantico trailer below: