Analyzing the Gina Rodriguez controversy in the wake of recent nonapology culture

Actress Gina Rodriguez

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On Tuesday, Jan. 22, Gina Rodriguez, star of the CW’s hit telenovela-style comedy-drama, “Jane the Virgin,” appeared on the SiriusXM radio program “Sway in the Morning” to promote her upcoming film, the action thriller “Miss Bala.” While on the show, Rodriguez addressed a stream of recent accusations labeling the actress “anti-Black” due to a number of her past tweets, interviews and public statements.

The callouts have often focused on various patterns of behavior that Rodriguez has supposedly demonstrated in the past couple of years. These range from a lack of acknowledgment of Black accomplishments in the entertainment industry, to an erasure of Afro-Latinx presence in media, to controversial statements arguing that Black actresses often get paid more than Latina actresses.

On “Sway,” Rodriguez apologized for her comments, tearfully noting that her past statements had been misinterpreted and that it was never her intention to harm the Black community. Many critics retorted, arguing that the apology was a half-hearted, performative plea to her audiences while she avoided addressing the negative aspects of her behavior directly.

It’s clear that Rodriguez’s comments may reflect and perpetuate an ignorance and a lack of understanding regarding nuanced discussions of representation. But the controversy surrounding her comments — which has played out primarily on Twitter and through a series of online think-pieces — is indicative of the toxic social media mob culture that creates and escalates problems much larger than Rodriguez alone.

First, it reinforces the double standards that actresses of color face when discussing representation, and second, it distracts from Hollywood’s many existing issues of representation.

Many have argued that Rodriguez’s apology is the latest in a long line of recent Hollywood “nonapologies,” lacking either sincerity or a direct addressal of how her behavior was harmful. This is heightened by the fact that one of the most recent examples of this practice, the controversy surrounding Kevin Hart, is so fresh in our memories.

While Rodriguez’s appearance on “Sway” gave her the opportunity to acknowledge and articulate where she went wrong in the past, she instead pushed the fact that her misguided comments were not intended to be problematic, idealistically arguing for the unification of minority groups to create progress.

This, however, is undeniably where her apology came up short. It’s impossible to paint the “minority experience” — in Hollywood or otherwise — in a singular brushstroke. I myself, as a South Asian-American woman, cannot speak directly to the experiences of Black or Latinx women, and considering I’m commenting on this controversy from the perspective of an outsider, I cannot diminish or invalidate the real, tangible pain that Rodriguez’s comments may have caused. The erasure of marginalized identities should never go unaddressed.

But while I acknowledge that Rodriguez’s statements allude to the greater problem of a lack of awareness and sensitivity when addressing the concerns of specific communities, I can’t help but question the fact that Rodriguez seems to be targeted for this behavior far more than her white female and male industry counterparts.

Rodriguez has consistently advocated for greater Latinx representation in entertainment since her public platform began growing, speaking out on the issue of underrepresentation in interviews and on social media. In 2017, Rodriguez signed a deal with CBS Television Studios through her production company, I Can and I Will Productions, to create a number of projects dedicated to presenting diverse narratives on cable, network and streaming platforms.

Yes, her call for greater Latinx representation in the immediate wake of the massive success of “Black Panther” was misguided and ignorant, taking away from a significant representational and cultural milestone that had been decades in the making. And yes, she diminished the community-specific significance of actress Yara Shahidi serving as a role model for young Black women when she interrupted an interviewer to say that Shahidi inspired “so many women,” not just Black women.

But I wonder why former fans are so quick to criticize and even “cancel” Rodriguez instead of using these instances to create a much needed constructive dialogue surrounding race, ethnicity and representation in Hollywood. Rodriguez has consistently used her celebrity platform to be vocal on the issue of representation and is attempting to make tangible change from the producer’s chair — arguably the most powerful starting point — far more than many of her contemporaries.

And it’s worth noting that, while the timing of her comments may have detracted from the success of Black artists in mainstream media, her decision to campaign for greater onscreen diversity and for greater representation in the Latinx community specifically is completely reasonable.

The pressure that actresses of color must bear — to consistently be progressive, sensitive, self-aware and conscious in their language, to use their platforms to advance activist causes but stay out of conversations that don’t involve them — is rarely, if at all, placed on white women or men.

And by focusing our efforts on “canceling” Rodriguez, we lose sight of the very representational gap that Hollywood continues to grapple with, with the continuous onscreen exclusion of women, people of color, queer individuals and the differently abled. After all, for every “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” there are hundreds of films that are released each year that feature few to no roles for people of color.

A 2018 study from USC found that out of the top 100 films released since 2007, 43 had no Black female roles, 64 had no Latina roles and 65 had no Asian or Asian American roles. While it’s important to evaluate the power and privilege that celebrities carry when discussing the nuances of representation, it’s even more important for all of us to champion more roles for underrepresented minorities on screen.

Above all else, the discourse surrounding Gina Rodriguez is a testament to the idea that the narrative of increasing diversity in entertainment is far from linear. It’s an ongoing process that involves constant progress and setbacks — but if we as audiences truly want to push for on-screen diversity, it’s essential that we stop sensationalizing celebrity commentary and demand change from the producers who have the money, means and power to create it.

Anagha Komaragiri is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.