“It’s white girls only.”
This is not a line from pre-1964 at some segregated whites-only facility. No, it’s something that I hear all too often today, in crazy liberal Los Angeles, as a nonwhite model.
See also: The "Hottest Women of the 21st Century" list in February’s GQ. Next to the main breakdown of attractive women, the magazine had separate categories for “Hottest Indian Chick,” “This Year’s Hottest Chinese Chick,” and even “Hottest Pregnant Sri Lankan.” “The seemingly arbitrary racial callouts have people squirming,” noted a Yahoo Shine writer under the headline “GQ Publishes Offensive 'Hottest Women' List.”
If you’ve only started squirming now, welcome. Ethnic and racial segregation is the norm in the entertainment industry. Castings, the first gateway to media representation, are almost always specific in this regard. Caucasian, African-American, Asian—casting directors don’t seem to have any qualms announcing which race or ethnicity they want their model or actress to be.
If you are casting for, say, a Jane Austen character, it makes sense to ask specifically for white talent. But when race is completely nonrelevant to the role, like a model for an insurance advertisement or a car commercial, casting directors will still often specify for Caucasian.
One look at the rosters of talent agencies can confirm this. Factor Women is one of the top modeling agencies in Atlanta, where 54 percent of the total population is black as of the 2010 census. Interestingly, of the 48 female models the agency has listed on its site, only 10 of them appear to be black. In other words, less than 21 percent are black in a city where black is the majority.
In bigger cities like Los Angeles, where the population is roughly 72 percent white, the disparities are still evident. Ford Models in LA is another top agency. It has 162 female models listed on its roster—145 of them appear to be of Caucasian background. Even with nearly three-quarters of the city’s demographics being white, that’s still an over-representation.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” is how Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project, put it in her reminder of how media representations can affect a viewer’s feelings of self-worth. For me, it was only when I saw Lucy Liu as Alex Munday in 2000’s Charlie’s Angels that I thought, hey, maybe I can get my foot in the door.
Today, 13 years later, a lot has changed—but a lot hasn’t. My agent tells me that he gets more requests for nonwhite models than he used to, but at the same time, white models are the only ones who are consistently booked while the “others” have periods of high and low demand. I kind of doubt the demand will ever be high for “pregnant Sri Lankans.”
Perhaps what the editors at GQ were trying to achieve with their categories was to highlight the unique beauty of different ethnicities. Or perhaps they thought, “This girl is pretty—for an Indian. Let’s put her somewhere else.” Whatever the reason, the takeaway is the same: It belittles the beauty being highlighted and marginalizes so many readers.
Yoonj Kim is a freelance writer, entrepreneur, and model in Los Angeles.