TV as a lens into race and gender issues, with Dr. Laurena Bernabo

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For many, watching television is a part of daily life, and those clips that show up on screens can begin to leave a lasting impression. Television shows’ portrayals of different people and groups, even in subtle ways, can influence the way individuals and cultures are perceived. 

Understanding this, Dr. Laurena Bernabo, an assistant professor in the Department of Entertainment and Media Studies, uses television as a lens to look into issues surrounding race, gender and sexuality. She studies how these issues are being communicated to the public and used as entertainment to make sense of changing social relations. She also studies public responses to these portrayals. 

In this episode, Dr. Bernabo dives into some of her research, including a past project, for which she spent time in Mexico City observing how those working on the Spanish language broadcast of “Glee” dubbed over the voices, and her more recent work, which focuses on public response to depictions of single fathers on television. 

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Diverse identities are often lost in translation when movies and television are dubbed for other languages

When movies and television are translated to other languages, LBGT and BIPOC individual characteristics are often lost or reduced, according to research by Laurena Bernabo, assistant professor in entertainment and media studies.

Many characteristics are lost when television programs are translated, according to Bernabo’s research. (Photo: Laurena Bernabo)

To best understand the processes behind dubbing an American television show to other languages, Bernabo made multiple visits to New Art Dub in Mexico. It is the company that dubs many Fox shows. She also interviewed Fox executives in Los Angeles and Brazil. Bernabo focused on the show “Glee,” which is known for featuring characters that identify as LBGT and/or BIPOC, and their community storylines.

“Translation tends to lose a lot of the ways identity is communicated aurally, both through the vocabulary people use to talk about themselves and the tones and speech patterns associated with different groups,” Bernabo said.

In most cases, Bernabo found that executives and dubbing professionals did not have malicious intent when stymieing character traits. Rather, little attention was paid to the talent that executed the dubs and how they performed.

For example, Bernabo found when dubbing studios don’t employ Black voice actors to dub Black characters, those dubbed characters tend to sound like their white counterparts, even when the original actor’s voice is discernably different from white actors’ voices.

Laurena Bernabo

“There are also lots of references to one’s identity, be they Black or gay, that might get lost in translation because they’re deemed offensive, or they utilize references that the dubbed version’s audience won’t understand,” Bernabo said.

In the case of “Glee,” some of the character traits altered in translation included voice tone, pitch, inflection and connection to cultural references.

Bernabo recommends television executives and dubbing companies cultivate and employ voice actors of the same ethnicity to that of the character their voice portrays. Also, when cultural or local references are made in a script that pertain to race, gender or sexuality, Bernabo suggests the voice actor be educated and aware for how that dialogue in a script represents specific culture in the show.

The danger in intentionally or unintentionally scrubbing diverse personality characteristics from television figures is that real people may be less inclined to celebrate individualism.

“A multicultural approach to society tends to celebrate difference and the ways a culture is enriched by virtue of a heterogeneous population,” Bernabo says. “But when characters are dubbed and, due to numerous intersecting factors, made to sound like a more homogenous group, the ways in which characters differ from each other become muted.”

More attentive dubbing can prevent stereotypes from being exacerbated, but also can use character personality to challenge local stereotypes in a particular region.

You can read Bernabo’s published research in its entirety:

Bernabo recognized with Outstanding Published Article Award at 2020 OSCLG conference

Laurena Bernabo, an assistant professor in the Department of Entertainment and Media Studies, won the Outstanding Published Article Award by the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language and Gender at its annual conference in October.

Her article, “Expanding Television’s Cultural Forum in the Digital Era: Prime Time Television, Twitter, and Black Lives Matter,” highlighted the communicative practices for current events and how entertainment programs critique larger social movements, such as Black Lives Matter. The paper outlines a study of the Twitter conversation involving three television dramas—“Law & Order: SVU”, “The Good Wife,” and “Scandal”as they covered themes relating to the Black Lives Movement. Bernabo analyzed more than 1,900 Tweets and concluded that the Twitter discussion goes beyond traditional entertainment conversation and facilitates a commentary that brings issues to light and creates a space for people to reflect on their beliefs and positions.

 “Television remains a central mode of entertainment and world-shaping for Americans,” Bernabo said.  “Viewers’ reception of and interactions with television are important avenues for understanding the power of television in a democracy.”

“When entertainment media more honestly tells the stories of those whose voices often go unheard, it can help to change the conversation around what is happening in this country and whose version of reality is taken at face value.”

Bernabo’s article was published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media in January 2019, prior to the social unrest America experienced this past summer. Bernabo said that if she conducted the study today, she expects that Twitter would still provide an important platform for viewers to express their views of representations, much like people used do to around the office watercooler, but that scripted programming might change how they handle the representation of BLM and the systemic murders of Black Americans.

“One of the many things 2020 has illustrated is that people continue to feel the crushing weight of systemic inequalities, be they BIPOC, LGBTQ, and/or women,” Bernabo explained. “Entertainment media can play a role in addressing flaws in the American experiment, including through critical self-reflection, recognizing the ways media makers have been complicit in perpetuating a highly problematic status quo.”

Bernabo has participated in the OSCLG conference since 2013. She was awarded the  Outstanding Dissertation Award at the conference in 2018 while she was a student at the University of Iowa. This past summer, she was elected to the board.

Bernabo said she appreciates the sense of community that OSCLG provides. “I have been honored and humbled to win these awards and be voted to the board. Being a part of this community has often given me the strength and energy to confront the hurdles associated with being a scholar.”

OSCLG brings together students, scholars, activists, artists and practitioners interested in the discussion of gender, language and principles behind feminism. Since its start in 1978, it has sought to provide a forum for professional discussion, presentation of research and demonstration of creative projects in the areas of communication, language and gender, as well as promote recognition of those doing work in this area. The theme for the 43rd annual conference was “Navigating Privilege.”