The Importance of Representation in Film and Media
Imagine the first time when young children see a superhero or an astronaut on screen whose image looks like them. It is 2018, and for some kids, the historic moment of seeing Black Panther was their first time seeing a superhero of color on screen. Better yet, this groundbreaking film which has netted over $900 million dollars, could have been the first time seeing a predominantly black cast with a black director, black costume designers, black hairstylists, and more, actively producing representation in a positive light. Sandra Bullock’s astronaut character, Dr. Ryan Stone, in the 2013 film, Gravity, may have been the first occasion when young girls witnessed both a female astronaut and scientist on screen. The content our society views on screen is supposed to reflect its people, but all too often the entertainment and media industries tend to marginalize people of color, and women, just to name a few. Stories affect all areas of life in terms of how people view themselves, how they live their lives, and how they see others. Some of the content that these industries distribute to the public remains the only form of representation some individuals see, and these portrayals may be accurate or inaccurate. Media depicts stereotypical representations for people of color and women, whether through Hollywood or on the news, as violent criminals, the help, terrorists, submissive characters, highly sexualized beings, unintelligent people, and more. Similarly, there are concerns for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) populations and depictions of disabled persons. Seeing oneself on screen is crucial because society is not monolithic, but multifaceted. The continued cycle of excluding diversity, inclusion, and ignoring misrepresentation in the entertainment and media industry showcase the importance of having diverse storytellers, actors, directors, and producers involved both on-screen and behind the scenes.
Historically, film and media industries have had a poor track record in accurately representing diversity. Hollywood is the biggest exporter of culture, yet has long ignored the importance of diversity since its creation (Burgin 2018). The roots of the industry involve systemic, institutionalized racist practices, “whether its appearing in disparaging roles or not appearing at all, minorities are the victim of an industry that relies on old ideas to appeal to the “majority” at the expense of the insignificant minority” (Horton, Price, and Brown 1999). Early 18th century practices presented African Americans in inhumane frameworks, as ignorant, clownish, and animalistic. Specifically, African Americans were not even afforded the opportunity to play themselves, as whites dressed in blackface to reinforce white supremacy, creating a cycle of negative effects with society’s perceptions (Horton, Price, and Brown). Following this period, there were voices of protest railing against stereotypical and demeaning representation; yet the industry still remained guilty of perpetuating false narratives and provided limited opportunities for minorities. Perhaps one of the most egregious and despicable films that served as a catalyst for African Americans to produce their own films was The Birth of a Nation in 1915 which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and reiterated blacks as inferior beings. Thereafter, a wave of films showcasing blacks in authentic, fully dimensional roles developed by African American filmmakers from independent black studios like at the Lincoln Motion Pictures Company and the Micheaux Film Corporation who challenged the notion of single narrative, stereotypical roles. (Horton, Price, and Brown). In contrast, although white executives deserve blame for lack of inclusion and inaccurate portrayals, there have been minorities over the years who further perpetuated horrible stereotypes as well. For instance, the first film to feature an all black cast, Hearts in Dixie, starred the black actor, Stephin Fetchit, who horrifically reinforced the “ stereotype of the lazy, stupid, good-for-nothing Negro who knows his place,” in not only that film but throughout his career (Horton, Price, and Brown). Fetchit became the standard for black roles until only in 1952 when Hollywood discontinued casting such characters, but even with the “statement,” negative stereotypes continue to plague minorities in films with degrading roles (Horton, Price, and Brown). In the early 20th century through the present, many diverse groups are scrutinizing all facets of the film and media industries’ transgressions (Gaydos and Gray 2016). Similarly, throughout history as the media industries of print and television evolved, their influence continued to shape public opinion about minorities.
The media industries’ evolution from mostly print to television increased the emphasis of the power of the mass media with heavier influence in portraying minorities inaccurately. With the rise of television, information became easily available to millions and “often gives people insights into worlds that are unfamiliar and vastly different from their own,” as it may be their only encounter with that part of society (Horton, Price, and Brown). Therefore, the influence that media has is a tremendously weighty responsibility and unfortunately, many of these studios have created harmful false narratives. As individuals continually see flashes of false information and a skewed depiction, it becomes mentally damaging because “when images and ideas presented at a young age take hold, and are reinforced over years of viewing, these images become reality and once these stereotypes and misconceptions become ingrained in the psyche of American children, they become self-perpetuating” (Horton, Price, and Brown). For far too long, the media executives reflected their versions of society which more often than not was exclusionary, damaging, and not objective. Although progress has been made, major television news outlets have traditionally not featured journalists of color and perpetuated one-sided narratives. “Oftentimes in newsrooms across the country, you don’t have a substantial representation of people of color in newsrooms who are making decisions to what’s going to be portrayed in the media.” (May 2018). Reportedly, men deliver 65% of political segments, 63% of science and technological stories, 67% of crime, and 64% of global issues; alternatively, females receive minimal on-air time allotted 32% screen time, and the stories they cover are limited to education and lifestyle stories (Alter 2015). Unfortunately, media biases are prominent in featuring portrayals of minorities primarily as criminals, terrorists, uneducated, highly sexualized people, and more. These depictions penetrate the minds of viewers and create unconscious biases which negatively affects the way individuals interact with each other. Ghandnoosh pointed out in 2015 that implicit biases have led to unnecessary discrimination and police shootings of black males. By extension, the media’s excessive and impartial coverages of “alleged black criminals” creates a domino effect in also impacting the justice system. Jury members, lawyers, as well as judges involved are consequently more inclined to deliver tougher punishments for blacks (Donaldson 2015). For these reasons and more, the necessity of having diverse journalists, executives, and producers on screen and behind the cameras is crucial. Society is multidimensional not monolithic, so the beautiful mosaic of all people should be represented. Cheriss May, photojournalist, and correspondent for the White House shared in 2018:
Representation matters so that the full story can be told, and so you don’t have a one-sided story that isn’t a fair representation of a diverse population. The media needs to represent the society that it serves because if people don’t see themselves, then it’s almost like a lack of care that’s communicated to people. There has to be some diverse voices that represent everyone in the society that can speak from the voice of those people because there are different issues and different things that are of importance to us. On Capitol Hill, for example, the photographers that shoot there and the newscasters that are shown are disproportionately white males. I think that there needs to be more of an effort to seek out diverse voices and diverse representation with a conscious effort (2018).
Overall, there needs to be an increased amount of heightened pressure to ensure that networks and producers do not leave marginalized groups out, or showcase them in harmful, inferior, or undesirable ways.
Moreover, filmmakers and media depictions have been negligent in including people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, and those with disabilities on-screen and off-screen. In this current day and age, Hollywood continues to exclude people of color from television and film. Within the industry, there is this dynamic of white America being the majority owners and majority movers and shakers of creative ideas in Hollywood (Burgin 2018). Prominent African American filmmaker, Spike Lee, has long been a voice championing the importance of showcasing the positive realities of the black experience. Although the Oscars have recently spotlighted the void in recognizing diverse works, Lee recognizes the problem is larger than the award show. He noted: “As I see it, the Academy Awards is not where the ‘real’ battle is. It’s in the executive office of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks. This is where the gatekeepers decide what gets made and what gets jettisoned…This is what’s important. Those with ‘the green light’ vote” (Rainey and Gray 2016). Comparatively, those who are Muslims face similar exclusion and stereotypical misrepresentations. The horrific terrorism of 9/11 perpetuated negative connotations that continue to plague many Muslims who had no part in that tragedy. Xavier Burgin, filmmaker, and screenwriter, noted in 2018 that the entertainment industry is guilty of unfairly maligning and characterizing Muslims as brutal, cruel, inhumane terrorists:
For the most part when it comes to the entertainment industry, usually what people view and see as a Muslim individual, they’ll see a terrorist, which is absolutely ridiculous because it is a small, tiny segment of the population who are terrorists in the first place. But unfortunately, Hollywood tends to only suggest and put up those kind of portrayals when it deals with Muslim people.
Activist and actor, Riz Ahmed, in a 2017 speech further corroborated the victimization of Muslims. He explained the dangers that arise when there is a failure to represent Muslim civilians as everyday people. What arises instead is that people will gravitate towards negative tropes depicting Muslims as criminals, terrorists, or members of ISIS. Ahmed stated:
After the Brexit vote, hate crimes went up 41%, & against Muslims it went up 326%. Now if we fail to represent, I think we’re in danger of losing our in three ways, the three E’s. One, is we’re going to lose people to extremism; second, we’re going to lost out on an expansive idea of who we are as individuals and as a community; and thirdly, we’ll lose out on the economic benefits that proper representation can bring to our economy.
Sadly, realities surrounding inclusion and fair representations of women, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, LGBTQs, and disabled individuals are also bleak. “In total, 29.2% of all characters were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, which is well below U.S. Census (38.7%) as well as the movie-going audience in this country” (Smith et al. 2017). A nine-year study by USC’s Annenberg School of Communication uncovered startling findings from 900 movies. With regard to the aforementioned groups, they found these groups have been consistently ignored by the entertainment industry (Smith et al. 2017). Within the industries, women have been limited in their opportunities and portrayals. In the event that females are miraculously cast, then, unfortunately, they “are much more likely than males to be shown in sexually revealing attire (F=25.9% vs. M=5.7%) and partially or fully naked (F=25.6% vs. M=9.2%)” (Smith et al. 2017). Throughout time, women have been limited in their representations with highly sexualized, helpless, or less intelligent identifications. “Movies perpetuate the sexualization of women from ‘other’ racial/ethnic groups, even as these female characters are least likely to be shown as parental figures” (Smith et al. 2017). Undeniably, when it comes to the powerful, behind the scenes jobs on a movie set, men dominate the playing field disproportionately for example, “ Focusing on directors, 120 helmers were attached to the sample of films with 4.2% (n=5) female and 95.8% (n=115) male. This is a gender ratio of 23 male directors to every 1 female director” (Smith et al. 2017). Furthermore, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians do not fare much better. There is such paucity in available roles for the aforementioned groups. If by chance, these ethnic groups are lucky enough to receive screen time, their speaking roles and influence are drastically limited. The same is true for behind the scenes work by directors, screenwriters, or producers, as the employment of minorities in these areas has not evolved:
Across 900 movies, only 5.6% (n=56) of all directors were Black. Perhaps most disturbingly, only 3 Black women (<1%) have helmed a top‐ grossing motion picture across the sample. Across 900 movies, only 3% of directors were Asian. Almost all of these directors were male except two. Perhaps the group that is most affected behind the camera are women of color, as only 3 Black and 2 Asian women worked across the sample time frame. Though not measured, only one Latina female director worked across the 900 movies (Smith et al. 2017).
People of color, LGBTQs, and those with disabilities need to be given positions in power on all levels because “The more perspectives that have a seat at the table to tell stories means more sources and different types of ideas, cultures, worlds and characters that can expand the possibilities for how stories are told” (Thomas 2018). Since 2007, the invisibility of ethnic minorities has severely lagged in comparison with the changing nature of white actors and actresses (see table 1).
Likewise, filmmakers and news outlets often ignore the voices of LGBTQ individuals and people with disabilities. As supporting roles have increased for LBGTQs, the findings are still troubling as the small percentage of roles do not reflect the larger population. Transgender representation is almost entirely invisible and there are very few roles for diverse ethnicities. Quite simply put, the typical narratives in existence today tend not to reflect the everyday lives of LGBTQs (Smith et al. 2017). Like most people in society, LGBTQs are individuals who fall in love, enjoy shopping, traveling, gardening, raising children, jogging in local parks, and they also experience the general rollercoaster malaise of life in general, as all humans do. Comparatively, those with both physical and mental disabilities accounted for about two percent in the top 100 films of 2016 (Smith et al. 2017). Similarly to the intersectional discrimination among LBGTQ representation, with characters of disability, there are more predominantly white, older males as opposed to ethnic minorities, LGBTQs, and younger representation (Smith et al. 2017). Through the extensive research presented from USC’s study, it is quite evident that inadequate representation and exclusion is a normalized practice ingrained in Hollywood with few fully dimensional roles for ethnic minorities. “If you look at white media and white people within American media and the entertainment industry, they wouldn’t change anything. They would keep it as is because it benefits them first and foremost” (Burgin 2018). Misrepresentations are not troubling to those in power as long as they benefit from profitable gains, while it is certainly damaging and harmful for cultural groups.
Unfortunately, although some roles exist for traditionally marginalized groups, tragically far too often, the portrayals are misrepresentations. For people of color, the entertainment and media industries often project stereotypical narratives. “The biggest problem is when you have negative stereotypes such as the thug, the pimp, the drug dealer, and that’s all you see and then all those types of roles are played by people of color” (Burgin 2018). Hollywood tends to repeat patterns of having white actors portray every race/ethnicity and culture. “One of the reasons for this might be that when there are roles for non-white actors, they still get played by white people” (Vox 2016). Industries tend to push prominent white actors at the forefront by whitewashing roles, for example, with Angelina Jolie playing an Afro-Chinese-Cuban in A Mighty Heart, Emma Stone in Aloha as a part Hawaiian and Chinese character, or Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow playing what was supposed to be a Japanese character (Sharf 2017). Misrepresentations cause an accumulation of negative effects. If there’s a failure to represent, there’s a danger of inaccurately portraying society. As African American filmmaker and screenwriter, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, shared in a 2018 interview:
The term, misrepresentation, tends to be subjectively defined, depending on how the source views representation, its intention and how things should be presented. However, the lack of inclusion from diverse voices in storytelling tends to limit the possibilities of what stories might be told. The craft itself is therefore limited from reaching its potential and tends to encourage a narrower worldview as stories are shared across cultures. Finally, the lack of inclusion sends a hostile message, whether intended or not, that other voices are not valued or welcome to join the conversation.
Undeniably, filmmakers and news outlets do ignore the voices of marginalized groups; thus, these decisions result in damaging psychological effects. Across these groups, many of these people inevitably start to internalize the misrepresentations and start to believe the false realities. Disabled groups, for example, are tired of the continuous storylines that showcase them as sad and suffering characters to be pitied (Clark 2016). That cliche storyline dangerously glorifies and champions the allure of suicide for a higher purpose (Clark 2016). As a further illustration, the LGBTQ communities also suffer from single, stale, stereotypical narratives that can jeopardize healthy self-image. Unfortunately, “Too often, the few LGBT characters that make it to the big screen are the target of a punchline or token characters. It usually categorizes all of the LGBT people into just lesbian and gay” (Anderson 2016). Not seeing oneself is mentally and physically damaging, especially for young children. Young people are yearning to figure out their identities and Hollywood and media industries play a high role in affirming their views. As Burgin reminds, “What we see on screen dictates much of what we believe in real life. If you want the youth to have a positive view of themselves, then they should see themselves on screen being presented in a positive light, it makes a difference” (2018). Without accurate representation, there is the tragic erasure of the beautiful multifaceted society that exists in our world.
Positive results happen when diverse storytellers, actors, directors, and producers are involved both on-screen and behind the scenes. If there are not more diverse individuals who are included in the structures of power that disseminate the ideals through television and movies to the world, then nothing can change. It is statistically proven that more diverse films and stories through the media tend to perform better economically. “While minorities account for more than half of frequent US moviegoers, minority representation in films has dipped since 2013” (Guardian 2016). There is a long, pre-existing myth that inclusivity in Hollywood and the media will diminish box office sales or ratings. However, the rise of popular streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are recognizing the demographics of audiences they can reach by incorporating diverse casts and creators. With more content creators behind the scenes working in the entertainment and media industries, accurate representation will increase and reflect society. For instance, the groundbreaking film Black Panther has defied all expectations and is proof that the public will support films featuring diverse people on and off-screen as it surpassed Titanic to become the third most successful film of all time in American history. Moreover, the film proved the power of how stories shape and dispel narratives, specifically across the globe, as Black Panther is the first film to be released in the highly restrictive culture of Saudi Arabia, in over 30 years (Jovanovic 2018). Furthermore, not only are there social effects of positive representation, there are substantial economic benefits too. Namely, “Black Panther generated $83.9 Million to Georgia’s economy and contributed over $26.5 million in wages to more than 3,100 workers across Georgia” (Deadline 2018). Marketing products like apparel, toys, and bedding accessories, just to name a few, are vastly being produced due to the film’s success. Larger benefits like the production of multiple sequel films and amusement theme parks are likely to attract billions of customers and generate billions of dollars. As more studios and executives hire diverse professionals such as journalists, anchors, actors, and directors, doors and opportunities for inclusion will finally open for the next generation of storytellers. When this ideal reaches fruition, individuals will be able to relish seeing an authentic mirroring of society.
The media has been historically, grossly irresponsible in their portrayals of people of color, women, LGBTQs and disabled persons. The depictions range from showing these groups in stereotypical lights to being virtually nonexistent. People feel validated and a sense of worth by seeing themselves reflected on screen. The integration of diverse filmmakers, directors, actors, and executives into the entertainment and media industries must increase. In order to eradicate the pattern of excluding diversity, inclusion, and misrepresentation, marginalized groups must gain access and have a voice in shaping culture.
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