Seeing yourself on screen
The importance of representation in media
Diversity. Representation. To some people they are buzzwords, to others, a life-line. Allow me to explain.
Diversity in film and television allows for better representation. Representation is when you see yourself in the characters and stories that you love. And it’s a powerful thing. For as long as humans have had language, we have used stories to escape, to educate and to entertain. Stories affect us deeply.
Trying to explain the importance of representation to someone who has never felt its absence can be difficult. It’s possible to explain it from an abstract, academic point of view, but in my experience, the most powerful approach is to provide a concrete example of how it has actually affected someone. Here’s my story.
In a stuffy classroom, the afternoon sun is blocked out by thick curtains so that we can watch a VHS playing on chunky old TV. I sat silently sobbing into my hands, both silently willing someone, anyone, to see me and ask what was wrong, whilst simultaneously terrified that they would.
It was 1997, I was seventeen years old, and full of hormones and sexual confusion.
We were watching a TV adaptation of the novel we were studying and the main character (a man) was fantasising about a woman. He pictured her as a Greek goddess complete with over-sized seashell, cherubs, and strategically placed flowing fabric. Despite it’s ludicrous nature, this fantasy stirred something in me. Looking at this woman, with her rich golden hair, her soft smile and the delicate curve of her waist, I felt a sudden tingling, a heat: a powerful yearning gripped the pit of my stomach as my cheeks flushed and I squirmed in my seat. I quickly checked that no one had noticed my reaction, my ‘indiscretion’. As suddenly as the electric feeling of attraction flashed through me, it was replaced by a hollow and painful anguish.
You will never have this.
To effortlessly fantasise without feeling guilt and shame. To chase the object of my affection, and to have that affection returned in kind, and not rejected with horror and derision.
You will never have this.
At that time, there was very little gay representation on TV and in film; this was even before the infamous ‘Puppy episode’ of Ellen had aired in the UK.
The strongest influence in my understanding of the word ‘lesbian’ came from my peers: it meant ugly, it meant angry and man-hating, and, above all else, it meant a pervert, a social pariah, someone not-to-be-trusted.
Seeing the boy meets girl story played out onscreen for the umpteenth time hit me hard. I felt that I would never be able to live a ‘normal’ life: I would never be able to tell the girl I had a crush on that I liked her, wouldn’t be able to date the people that I wanted to and I would never be able to get married.
I was too scared to even tell my family and friends that I was gay, I was sure that I would be ostracised and taunted. In that moment I felt so hopeless, and more than anything, I felt alone.
You may be thinking ‘big deal, Amy, everyone’s teenage years sucked and everyone felt alone’ and you’d probably be right. There are a thousand reasons to feel a little lost and alone when you’re a teenager. Feeling as though your sexuality, gender or skin colour will prevent you from living a full and happy life shouldn’t be one of them.
Representation shows us that people just like us can live happy lives. It teaches us that we be can strong, weak, funny, brave, smart or successful. Diversity in film and TV provides minorities with heroes and role models that they can identify with and look up to, an invaluable gift.
A lack of representation is why there is such fierce outcry when characters that represent minorities are removed from stories.
From the ‘white washing’ of BME characters during casting, to the untimely death of gay characters so common that it has it’s own trope (Bury your gays), there are so few characters that represent the full spectrum of humanity, that when you take one away, it hurts. The more scarce the representation, the more it will sting when a character is erased.
You may think that it’s not really a big deal anymore, that there are plenty of good examples of representation in the media these days. Look at Ghostbusters, right?
Simply put: that’s not the case. Representation is getting better but it has a long way to go. If you’re interested in the numbers then a good starting point is a study published by USC Anneburg: Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment .
3 things that you can do right now:
If someone is telling you that they are upset at a lack of representation, don’t brush them off. Listen to them. If you think that representation isn’t a problem, then chances are that you’ve never experienced a lack of it. Take the time and give space when people want to talk about why they need and demand better representation.
2. Find your blind spots
Being a gay woman, I fit into a couple of categories of ‘minority’ but I’m aware that there are so many more voices out there, so many more stories not being told: the voices of people of colour, of trans people, of people with disabilities all need to be heard. I’m no angel, but I try to support representation and diversity of all kinds, not just those that benefit me directly.
3. Put your money where your mouth is
If you’re an advocate for representation, support stories that showcase diversity. Open your wallet for works that do this well, and turn your back on those that don’t. Money talks, especially in Hollywood. If enough of us add our voice, they’ll start to listen.
In case you were wondering, there is a happy ending to my story. A couple of years ago, I married a wonderful woman, surrounded by the love of my family and friends.
It just goes to show, you shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV.