Why Does Media Representation Matter?

Thoughts from those underrepresented

Cera Sylar

Cera Sylar

With the Oscars of 2015 being referred to as “the whitest Oscars since 1998,” many people have been discussing the importance of representation in the media.

“I work in the entertainment industry, and the lack of diversity is mind-blowing,” Sadeeq Ali, college sophomore, said. “Shonda Rhimes, writer and creator of shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, was given an award for her ‘color-blind,’ casting choices. The mere fact that an award for this is given out is indicative of how big of a problem this is.”

The lack of racial diversity in media is rampant. According to the New York Film Academy, only 12.4 percent of speaking characters from the 2007-2012 top 500 grossing films were portrayed by black actors, while 75.8 percent of these roles were portrayed by white characters. In fact, 40 percent of the top 100 grossing films from 2012 showed black characters as less than 5 percent of the speaking cast.

Unfortunately, the underrepresentation of certain groups is not limited to people of color. Making up approximately half of the total U.S. population, women comprised only 30.8 percent of speaking characters in films from 2007-2012.

40 percent of the top 100 grossing films from 2012 showed black characters as less than 5 percent of the speaking cast.

Even on a global scale, only 23 percent of film protagonists are female. Even in the films where different races and genders were represented, they were often portrayed in ways that were more subservient and supportive to their white or male counterparts. Unless you are a white straight male, you may have a difficult time finding people who look and act like you represented equally and completely in the media.

Now comes the question of why this lack of diversity matters.

“Everyone should have characters or images they can relate to. It’s part of how we understand ourselves,” Tate Sheppard, University of Minnesota freshman, said.

Simone Ritchie, a freshman at the SUNY Purchase school who self-identifies as biracial, said she never remembers seeing characters on television “who looked like her.”

“When I was asked to draw pictures of myself, I would always give myself a head of blonde hair until I was about six years old,” Ritchie said. “Why did I want to do this? Because I thought that being blonde was way prettier than having dark hair. However, part of me likes to think that if the movies and TV shows I watched showed a more accurate representation of who I was, I might have been more willing to embrace who I was at a younger age.”

In addition to giving viewers a reflection of themselves, the media can also expose viewers to groups of people in a safe environment. Natalie Dulka, a freshman at Concordia University, said that diversity in media can be a way for less understood and underrepresented groups, such as trans and non-binary individuals, to have a voice with which to discuss and present who they are. “The remote nature of media allows for the less exposed, more conservative population to experience trans culture and see non-binary folk and accept that they exist without that reality being forced into their world,” she said. “It provides a safe space for the trans population to express themselves to a less aware audience without fear of retribution or hate crimes.”

In addition to giving viewers a reflection of themselves, the media can also expose viewers to groups of people in a safe environment.

Chyenne Thibodo, an alumni of the University, cites comics as a place where she feels underrepresented and isolated from the characters in the stories. “I think of media as cathartic. There is something that reduces my anxiety in someone punching the source of war and incurable disease in the face. That person, though, is more often than not a muscular male,” Thibodo said. “Girls need to be saved or risk just dying where they stand if they dare follow their own instincts rather than listening to their boyfriend. I’m looking at you, Amazing Spider-Man 2. Girls with body types like mine are, at best, not represented, and at worst, a punch line.”

Without representation of all races, genders, sexes, sexualities, body types, etc., there are stories that we are missing. Without equal representation, there are people who are not feeling heard or seen. In a nation and world as diverse and complex as ours, the last thing we want is to lose the stories of a large portion of our people.

“I want movies where actresses that look like me are cast in leading roles, because there are women who look like that who live those lives in reality. They don’t have a white woman to step in and live out their problems,” Ritchie said. “The media is a monumentally important influence in our lives, whether we want it to be or not. We all absorb it, whether or not we’re trying to. Who are we to deprive young men and women with an image that doesn’t look like them?”