Everybody loves a good binge session. To sit down, clear your mind of any work or pressing issues in your life for a couple of hours (or days), and just immerse yourself in a different world to your own. But as we head to the cinemas to see the latest blockbuster or wait those agonising 15 seconds for Netflix to play the next episode, we are putting ourselves in the hot seat to be influenced and reactive to what is being projected onto the screen. To form judgements on the types of characters we see, or to notice the absence of characters we don’t see.
Representation is the way the media presents ideas about gender, sexuality, race, age, politics, social issues and historical events to an audience. Because the media has control of the script and the light they can show it in, it has the greater influence and power over the way ideas and opinions are shaped inside a viewer’s head.
The main push for representation comes under themes of race, sexuality and gender- but can go as far as beauty standards for both men and women. Amongst these are also religion, mental illnesses and the societal expectations we face as we grow up. However, the biggest push comes under themes of race and sexuality, so that’s what I’ll be exploring today.
But it wouldn’t be right or fair to give this article a single perspective. Even before I began to write, I felt a little uneasy. All these ideas, coming from a straight, very white, privileged 16 year old. The only real advantage I had on this topic was listening to the world and those who have experienced under-representation with thoughts to share on it. So I conducted a quick 24 hour survey among my fellow peers, to gather a more balanced view of my generation’s opinions on media representation.
I posed questions that would help me understand how many of my peers have felt excluded in terms of their race or sexuality, while also giving those impassioned for this topic a chance to write their thoughts on how they think that the media could improve.
Let’s begin with Racial Representation.
#OscarsSoWhite was a hashtag that could have accurately trended in any year, given the Caucasian narrative that Hollywood has written, for as long as it’s been around. However, it was only created in 2015 and carried into the 2016 Awards, due to the four major award categories only featuring white actors and actresses.This was the biggest call-out of the racial bias of the Academy Awards, with A-list stars such as Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and director Spike Lee soon joining the movement and boycotting attending the Awards for 2016.
This is important as POC were frustrated with how little they could relate to movies and characters that were being shown, as they all had a “white bias”.
The media giving a diverse representation of all races opens up the world to more possibilities, and for positive influences. When Whoopi Goldberg first watched Nichelle Nichols, a black actress starring in the Star Trek movies, she knew at that point that she could achieve her dream. When Lupita Nyong’o saw the cast of ‘The Colour Purple’ (starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey) she knew that there was a space for her in Hollywood too.
One representation can spark a whole new generation of actors and actresses to continue or even begin their passion and not become discouraged by the fact that they cannot see ‘themselves’ on TV. Gina Rodriguez, a Latina actress best known for starring in ‘Jane the Virgin’, remarked on the fact that a wide variety of representation is important as not to create a stereotype or preset of values for an entire race.
A recent example of an outrage at misrepresentation was the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the role of ‘Major’- (originally a Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi) a cyborg in charge of an elite terrorist fighting squad in the movie ‘Ghost in the Shell’, a Hollywood remake of the Japanese 1995 original. While looking purely from an outside perspective, it is replacing a possible Asian actress (an already under-represented demographic) with a Caucasian one. But there is also the fact that not only is it replacing Asian facial features with Causasian ones – it is removing the social customs, history, identity and language from the original. It also sends a hurtful underlying message to Asian actresses, that they are just not marketable enough.
But we can’t forget the progress that has been made. Looking and comparing hit TV shows from 20 years ago to now, the casts are extraordinarily more diverse. Shows such as Friends and Dawson’s Creek, which all sported purely white actors in the main roles, were prime examples of what the media and TV outlets chose to represent the world we lived in (or were yet to be born into!). But looking at the popular dramas of today, we can see a change. Arguably the most popular show as of now “13 Reasons Why” boasts a very diverse cast with Latino, South East Asian and Chinese main characters. Riverdale also upped their representation by changing the race of some of their most iconic characters to accurately reflect the more diverse world we live in, with Brazilian, Chinese-Malaysian and black actors replacing traditionally white roles.
It was the voice of the people who were tired of feeling under-represented and having their roles ‘white-washed’ that were able to bring about this change. This change is not just to have a more politically-correct world or to ‘please everybody’, but to portray the world as it really is. This change creates characters and role models young POC can identify, connect with, and aspire to be like. In terms of the survey;
“On what level do you find your race represented in the TV Shows that you watch?”
60% of respondents answered that they were able to find their race in every show, while 20% said they would have to purposely seek out shows if they were to see their race represented and 5% of respondents answered that they were yet to see their race on a TV Show.
In terms of LGBT+ Representation:
It is noticeable that teen drama shows love a token character. We can see that with stereotypes such as ‘the black best friend’ who shows up only to help the protagonist or to deliver a “sassy” one-liner, usually to ensure ‘diversity’. But there is nothing that an all-straight, usually white female led drama show loves than a Gay Best Friend. This TV trope has been around for so long and used so often, it has found its way into reality as girls around the country tried claiming gay individuals like expensive handbags. If you’re not familiar, the Gay Best friend trope exists solely to add stereotypical feminine mannerisms or ‘gay drama’ for a good laugh. While you can argue that some representation of a gay character is better than none, and that the original idea certainly stemmed from the good intentions of the inclusion of more diverse relationships, the stereotypes that have followed these characters through the years have created a distorted image for both straight and gay viewers.
Gay men who saw these stereotypes as they discovered their own sexualities may have felt pressured to act this way or to copy the only mannerisms seen as ‘acceptable’ or enjoyed by mainstream media.
The change from the Gay Best Friend to a developed character with a same sex relationship has been a slow one, but a change nonetheless. LGBT characters are now more ‘fleshed-out’, and are seen beyond their sexuality. They have story arcs, character development and detailed relationships told like any heterosexual ones. The US version of ‘Shameless’ demonstrates this well along with other shows such as ‘Shadowhunters’ and ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ .
The representation for LGBT characters on our screens matters to the youth in the same way racial diversity does for people of colour. The Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media uses a simple but veritable motto; “If we can see it, we can be it”. If a LGBT youth were to be questioning everything about their sexuality, but turn to their favourite show and see their identity as the butt of a joke, a slur, or just ‘not normal’, they could be discouraged, attempt to suppress it and hide from what they see has been deemed ‘not normal’. With inclusion, positive messages and realistic depictions of all types of members of the LGBT community, we will see our screens begin to really reflect our world and not a world that excludes or perpetuates distorted images of everyday humans.
“How well do you find your sexuality represented in the TV shows you watch?”
70% of respondents replied that every show they watch includes their own sexuality and 30% of respondents answered that they see their sexuality occasionally, either as a token or in a specialised show featuring LGBT relationships.
A Larger Outlook from this Generation
Another question I posed was-
“Do you think representation has improved over the past 5 years, since the push for better diversity in TV Shows?”
Here are some of the responses I received:
“Yes, but only the minorities that are larger groups. There is lots of lgbt representation through gay characters and lots of poc representation through black characters but not any representations of the smaller groups eg. asexual, non-binary, south-asians, west-asians. However this is not to say there has been no growth in diversity, it is amazing how much there is compared to 5 or 10 years ago” – Anon
“Although media has tried over the recent years to include the “ethnic minority” in lead roles etc, I still feel as though the “token black” agenda of political correctness is still prevalent” – Anon
“Progress is slow, but at least there is progress” – Anon
“Which popular teen drama (out of 10) do you believe to be the most representative of our world today/most diverse in your mind?”
‘13 Reasons Why’ came out top with 61% of respondents ranking it top of the list for its progressive nature of fighting racial stereotypes, LGBT relationships and mental illness representation.
‘How to Get Away with Murder’ came out second with 11% of votes, no doubt recognised for its great diversity, as mentioned previously.
‘Riverdale’, ‘Shameless’ and ‘The 100’ are also worthy of mention.
In terms of the effect that representation has on people, 65% of respondents said that they felt empowered when they watched a show that represented their race/sexuality/gender as a main role. It’s a win/win situation for both sides. It’s encouraging to see producers finally catching onto this ideal and producing successful shows that encourage diverse casting and representation, without sacrificing any characters to the expense of a stereotype or token. But, I mirror many of the respondents when I say, we can still do better.
Needless to say, I wrote this article with the help of my friends. Because let’s face it. If this entire article were to be compiled solely by the whitest girl in Macleans College, it would be one giant leap for irony, one massive step backwards for mankind.
Written by: Tara Jackson
Edited by: Elena Pihera