One of the most frustrating arguments to have as a filmmaker is justifying the films you make, whether you’re an environmental documentarian or sketch comedian. Especially when you come from a traditionally underrepresented group and one of your goals is to increase the visibility of people like you, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
“Stop bringing politics into my movies; why can’t I just watch something normal about a normal cisgender, straight, white man going on normal cis, straight, white adventures?”
Aside from the obviously messed up status quo where “white” and “male” are considered apolitical, neutral choices for a protagonist, representation in media matters a lot more than just the thrill of finally seeing yourself depicted on screen. It can just be hard to articulate in the heat of the irritating moment, especially when the subtext invalidates your concerns and very identity.
As an asexual woman with only 5 canon main character portrayals of asexuality in all of film and TV (in fact, exclusively in TV), this comes up a lot for me. Particularly it comes up when I mention the fact that a lack of media representation before 2016 (starting with the TV series "Shadowhunters") directly contributed to my own lack of understanding that asexuality existed, let alone that it’s the label and experience I feel best represents my own identity. Seeing is believing, and if you never see yourself (at all, or in a positive/nuanced light) in pop culture (operative word: culture) it can be nearly impossible to imagine yourself complexly and feel confident in your own skin. So, let’s workshop some sourced, accessible talking points together.
Some sobering statistics in case that alone can sway your debate partner’s preconceptions.
In 2017, only 2 out of 10 lead actors in film, and only 2.2 out of 10 lead actors in broadcast TV were people of color. In that same year, only 22.2% of women and 9.4% of people of color are credited with creating broadcast TV shows. 1.3 out of 10 film directors are people of color or women, contrasted with white directors and male directors, respectively (Source: UCLA, 2019).
In 2019, only 10.2% of regular broadcast, scripted primetime characters who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer, and there was only a single character (Todd from Netflix’s "Bojack Horseman") who identified as asexual. There were also only 38 regular and recurring transgender characters in all of broadcast, cable, and streaming TV (despite there being 532 original scripted television series in the United States alone that year). 21 were trans women, 12 were trans men, and 5 were non-binary (Source: GLAAD, 2019).
If those aren’t enough to showcase a problem, let’s dig deeper.
Film and television are more than just entertainment.
From the article “Cinema is Good for You,” author SC Noah Uhrig explains that “attending the cinema can have decisively positive effects on mental health because ... [it] provides a safe environment in which to experience roles and emotions we might not otherwise be free to experience ... Moreover ... it is a highly accessible social art form, the participation in which generally cuts across economic lines." (Source: SC Noah Uhrig - University of Essex, UK)
Even when looking at movies and TV generally, engaging with and consuming media has positive mental health effects on society as well as individuals. Because challenging ideas and concepts are displayed in story, it can be easier to empathize with a perspective usually at odds with your own worldview—film implicitly offers a fuller, more comprehensible context for communities and ideas not always in the mainstream.
Representation in film and media specifically increases self esteem.
In 2011, a longitudinal study with 396 black and white children of all genders was conducted to unpack whether or not television consumption had an effect on self-esteem. It did, and not because of the classic fear of TV rotting kids’ brains. "TV made subjects feel good about themselves—if those subjects were White boys,” the study explained. “The results revealed television exposure, after controlling for age, body satisfaction, and baseline self-esteem, was significantly related to children’s self-esteem. Specifically, television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for White and Black girls and Black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among White boys.” (Source: Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem.)
Media tells society who and what is important. When certain characteristics are considered the “norm,” unremarked upon and duplicated regardless of property, it implicitly tells those outside of that “norm” that they aren’t as important. If they were, they’d get to be the action star or the romantic lead or a character in the ensemble. Seeing is believing, and seeing people who look like you represented in nuanced and varied ways in media is an important identity building block that we're failing to provide for non-white, non-male humans.
Negative (or non-existent) representation influences public opinion.
Carlos Cortes, a Professor Emeritus of history at the University of California, Riverside has written extensively on the subject of diversity and media, and for the Center of Media Literacy wrote an article that articulates the far-reaching consequences of not just a lack of representation, but a lack of positive representation as well. "First, whether intentionally or unintentionally, both the news and the entertainment media 'teach' the public about minorities, other ethnic groups and societal groups, such as women, gays, and the elderly,” he explains. “Second, this mass media curriculum has a particularly powerful educational impact on people who have little or no direct contact with members of the groups being treated." (Source: Center for Media Literacy.)
When the only portrayal of Middle-Eastern people is as terrorists, the only portrayal of Latino people is as gangsters, and the only portrayal of women is as subservient and silly, that affects public perception within their communities as well as with the rest of the world. When the only narratives about yourself are negative or dismissive, and as already established narratives influence real-world culture and cultural priorities, it’s no wonder you’re dismissed and treated negatively by those whose media narratives are more varied and nuanced. They don’t have to imagine themselves complexly, because that work is already done for them; as text, not subtext. A white man can be anything, and we’ve seen him do literally everything over and over in TV and films.
Name a prevailing stereotype of a non-white or non-male person, and I bet you can trace it to depictions in at least one media property. It’s long overdue we stopped pretending that media representation has no influence over how people are treated in the real world.
*Feature Photo: Shadowhunters / Freeform (2016)