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Why We Tell Stories: The Importantce of On-Screen Representation

For the past several years, some of the top critically acclaimed and top-earning box office films including Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse, Coco, and Crazy Rich Asians gave representation to minority groups who have been starving for representation on the big screen since forever. While these movies certainly seem to show that Hollywood is moving towards more representation in its offerings, the entertainment industry still has a long way to go.

The University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg Inclusion Initiative Annual Report analyzes the top 100 films each year since 2007 to shed light on the ongoing exclusion of women, people of color, LGBTQAI+ actors and people with disabilities. While the report for films released in 2018 has not been published yet, the statistics for films released in 2017 still prove that Hollywood has made no progress in on-screen representation over the past decade:

  • Since 2007, the study found that only 31.8% of characters with dialogue were women last year, roughly the same ratio that has persisted for the last 11 years
  • Only 13% of the top films since the study began have had gender-balanced casts (45% to 55% of characters were female)
  • People of color were still underrepresented in last year’s movies, with only 4.8% Asian characters, 6.2% Hispanic and 12.1% black
  • For representation for women of color of the top 100 2017 films, 43% had no black female characters, 65% had no Asian or Asian American women and 64 % had no Latinx roles
  •  For the LGBTQAI+ community, only 0.7% of characters were lesbian, gay or bisexual, and those roles were predominantly white and male
  • Only 2.5% of all characters last year in the 100 top-grossing films had a disability
  • As studies have repeatedly shown, the lack of inclusion on screen is linked to exclusion behind the camera. Across 1,223 directors over 11 years, only 4.3% were women, 5.2% were black and 31% were Asian. Four of those directors were black women, three were Asian women and only one was Latina

Given what seems to be a flood of on-screen representation for minority groups it is quite frustrating to know that in the grand scheme of things, Hollywood has a major representation problem and needs to do a much better job of fixing that.

Diversity versus Representation:

One of the main problems regarding representation in Hollywood is that Hollywood believes it can substitute representation with diversity. However, diversity and representation are not the same thing. British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed is an advocate for representation and spoke about the importance of representation in front of the British House of Commons. When asked about diversity and representation during an interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Ahmed broke down what he believes the difference is between diversity and representation, using a clever metaphor to explain why he prefers to focus on representation:

“I don't like to talk about diversity. I feel like it sounds like an added extra. It sounds like the fries, not the burger. It sounds like something on the side. You got your main thing going on, and you sprinkle a little bit of diversity on top of that. That's not what it's about for me. It's about representation. And representation is absolutely fundamental in terms of what we expect from our culture and from our politics. We all want to feel represented. We all want to feel seen and heard and valued. So I prefer to talk about representation.”

In other words, diversity is about making the already powerful person in the room feel better about themselves whereas representation is about allowing people to see themselves in the stories allegedly being made for them. Representation is powerful because the character’s minority identity (whether it be their race, sexuality, gender identity, disability, socioeconomic status, or nationality) is not their entire identity. On the other hand, diversity fails to truly represent the minority group because the only reason the minority character is on screen is to show that the film is diverse. Diversity should not feel like product placement. One example of representation done right is the film Wonder Woman. It is the first major blockbuster superhero film chronicling Diana Prince’s hero’s journey to become the superhero Wonder Woman. Director Patty Jenkins told her story in a way that didn’t make her gender her entire identity. Diana’s major conflict was her acceptance that humanity may not deserve to be saved but she saves them anyway. This conflict is not tied to her gender. In other words, Wonder Woman isn’t a female superhero, she is a superhero who simply happens to be female.

If the battle for authentic on-screen representation is continually undermined by the “quick out” of diversity, then why must we continue to fight for representation? The answer is twofold: (1) when done right on-screen representation empowers the person who identifies with the character and (2) representation has a powerful educational impact on the mass audience.

Empowering the Underrepresented (or the lack of empowerment):

When interviewed with the Huffington Post about why representation matters, Darnell Hunt, the director for African American studies at UCLA, said, “We’re pretty confident that, the more TV you watch, the more media you consume, the more likely it is that media ― almost like radiation ― builds up, and the accumulated effect is to make you feel that what you’re seeing is somewhat normal.” Assistant director Ana- Christina Ramón added, “what you see often becomes a part of your memory and thus a part of your life experience.”

The power of representation--and the lack thereof--can be very dangerous and damaging to the people watching. Ultimately, stories matter. We tell our children fairy tales that teach them moral lessons; the stories we tell shape people and their perspectives. As Michael Morgan, a professor at the University of Massachusetts puts it, “Stories affect how we live our lives, how we see other people, how we think about ourselves When minorities are authentically represented on screen it signals to them that they matter. Society values them as a person. When you don’t see people like yourself the message is you are invisible. You don’t count. There is something wrong with you.”

The lack of representation can lower self-esteem, otherwise known as “symbolic annihilation”.  The term was first used in a 1976 titled Living With Television which studied how entertainment media saturates our lives and the effect those stories have on viewers. Its authors George Gerbner and Larry Gross coined the term with a chilling line: “Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” Nicole Martins of Indiana University who co-authored a study about the media’s effect on self-esteem of children explains ‘symbolic annihilation’: “the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.”

The Importance of Authentic Representation:

Character tropes that mold the dialogue and actions of characters do their own damage as they create or reinforce racial stereotypes like the Asian math student, the sassy black sidekick, the icy female boss, or the fashion-obsessed gay best friend. “For the underrepresented, seeing a character who looks like them can have a limiting effect if that character is restricted to behaving only in certain ways, which don’t reflect the breadth of their life’s experience. If you are a black, Asian or Latinx person who sees an ‘inauthentic’ or ‘one-dimensional’ version of yourself,” Ramón explained, “[you] may wonder if that is all that is expected of you in society. Visual media teaches us how the world works and our place in it.”

Ramón’s words on the importance of authentic representation are backed with a study done by YouGov on representation. The survey concludes that representation in film matters to minorities. When asked if there are characters in American TV and film who reflect an authentic experience for Blacks and Hispanics, the results proved that while there may be representation, the representation is a stereotype of their race: 53% of black Americans think black characters are often stereotyped; 37% of Hispanics believe that people like them are cast inauthentically. The imbalance exists within roles too. When asked if characters who resemble them have too little dialogue, 49% of blacks and 53% of Hispanics agreed. This number soars to 61% when other minorities, comprised of Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American, and mixed people were asked as well.

Another important aspect is that minorities have to fight power dynamics in roles where people like them were cast. Blacks (49%), Hispanics (49%), and other minorities (58%) say that they frequently see characters like them cast as sidekicks, but not as authority figures. However, when minorities are put in roles they are not historically placed the effect is powerful. Black Panther’s Shuri is a hip, modern, princess who is in charge of her kingdom’s technology department. It presents girls (especially girls of color) with healthy role models and encourages them to pursue study in the fields of STEM. When little girls watch Wonder Woman they are shown that they can be powerful and fight for people who cannot fight for themselves, regardless of whether or not they are perceived as beautiful.

Viewers might not think that the shows and films that provide them with a happy escape after a busy week may affect our view of our neighbors, fellow peers, or people around the world, but they do. The stories we watch on screen are part of a much larger force that consistently simplifies the different experiences of lives enjoyed by people of color, women, and other underrepresented groups. Minorities realize (supported by research) that the media influence not only affects how they view themselves but how others view them.

Carlos Cortes, a historian who wrote the book The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach About Diversity, offered an important example of what happens when representation is lacking. During an episode of a game show, two contestants linked the word “gangs” with East LA. The contestants linked gangs with East LA because of the way mass media operates. At the time of the game show, Latinx gangs in East LA were featured prominently by news media.

“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, the LGBTQIA+ community, and the disabled,” Cortes wrote. “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.”

That’s why films such as Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Into the Spider-Verse, Coco, and Crazy Rich Asians matter. When representation is portrayed in an accurate, powerful, and non-stereotypical light, everyone benefits. Underrepresented groups feel empowered through fictional role models that show them they can be anything. On the other hand, the wider audience is accurately educated on the treatment of minority groups and the simple fact that minorities are more complex and dynamic than the stereotypes society has boxed them into. While change may be slow in Hollywood, the effect of creating films to which all types of audiences can relate--not just the cis, heterosexual, able-bodied white man, is not just limited to a wider audience appeal and thus bigger box office. When younger generations of all identities are able to see themselves on screen they feel empowered. Kids who have historically been represented in the media also benefit from seeing movies that have accurate representation. They learn to appreciate and respect the different identities people can have. The long term benefits of representation on younger generations have yet to be seen. This is because even the younger adults did not have much representation. The majority of black Americans say that while growing up, it was difficult for them to find role models who looked like them in movies and TV. Over half of Hispanics and other minorities also identify with the same problem. Academy awards for directors Jordan Peele and Guillermo Del Toro at the Oscars as well as box office cash for movies such as Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse, Coco, and Crazy Rich Asians may move the needle on this. To the future and current entertainment industry creators as well as the audiences who support such films, let’s go and make this happen. We need to tell unique stories to show everyone starving to see themselves on-screen that they matter. We need to tell our unique stories to show the rest of the world that we are not the stereotypes history and society has placed us in. If not for our benefit then for the benefit of the generations to come.

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Emily Berg

Seattle U '21

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