Why Diversity is So Much More than Being Politically Correct

It is a frequent mantra of minority groups to call for better on-screen representation. Women want to see more women characters, People of Color want to see more POC characters, and the LGBTQ+ community wants to see more LGBTQ+ characters. As well, these groups typically want more representation behind the camera as well, to have someone who can relate to their experiences directing how those stories will play out on-screen. While it might seem completely reasonable to want to be able to see yourself in the shows, movies, and other media you consume, all you have to do is look to the comment section of a YouTube video to see that not everyone feels that way.

Many people decry the call for representation as “SJW BS” and “political correctness” because obviously championing human decency and asking people not to be explicitly horrible to other people is such a horrible thing to do. However, instead of being as petty as I’d like to be in this circumstance, I think this is a good time to examine why we need to have diversity in our media.

First off, it’s not greed. White, straight, men have all the movies and shows. I mean, how many different movies are there right now starring a white man named Chris? Regardless of whether or not we want to admit it, we learn from our media consumption. Movies and TV shows especially show people what they can and cannot be. White, straight men are cast in every role Hollywood has to offer. They can be scientists, cops, nerds, unattractive, villains, heroes—anything they want to be—and that directly translates to what they think they can be in the real world. Apply that logic to everyone else now.

Women are primarily attractive love interests that can be replaced with a sexy lamp and not change the plot much (this is an actual trope, look it up if you don’t believe me). Few movies pass the Bechdel Test—the requirement to pass is that two named women characters carry a conversation about something other than a man. The bar is that low and movies are actively using it as a limbo stick. (Let us also appreciate the fact that while I was writing this my document tried to get me to change the word ‘named’ to ‘naked’. I’m not entirely sure that’s not what happens in many writing rooms considering how women are three times as likely to appear partially or fully nude compared to their male counterparts.) According to the same study women only had 30% of speaking roles in movies and are much more likely to be identified by a role such as ‘mother’ or ‘wife’ (58%) than men (31%), who were more likely to be identified by profession.

When you see people being constantly portrayed in a certain way (women as wives/mothers/sex objects/prizes, African Americans as thugs/criminals/funny sidekicks, Latinx people as criminals/low-income workers/sexy exotic love interests, Asian Americans as the hyper-intelligent sidekick/desexualized men/hypersexualized women, LGBTQ+ people as tragic/dead, etc. etc. etc.) we expect these roles to play out in real life.

When we give real, complex roles to people, you can start to see that change. When you can see yourself on-screen and know, “I’m not alone - I can do this,” it’s an extremely powerful message. Women have been inspired to move into STEM fields based on the representation seen in shows like the X-Files and Bones. I walked out of Wonder Woman feeling like I could take on the world, because I had never seen a woman on-screen be so unapologetically powerful and strong. I had never seen a woman on screen where the camera wasn’t devouring her. The full body armor shot didn’t look at her butt or her breasts—it looked at her armor and she didn’t contort her body to make them both parts of her body visible at the same time. She was given every bit of respect from the other characters and the camera, that any male superhero is given. I don’t remember ever seeing a movie that did that. Even Alien: Covenant, a movie about a perfect weapon of a species utterly decimating a group of humans, made sure to get a naked boob shot amongst the blood and gore. The death-dealing Alien paused so the camera could sexualize the woman (whose name I can’t even remember, if she had one at all) who it was about to be brutally killed.

Asking for representation isn’t about getting greedy and wanting to push white, straight men out of media. It’s about getting an equal seat at the table—it’s about being able to see ourselves in the movies and shows and games that are supposed to be for everyone. We deserve to be more than stereotypes, tokens, and sexy lamps.