In recent years, conversations have started to emerge about the importance of representation in popular media. Consumers are making their voices heard on social media platforms about the representation they want to see. Though many film studios and companies are working to be more diverse, there is still work to be done. In a world with a blend of cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds, having proper representation is necessary.
Tokenism and poor representation
Tokenism is defined as the practice of making only a symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of equality. Tokenism is common in modern media — examples of this type of character include Damian from Mean Girls as a token gay character and Winston from New Girl as a token black character. Tokenism is not proper representation. Often, these characters lack dimension and developed storylines. Token characters frequently serve as comic relief and aren’t taken seriously — they are shown as highly stereotyped individuals. This includes representations of race, LGBTQ+ people and relationships, neurodivergence, poverty, mental illness, and so much more. These highly stereotyped characters serve the purpose of “diversifying” without the writers actually fleshing them out as real characters. The lack of representation on screen tells of the fundamental problem which is the lack of representation within the writers’ rooms.
Besides token characters, poor representation is prevalent in the books we read, the models we see representing our favorite brands, the people writing the shows we watch, and so many facets of life. As of 2020, the Writer’s Guild of America’s screenwriting staff was 56.3% white men and 21.2% white women. 55.8% of U.S. models are white and the majority are cisgender. In 2022, just 4% of romance novels sold featured LGBTQ+ characters. These statistics show that there are many marginalized groups that exist in the United States that simply are not being represented in pop culture and media. This is, however, an improvement from the past as more companies have focused on diversity. Despite the improvements, there is still a long way to go.
WHy is representation important?
Representation allows individuals to feel seen and heard for who they are. Lack of representation alienates people — when those who exist in minority groups aren’t seeing people they can relate to, they feel more alone in their experiences. Representation has an important correlation with mental health, as well. It helps to reduce stigmas and stereotypes surrounding individuals who struggle with mental illness, are neurodivergent, LGBTQ+, etc. Feeling alienated because of something that is a part of your identity can absolutely be detrimental to your mental health, but seeing that represented on screen or in role models in pop culture can help with self-esteem and reduce stigma. Pop culture and mass media are incredibly powerful mediums because they have the capacity to reach so many people. Having people who are part of marginalized groups in writers’ rooms, acting in shows, modeling, writing novels, etc. can encourage other members of those groups to follow their dreams and strive to meet those same achievements. Representation isn’t just about personal validation, but to encourage acceptance as well. Young people should be exposed to all manners of backgrounds so that they become accepting individuals and learn to value diversity and people that come from places different from themselves. Representation can teach so much about other cultures and backgrounds and give people a more well-rounded view of the world, reducing the stereotypes about race and culture that are often perpetuated in pop culture. It is important for every individual to know they are valued and important for who they are and representation can be a step in achieving that.
Representation is an incredibly important step in reducing the stigma that surrounds certain groups and giving diverse groups an equitable part in media to tell their stories. Shows like Lovecraft Country, Moonlight, and Sex Education as well as popular books like On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, and Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters tell the stories of people of color, immigrants, people struggling with mental illness, and LGBTQ+ people among other marginalized groups. Stories like this are so important and help people feel less alone in their struggles because of their identity. Representation is not just about having people of marginalized groups in a movie cast, but also effectively giving voice to the struggles that come with that identity without being harmful, stereotypical, or insensitive. Though it is always a fight for equity and equality, representation is still necessary.