Why Representation Matters

Image:  Abagond, 2016

Image: Abagond, 2016

Trying to make people who have always been represented understand why good representation is so important is extremely difficult. For those who don’t understand, representation seems like a trivial thing. But for those of us who do understand, we know how important representation truly is. We know what it is like growing up, and only seeing people who look like us in stereotypical roles, aimed to be the butt of a joke. We know what it’s to grow up hating how we look since the models, who we are taught to look to as the epitome of beauty, never looked like us. We know what it’s like to grow up feeling like an outsider in your own country, since apparently your stories don’t matter enough to be told. 

The fact of the matter is minorities are woefully underrepresented in Western media. According to a recent study by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, just 28.3 percent of characters with dialogue were from non-white racial/ethnic groups, although such groups are nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population. Furthermore, even when minorities are represented in media, they are often cast in stereotypical roles. For example, according by a study done by Bruce Nash at the Numbers, who has spend years compiling a database of 160,000 acting credits from 26,000 major US movie releases, 62 percent of all actors who were credited as "gang member" were black. 61 percent of actors credited as gangsters were black, "gangbanger" was 60 percent, and thug was 66 percent. However, black actors do not enjoy the same representation within other typical minor roles in film. For example, among actors who played a "police officer," only 18 percent were black.  And or "doctor" and "pilot" — two other common background roles — the stats were at 9 and 3 percent, respectively. Despite the majority of black actors in background roles being something related to a gang member, in reality only 35% of gang members are black. The over portrayal of minorities as stereotypes isn’t unique to black people. For example, Asian men said they were often given roles as tech nerds, assistants, and doctors, and Asian women, were given parts as masseuses and sex workers or characters described as submissive, fragile or quiet. The Opportunity Agenda analyzed TV programs that aired between 2014 and 2016 that portrayed immigrants and found that half of Latino immigrant characters had committed a crime of some sort.

When we are young, television is often our only lens into the real world. So, when children of color turn on the T.V. and see the only people who look like them playing criminals or gang members, they will eventually believe that is who they are destined to become. People of color aren’t the heroes of movies, they are the villains and sidekicks. What kind of message does that send out about how we perceive people of color? That they are nothing more than the bad guys and background characters? We deserve to be the heroes too. And when white children see people of color only playing stereotyped roles, especially if they aren’t in a diverse area and have no other people of color around them, they subconsciously begin associating minorities with the stereotypes they are depicted as, which contributes to prejudices and eventually racism in this country. 

At the 2018 Golden Globe awards Korean Canadian actress Sandra Oh looking at the 2018 nominees said “I see you, and I see you, all of these faces of change, and now, so will everyone else." Looking out at the crowd she saw the all black cast of “Black Panther” and the all Asian cast of Crazy Rich Asians. Change is coming and I believe it will keep coming because now, we, the people, all the people, are asking to be seen. Last year I started watching “The Good Place” and one of the main characters ,Tahani, is South Asian, but she wasn’t the nerd or the weird one, she was the beautiful heiress who nearly everyone loved. I can not put into words the feeling of seeing someone like you on screen in an empowering role, it really is something else. And that was just one character in a TV show, I can’t even imagine how it felt for black people watching Black Panther, or East and South East Asians watching Crazy Rich Asians. And to those of you who are represented, and may not completely understand why representation is so important, all I ask of you is that you listen to us and our stories, and fight with us. Let’s make sure we stay on this path of progress, and make sure children of color need not feel like outsiders any longer.

Sneha Jos Comment