Representation is one of the most important aspects of media, yet it is simultaneously where most media today is lacking. In general, we can think of representation as how media texts present to their audience different demographics, including gender, age, sexual orientation, race and religion, among others. And in Western media, many demographics are therefore underrepresented, including women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, people of non-Christian religions, and people with body types other than thin.
It seems really simple to say that of course we want to see ourselves represented accurately in the media we consume. However, this is not reality. Hollywood is extremely white and male. And this leads the media produced by Hollywood to also be extremely white and male. While this is not to say that Hollywood is the only producer of media, all media will inherently have traces of the society and culture that created it, and is thus reflective of said society.
Looking at the statistical side of things can paint a better picture of the lack of representation for marginalized groups in the media. UCLA’s 2021 diversity report states that only in 2020 did people of color and women nearly reach proportionate representation among film leads when compared to their white male counterparts.
Perhaps this is a great stride given the film industry’s historical lack of representation for people of color and women in film leads, but we should be better than this overall. And behind the camera the statistics are worse. The report explains that people of color remained only 25.4% and 25.9% of film directors and film writers in 2020, respectively. Similarly, in 2020 women only accounted for 20.5% of film directors and 26% of film writers.
Interestingly enough, the same 2021 diversity report from UCLA found that films where less than 11% of the cast represented minority groups performed the poorest among global box office receipts in 2020. Thus, it is not a stretch to say that audiences want to see diverse casting in films created by diverse groups of people. We have made strides overall, but there is still a long way to go.
Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, states in Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s 2011 documentary “Miss Representation,” “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s one of the standout quotes of the film, essentially meaning that audiences need to see people like themselves on screen and in positions of power to best understand that they can achieve similar things. The argument is not that you need an exact blueprint to “break the mold” so to speak and become something amazing. However, it is true that people need to have some idea or a glimpse into a reality where it can be done. Hence, the importance of representation of all demographics in the media is tenfold.
This is not just a rallying cry to diversity the numbers on paper. Overall, Hollywood and other types of media need to look more representative of America’s real population so they are true to the real world. Representation needs to exist, and it needs to be positive.
This requires characters being fully developed, rather than two-dimensional caricatures based on harmful stereotypes. For example, in order to have a positive effect, LGBTQIA+ representation needs to be more than Pixar placing an undefined lesbian couple briefly in “Finding Dory” in 2016. In this case, it should look more like Officer Specter in Pixar’s 2020 film “Onward,” who briefly mentions having a same-sex partner without it being a big deal or selling point of the movie.
Another good example would be the 2018 movie “Crazy Rich Asians”, which was the first film in 25 years to have a majority-Asian cast. “Crazy Rich Asians” is another step in the right direction, proving that a movie’s cast does not have to be mainly white for it to be a box-office success. Moreover, the characters in this movie are not based on offensive stereotypes, nor are they shallow or superficial.
Moreover, movies like the 2017 film “Hidden Figures”, that highlight the achievements of women and people of color in STEM fields, are additional examples of positive representation we should hope to see more of in our media consumption.
It’s not too much to ask for the media we consume on such a constant basis to be representative of the reality we live in. The world is diverse; our movies, television shows, books, magazines and video games should reflect this.