by Michelle Palmer
“It’s important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty, so they can grow up in a world where they look in the mirror, first through their own families — as well as the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House and the Grammys — and see themselves, and have no doubt that they’re beautiful, intelligent and capable. This is something I want for every child of every race.”
Awards season is upon us! Love it or hate it, it’s a good opportunity to think about representation. [UPDATE: What is representation? It’s “the portrayal of someone in a particular way or as being of a certain nature.” In this context, we’re talking about how (and how much) minorities are portrayed in media.] Last year was the year of #OscarsSoWhite, and this year’s Oscars is quite a bit better in that respect. There’s certainly still work to do, but it’s a step in the right direction. Today, I hope to show why that’s important and how you can help. And I’m going to do so primarily the words of those more affected by these realities than me.
[Disclaimer: While this post primarily focuses on women and African-Americans, these same principles and concepts apply to all minority groups (Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino, LGBT, disabled, etc.). I hope to cover these groups further in future posts.]
Last year, the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at USC studied the top 100 films of 2015. Here are the main findings of the report:
- 31.4% of all speaking characters were female.
- 26.3% were characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.
- 2.4% were characters with disabilities.
- 49 films included no speaking or named Asian or Asian-American characters.
- 17 featured no Black/African American characters.
- 45 films did not include a character with a disability.
- Only 32 films had female leads/co-leads.
- Of those, only 3 of those female leads/co-leads were women from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.
It’s clear that women and people of color are underrepresented. And women of color are affected doubly so. Another report offers these stats: Of all women in the top 100 films of 2014, 74% were White, 11% were Black, 4% were Latina, and %4 were Asian.
Why These Stats Matter:
Lupita Nyong’o sort of introduced me to this whole representation thing and why it matters back in 2014. That’s the first time I really remember thinking about it consciously. She was recalling a time when she “felt unbeautiful,” and I think it sort of shocked me into paying attention….like how could Lupita Nyong’o have ever possibly felt unbeautiful?! I mean, look at her! But she did, and seeing someone like herself on screen and in print made a difference in her life.
“I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin… And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no conservation, she’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then…Alek Wek. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me, as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden Oprah was telling me it wasn’t.”
But it’s not just Lupita. It’s also Leslie…
“When I was young, my dad always let me listen to comedy albums. I always knew about comedy, I always loved comedy. The day that I saw Whoopi Goldberg on television, I cried so hard, because I kept looking at my daddy going, ‘Oh my god. There’s somebody on TV that looks like me! She looks like me! Yay! I can be on TV! I can be on TV! I can do it! Look at her look at her! She looks just like me.’”
And it’s not just Lupita and Leslie. It’s also Whoopi…
“When Star Trek came on, I was 9 years old. And I saw this show and there you were and I ran through the house saying, ‘Hey! Come everybody! Quick! Quick! Look! There’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew from that moment that I could become anything I wanted to be.”
And if none of that convinces you that representation is important, go ahead and check out this list from BuzzFeed, and let their 23 examples get all up in your feels like they did mine.
But it’s not just about representation. It’s about good representation.
In a report from 2015, Dr. Martha Lauzen, Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, analyzed the top 100 films from 2014 and found similar results as the report mentioned above, but she also found that female characters were generally younger than their male counterparts, less likely to be portrayed as leaders, and more likely to be identified by their personal rather than professional roles, such as “wife” or “mother.” Recently, Hidden Figures, a 2017 Oscar nominee for Best Picture (which also grossed $144m worldwide at the time of writing), has been a force for undoing the stereotype that a film with women in the lead roles won’t sell. The most recent Star Wars films, both of which have female leads and both of which have earned over $1b worldwide, have also gone a long way to prove the point. Of course, one year with several of these female led films isn’t enough.
In my opinion, much worse is the poor representation that Black men receive, representation that has real-life consequences. Leigh Donaldson makes the case: “Not only does the media’s reluctance to provide more balanced perspectives of our African-American male population worsen cultural division among all people, it enables judges to hand out harsher sentences, companies to deny jobs, banks to decline loans and the police to shoot indiscriminately. The mass media is certainly aware of its vast power to shape popular ideas, opinions and attitudes. They should become equally cognizant of their role as a mechanism of social change for the better of all.”
If you disagree, here are a few reports that may challenge you:
- Media Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys by The Opportunity Agenda
- The Perceived Realism of African American Portrayals on Television by Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter
- Images of Black Males in Popular Media by Dr. Darron T. Smith
- Media representations of black young men and boys Report of the REACH media monitoring project
- The Media Narrative of Black Men in America is All Wrong by Jamal Hagler
What do we do about it?
“And the way that you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering. And you make them stand up for themselves.”
– Adele (to Beyonce)
In response to Adele’s words, author and activist Ijeoma Oluo said, “Personally, I had a second of ‘huh?’ when Adele was speaking, but I saw that she was trying to do something different. She first said ‘me & my friends’ and then stopped & specifically added ‘my black friends’ – this is honoring our specific experience.” And that’s step #1: Honor the specific experience of those who are not like you. Recognize that what’s being portrayed might mean more to someone else than it does to you, and that’s okay.
Step#2: Use your position to create, promote, and showcase any media (music/tv/film/news) that does representation right. If you’re thinking, “What position?” read on:
– If you’re a teacher, use resources (books and videos) with healthy representation. (And if you can’t find any, get in touch. Y’all know I love to do some research! Seriously.) Here’s a great list for the little ones: 28 Black Picture Books.
– If you’re an artist, find ways to make your work diverse and inclusive.
– If you have any connection at all to Hollywood or a newsroom or a newspaper, encourage healthy representation and call out the unhealthy stuff.
And even if there’s no way you can use your job to promote or create healthy, diverse representation, you can still use your consumer power to make a positive difference. Acknowledge it. Support it. Point it out. Praise it. Go see Moonlight. Tell your friends about Atlanta. Watch Lemonade and stream Coloring Book. DVR Queen Sugar. Share that cool story from Upworthy.
All people deserve to feel seen and heard, and with stats like the ones presented here, we can be sure that certain stories aren’t being told and certain people aren’t being seen and heard. And it is through stories that we learn, we grow, we empathize, we connect, and we must (and can) do better.
For More Information (A section for updates)
- Jon Cho on Representation – “Working so steadily, and so eclectically, doesn’t mean he’s choosing roles blithely. In this talk with Pop Culture Happy Hour host Linda Holmes, Cho presents as someone who’s thought deeply about the performances he undertakes — and those he pointedly doesn’t.”
- Princess Shuri: The Hero We Needed | The Amherst Student – “The importance of representation in media cannot be understated. For too long the heroes children had to look up to were the James Bonds and the Indiana Joneses of the cinematic universe. Recently, female heroes have been creeping on to screen (i.e. Wonder Woman, Rey, the female Ghostbusters), but “Black Panther” brought new representation to people of color. In her article for Vanity Fair, Johanna Robinson wrote, ‘After a packed advance screening of Black Panther in Los Angeles last week, two young boys went bounding ahead of the crowd leaping for joy and punching the warm night air. They weren’t pretending to be Black Panther, or even another Wakandan warrior. They were pretending to be Shuri.’ Shuri is exactly the hero we need, and she’s exactly the hero that everyone wants. What these boys recognize is the enviable power of a young, female hero. And though it is the young women who may be able to more intimately see themselves reflected in Shuri, she provides an example for all young people for just what power they possess. The realm of representation on screen is only expanding and thus is bringing new meaning to what it means to be a hero.”