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The Importance of Representation in Media

The comfort of finding a character you relate to. The pride of seeing your beliefs, culture, and traditions embraced on the big screens. The joy of seeing a hero that looks just like you. How many of us have experienced this, and how many have not?

Media, especially in the form of film and television, is at the forefront of the entertainment industry. Over the past century, it has rapidly evolved into a widespread medium for storytelling, art, knowledge, and enjoyment. We engage in these forms of media because they share something special—whether opening our eyes to a life vastly different than ours, enforcing a lesson previously beyond our perception, or unearthing our roots as individuals, society, and humanity as a whole. Yet too often, the media fails to accurately represent the people they portray. Too often is inclusivity swept aside by the Hollywood norm—the exclusion of diversity rather than its opposition. Misrepresentation and a lack of diversity in media negatively impacts marginalized communities, including racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, disabled people, and women. This issue is prevalent and important, and in this article, we will take a deeper look at media representation from the thoughts, experiences, and perspectives of today’s youth.

Image is courtesy of FOX.

Definition and Importance

The BBC defines representation as how societal aspects such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, and social issues are presented. When it comes to media, especially film and television, this audience is vast. Mass media broadens our scope of perception when it comes to society, multiculturalism, and the world. It holds, for many, an educational impact as it showcases unique experiences otherwise beyond reach. This is why representation is crucial. In a multicultural, diverse, multifaceted society, it is vital to amplify the voices and share the stories of all.

The Harmful Effects of Stereotypes

While a lack of representation is harmful in itself, the misrepresentation of underserved communities is a significant issue with damaging consequences. This concept is evident through stereotyping. The Arab Film & Media Institute describes stereotyping as assumptions or generalizations made and depicted of individuals due to their racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, or other identities.

Stereotypes in media are often inaccurate and portray underrepresented groups in a negative light. These flawed portrayals can be easily internalized by both the individuals of a group being stereotyped and other members of society. All in all, it influences public opinion and the societal view of underrepresented communities.

“As a child, stereotypes that were portrayed in the media went over my head. I was just there to be entertained. However, as I got older and began to truly understand what it meant to be Black in society, those stereotypes that I once looked at with a blind eye began to get a little glaring. When I was younger, I always found myself drawn to shows with a Black character, but now that I look back, those shows never had a lot of Black actors. In addition, the beauty standards of those characters were quite Eurocentric. I didn’t look like the girls in that show. This was disheartening as a little girl, to not see people like me at that level of fame. Presently, I see more representation of Black people in the media but I struggle with the narrative. When I want to watch TV, I want to laugh, get lost in a story, relax, and forget about my troubles. Not be thrust into a world of discrimination and hardship that, although quite relevant, does not represent all aspects of life.”

- Lola, grade 12

As Lauren Washington discusses in an examination of film and media representation, stereotypical depictions create unconscious bias in viewers which can directly impact an individual’s thoughts and behaviours towards others. It is especially dangerous when bias is institutionalized, perpetuating the issues of discrimination and hate crimes, police brutality, mass incarceration of disadvantaged communities, and others.

“In my experience, stereotypes are the most prevalent issue in the media. They are literally everywhere, and create a very toxic environment for young people. Even the most positive stereotypes have negative connotations that are used to divide and hurt people who do not fit the standards that society expects from us. Whether it is racial stereotypes, gender stereotypes or others, it creates a playground for prejudice to grow throughout our society and formulates the idea that people do not need to think through their behaviour or give opportunities to certain people based on what they seem to be.

In most of the TV shows and movies I watched when I was younger, the woman would always fall in love and that would make her happy, or white people would always save the day. It made me feel like I had to be saved instead of taking action on my own and for the longest time, I just accepted it. It was not until I saw characters who were like me that I started to truly grow as a person. To imagine what I might’ve been like if I had those influences when I was younger hurts me a little because I always wish I could have more goals to reach, more determination, and that is swayed the most by what I take in through the media. In our media, schools, music and experiences, we need leaders to break these stereotypes and show that people are more than they are expected to be.”

- Tia, grade 11

The Arab Film & Media Institute further defines the issues of tokenism and typecasting. Tokenism is when individuals from minority groups are included for the sole purpose of exhibiting a seemingly diverse environment. This infamous tactic does not equate to equal representation, but is rather a demeaning concept that utilizes minority characters to fulfill an agenda. Typecasting in the entertainment industry occurs when individuals are consistently assigned roles due to their ability to fit a certain stereotype. This often targets actors belonging to underrepresented groups and limits their ability to grow in the industry beyond playing stereotypical roles.

Image is courtesy of Netflix Junkie.

Children and Teens

Underrepresentation, as a result, has the potential to establish harmful views and negative perceptions. For children who are developing their thoughts and behaviours, and for teenagers who are searching for identity and their place in society, media takes the role of a significant influence.

“I have felt a tremendous lack of diversity in the media while growing up. Often when characters looked like me, they fit a certain stereotype as the ‘supporting character’ or the ‘comedic relief.’ Rarely were Black and Brown characters seen as the protagonist or desirable and intelligent individuals and honestly, that took a toll on my self-esteem. A lack of diversity is harmful not only to the people being misrepresented but also to others who watch those shows or movies who then base their perception of a group solely on the media they consume. Luckily, there has been an increase in the diversity of characters of colour! But we have a long way to go to dismantle the many stereotypes that have been engraved in the history of television and film.”

- Hanna, 2nd year undergraduate

According to an article by Forbes, general media can escalate racial tensions and affect confidence and self-esteem. The author describes how predictions in the study of prolonged television exposure involve decreased self-esteem for girls and Black boys, which correlates with racial and gender biases in popular media. With the effects of underrepresentation so prevalent and impactful to youth, diverse and inclusive media representation must be prioritized as we move forward.

“Growing up, I definitely felt like it was hard to see myself represented in the media. Especially in the case of beauty standards, I feel that it has now become such a common story for Black women to go through a stage of not liking their features, and more specifically, their hair. For me, this was straightening my hair often, for others, it might have been relaxing their hair, but for many of us the cause was what was portrayed as ‘beautiful’ in the media. However, within the last few years, I have become a lot more comfortable in my identity and in wearing my hair out, as big as it is!

As far as we’ve come already, what I’m really waiting for is a coming-of-age movie starring a young Black girl that is not solely about her identity as a Black person. There is certainly a time and place for these kinds of movies, but I am so excited for when I can see myself represented in the media without having to think about all the problems that I may face as a Black woman.”

- Leah, grade 12

Image is courtesy of Girl Museum.

The Push for Greater On-Screen Diversity

The youth of today are passionate about inclusive representation, and they are making their voices heard on what they want to see more of in modern media.

“I feel like the groups that really need to be represented in the film, television, and the entertainment industry are minorities such as Black, Asian, Brown, LGBTQ, and people with disabilities. Especially people with disabilities because I hardly ever see them represented in the industry.

- Lemuela, grade 10

Progress is underway, but for representation to be achieved in all aspects, there must be greater inclusivity of underrepresented groups both on-screen and behind the scenes as writers, directors, producers, and more. The entertainment industry, media creators, and society can benefit significantly by confronting implicit bias and stereotypes and actively commit to fostering inclusive environments. Through this, may we begin the journey towards media that includes representation for all.

Article Author: Victoria Huang

Article Contributors: Lola Oyefeso, Tia Rose Desouza, Hanna Asheber, Leah Daniel, Lemuela Ajuwon

Article Editors: Maria Giroux, Stephanie Sahaeo