Representation in media, and its importance, is not a new topic of conversation. In gaming, it’s around discussions of the protagonist not always being a white male. In film, hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite bring it to attention, or how an Asian actor was photoshopped into leading film posters to make a point. From films to games to TV series, representation is widely spoken about.
The Golden Globes recently brought it to the forefront, after the successes of Donald Glover’s TV show titled Atlanta, along with indie film Moonlight. The common thread between both Golden Globe winners is that they featured predominantly black casts.
Despite the largely white cast of La La Land stealing the show with its record-breaking 7 Globe haul, many celebrated the wins of Atlanta and Moonlight as a celebration of diversity. Their wins were not just a show of black excellence, but it was proof that diversity in a cast doesn’t get in the way of success when done right.
Benefits of representation in media
Whilst discussions around representation in any form of media are not saying that all-black casts are the only way to go, it is important to understand the power that representation has and the benefits that come from it. Representation is also not limited to racial minorities, but also includes disabled communities, women, LGBTQ and more. So how does representation benefit all these groups?
Donald Glover’s acceptance speech for Atlanta’s Golden Globe awards was an apt illustration of one of the major benefits of representation. On stage, he gave a shout out to Atlanta-based hip hop group Migos and their latest single Bad and Boujee.
After that shout out, the song’s plays on Spotify shot up 243%. It rose on Google trends and has since topped the Hot 100 Billboard chart. Representation allows the door to be opened wider so that more minorities can have their moment to shine or be discovered.
Representation creates relatable and powerful role models and sources of inspiration. What many seem to take for granted is the power of having a role model that you can look up to and relate to. Having a black female role model was the reason the talented Lupita Nyong’o felt she could make it in acting.
This point is also made abundantly clear in an emotional story around a queer girl’s struggle in coming out. You can read the full story here, but the short of it is, a character coming out as gay in Supergirl helped a queer girl from committing suicide whilst struggling to deal with her own coming out.
Representation challenges the status quo and by doing that, brings fresh ideas to the table. Hollywood is a fanatic of formula. You only need to look at the superhero phase that we’re currently in to see its love of routine and safe approaches. Representation in media helps to break these formulaic approaches because it’s usually so rare for minorities to be given the spotlight.
Look at recent films such as The Danish Girl, a portrayal of the first man to undergo a sex change operation, or 12 Years A Slave, a powerful film around the life of an American slave. These films were widely praised for the fresh air they brought to a formulaic world. Similarly, Atlanta was so well received because of the unique voice it had and that wouldn’t have been possible without diversity in its cast. African-Americans telling their story with their own voice. Which leads us to the next benefit of representation.
It creates a platform for more voices to be heard. A point often raised these days is the danger of echo chambers online and how detrimental they are to creating constructive, engaging conversation. This same concept applies offline. When the same voices are being heard over and over again, conversation never progresses and the world is never challenged.
Giving a voice to minorities allows everyone to have their worlds opened up and to have their beliefs challenged in a positive, constructive way. This platform allows stereotypes and misconceptions to be broken and allows for more accurate portrayals. Stereotypes like all black people listen exclusively to Hip Hop and all aspire to be rappers or the glamorised, misrepresentation of disabilities such as autism.
The only way to truly combat these issues to give people who actually live these lives a voice, a platform to speak. In doing so, we can combat negative stereotypes and misconceptions that can do a lot of harm if left unchecked.
It’s Not Always Done Well
Despite the importance and benefits of representation in media, it’s not always achieved successfully. Sometimes it is flat-out ignored, as in the case of Ghost In The Shell which cast Scarlett Johansson, despite it being a Japanese franchise. Similarly, Matt Damon being cast in the film “A Great Wall” flies in the face of representation.
Sometimes representation is used as a gimmick. Hollywood’s latest transgression in this regard is the lazy idea of changing established superheroes to fit new demographics. Despite many praising it, it reeks of laziness and a band-aid fix that avoids dealing with the real issue.
This gimmick comes hot off the heels of another lazy attempt at fixing representation: the token cast. This approach tries to tick boxes of appealing to minorities by placing one of each in a cast, often filled with stereotypes or poorly written characters. One only needs to look at the 2015 release of Fantastic Four for a recent example of this awful approach.
The reaction to representation is just as mixed of a bag as its attempts. On one end of the spectrum you have the reaction to the Ghostbusters remake which had some of the fiercest backlash a film has seen- and that was before it was even launched. Regardless of the justification of the criticism, the way it was delivered and how the actresses were harassed was completely out of line.
Luke Cage, Netflix’s Marvel based show, was also not immune to negative reactions despite being well received overall. There was criticism levied against the show because it didn’t feature enough white people. The outrage was ridiculed by many. On the other end of the spectrum, the reactions can be encouraging. Tracer, a character in Blizzard’s Overwatch game, was revealed to be in a relationship with another woman. The news was largely well received by the gaming community. Sure enough, some threw accusations at Blizzard of pandering to the “SJWs” but for many it was a nonchalant affair.
Representation is slowly but steadily becoming a reality. More and more minorities are being given a voice to speak and although it sometimes feels like not enough is being done, there is optimism in the future of media and its portrayal of minorities.
Whitewashing in media is being tolerated less and less. Inaccurate portrayals are being called out, success is being given to those that are daring – and, importantly, more and more minorities are being inspired by what they see in media to tell their own stories and aspire to contribute to the conversation.
In the end, representation in media is something everyone should be fighting for as we can all benefit from it. Who knows what song will become a chart topper after being given a shout out at one of the most prestigious award shows in America?