The importance of representation in media has been a prominent topic as of late. From the 2015 Oscars “so white” to the heavy discourse surrounding this year’s remake of Ghostbusters with an all-woman leading cast, we’ve finally begun to see a shift in attitudes towards the representation of underserved demographics in a variety of media. Even this year’s Olympics in Rio has been a huge force for representation, especially for women of color from all over the world. It is important to understand representation, though truly understanding the depth of a seemingly simple concept can be tough. We’re going to take you through some of the basic concepts of media representation and its importance, both to underserved communities, and to our society at large.

2016 Summer Olympics.

What does representation in the media really mean?

The basic definition of representation in the media is simply how media, such as television, film and books, portray certain types of people or communities. There are a number of groups who are underrepresented in most Western media. They include women, people of color, LBGTQA+ people, people with a range of body shapes and types, people of non-Christian religions, and differently-abled people. There has been a steady increase of diversity in media, but progress has been long and slow. 

Ghostbusters (2016) image – Sony Pictures

But I see diversity in media all the time…

There are a few major ways producers of media can misrepresent a community, under the guise of creating diversity. The first is tokenism. Tokenism is when the inclusion of a minority or other underrepresented group is no more than a symbolic effort to make a story or environment seem equal or diverse. This can be seen in many different aspects of life, from the “diversity hires” at work, to the gay best friend in a television show. Another way to misrepresent people is through stereotyping and typecasting, which are two concepts that are very closely related. Stereotyping can be seen in media through the assumptions of how a certain type of person is supposed to be due to their racial, ethnic, gender, sexual or religious identity. Stereotypes, even those that seem harmless or even positive, can have a profound effect on society as they create unrealistic, and often negative, expectations and assumptions. Common stereotypes of Arabs in Western media include the Arab man as a terrorist or an oil-hungry sheikh. Typecasting, which generally refers specifically to actors, is when a person is repeatedly assigned the same type of role due to success with that role in the past or because they “look like” a specific stereotype. This can happen to all types of people, but underrepresented people tend to find themselves pigeonholed into the same roles again and again. Actor and comedian Aziz Ansari wrote a piece in the New York Times about the struggles he’s experienced as an Indian actor, and he touched specifically on typecasting. He wrote, “Even though I’ve sold out Madison Square Garden as a standup comedian and have appeared in several films and TV series, when my phone rings, the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents.”

Film still from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) showcasing a stereotypical Arab character.

What’s the importance of representation?

Strong and positive representation can help fight and break down stereotypes that can be detrimental to individuals and limiting to society. When a group of people is only ever represented in negative ways, it adversely affects the way others see them, as well as the way they see themselves. Which means, on the flip side, positive representation can build self-confidence in individuals. It offers them role models to look up to and people and characters to be inspired by and reinforces that they are not lesser than. They can be the superhero, the doctor, the actor or whoever they want to be. The benefits of better representation are also not limited to the people represented. We all benefit from learning about different experiences and expanding our notion of what is “normal”, isn’t this one of the fundamental purposes of art?

More diverse representation also opens up new and better opportunities. For example, there is a specific lack of acting opportunities available to non-white actors, simply because scripts insist on white characters. More diverse scripts, create more diverse roles which create more opportunities for non-white actors. And when this diversity goes a step further, beyond tokenism, it also opens the door for more interesting and complex roles for these actors. All of this ultimately leads to richer stories, new voices and new perspectives in our media.

Film still from Hidden Figures (2017)

Well, media companies are just doing what makes them the most money…right?

Not so true. The 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report from the Ralph J.Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, found that in the United States “increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse film and television content”. More specifically, the report found that films with more diverse cast had the highest median global box office receipts and the highest median return on investment. It also showed that social media engagement peaked for scripted broadcast and cable television shows that also had more diverse casts. So…that theory’s pretty much dead.

Still from Orange is the New Black, a show known for it’s diverse cast.

Want to learn more about diversity and representation in the media? Check out our blog post on diversity reports.