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Why Representation in Media Matters by Priya Manda

Updated: Mar 3, 2019

Blog post by Priya Manda explaining the impacts of unrepresentative media.

My childhood was spent running and playing, sure, but mostly, I was glued to the T.V. All day, I waited impatiently for the moment I would sink into my couch, reach my Cheeto-dusted fingers around the controller, and enter in Disney or Nickelodeon’s channels, as my anticipation reached its peak. Some of the media I typically indulged in included Suit Life of Zack and Cody, Wizards of Waverly Place, iCarly, Phineas and Pherb, The Incredibles, and countless more. While many of these shows and movies are praised as classics, they have one critical issue in common…all their casts are majority white. I, like many other kids of color, spent my childhood searching for people who looked like me in the media I watched. The lack of representation of people of color in the media has detrimental effects on youth because it can lead to a decreased self-esteem, perpetuates stereotypes, and despite some progress remains an impactful issue.

I, like many other kids of color, spent my childhood searching for people who looked like me in the media I watched.

Inadequate representation in media, leaves many children of color with self-image issues. Growing up watching media without people who looked like me, subsequently changed the way I viewed myself. I rarely saw an Indian or biracial individual as the main character of a show or movie. Instead, I saw white characters constantly placed in the leading roles. Additionally, I rarely saw a woman of color portrayed as the “beautiful” or “popular” girl. Rather than acknowledging the beauty and strength of women of color, media promotes a western and, quite frankly, white version of what “beauty” is, leaving little room for those of us who don’t fit into the narrow confines of white beauty standards. I wondered why I didn’t resemble the white girls who were consistently idealized in the media. I believed, since I didn’t fit within the western definition of beauty, I wasn’t beautiful. In 2012, two Indiana University professors conducted a study focused on the correlation between children’s television use and self-esteem with regard to racial and gender differences. They studied black and white preteens in midwestern communities over a year long period. They found that television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for girls and children of color and an increase in self-esteem among white boys. One of the researches, Nicole Martins explained the results, saying “Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for you” (Communication Research). Clearly, what we watch impacts us. So when children of color can watch t.v. and see people who have beautiful “melanated” skin, hair, eyes, noses, or bodies like their own, it impacts them.

Additionally, unrepresentative media perpetuates harmful stereotypes about people of color. The Indians I saw in media were limited to Baljeet in Phineas and Pherb and Ravi in Jessie. Both were portrayed as nerds with thick accents, perfectly living up to the stereotypical brown person. As explained by Nicole Martins, white characters, especially males are often portrayed with prestigious occupations, high educations, wealth, and power, a stark contrast to the stereotypical roles people of color often assume. According to Kai Nelson in a Johnson and Wales University article, “Usually, audiences are only graced with one or two characters of color. These characters are commonly made to fit into stereotypes and are marginalized with flat, uninteresting storylines” (Nelson 3). Media limits the inclusion of people of color to their stereotypical roles to satisfy white preconceptions. Nelson continues on explaining that, “Black women are typically sassy and opinionated. Their characters are either hyper sexualized or overweight and meant to be unattractive. Black men are typically abusive and loud. Black male characters are usually revolved around being a ‘thug’ or some other negative lifestyle.” (Nelson 4). By reducing people of color to harmful stereotypes it undermines their experiences. Rather than portraying them as the “nerd” or “thug”, they should instead be depicted as individuals who been forced to maneuver the labyrinth of racism. Beyond the minuscule representation, when we are portrayed, it aligns with the vitriol and racist stereotypes that exist in our daily lives.

While some argue that lack of representation is not a pressing issue, despite progress it remains prevalent. In 2016, a study conducted by UCLA which examined media, found that Latinos accounted for only 2.6 percent of film roles, while Asians made up 3.1 percent, and mixed race accounted for 3 percent. Black Americans had 12.5 percent of lead film roles and Native Americans had only 0.5 percent, while whites dominated at 78.1 percent. The alarming lack of representation in media is indubitably prevalent. To argue inadequate representation doesn’t matter, disregards the evidence and experiences of people of color, exemplifying white privilege.

The average American spends nearly 3 hours and 58 minutes a day watching t.v. which roughly equates to 35.5 hours a week. Whether or not you have been forced to face the lack of representation, its presence should be remarkably clear. The detriments of unrepresentative media are innumerable. It effects the self-esteem of children of color and bolsters offensive stereotypes. In the past year, we have seen a significant shift towards more representative media, exemplified, by the success of films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. Both contain diverse casts and contradict destructive stereotypes. Additionally, people of different body sizes and LGBTQIA individuals are also under-represented. One way we can take action to help ensure children of color, like me, don’t ever feel excluded from media again, is by watching T.V. Spend just some of the 35.5 hours a week watching a few diverse shows and movies, such as Grownish, The Fosters, Jane the Virgin, Empire, Insecure, Get Out, A Wrinkle In Time, Anime, or any other representative media. By watching, you are simultaneously supporting and uplifting these shows, allowing them to stay on aire and remain influential. Accurate and adequate representation can, instead of fostering indignation, positively influence future generations by putting forth a powerful and realistic characterization of people of color, benefiting us all.

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