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Intentional and nuanced representation of marginalized communities in the media combats prejudice
There has been a global movement to diversify representation in positions of power. Meanwhile, the definition of power itself is changing as we recognize the inherent influence of storytelling, whether it be in journalism or onscreen. It is vital to the growth of our society to intentionally include marginalized groups in political leadership and to empower minorities by expanding the stories that we tell.
Equal representation in the media empowers young people who have previously struggled to find cultural role models or have been victims of discrimination, and allows our society to grow with our global population. Explored in his book “The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach About Diversity,” professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Riverside, Carlos E. Cortés, explains that the media is perhaps the most powerful determinant of cultural impressions and divides. We consume stories throughout our entire lives and they shape our worldview, whether they be history textbooks, family lore, or newly released movies. Cultural narrative changes over time and misrepresentation is often difficult to pinpoint, especially if this is the first time an audience member is encountering a particular subject matter onscreen. Cortés explains that our cultural narratives can have tangible and dire impact on our society. Children are likely, if not guaranteed, to mirror the behavior they learn from those around them, the media included. If the stories which shape their world tell them that white people are "the norm," then their world will build upon this foundation; shattering that foundation is tricky and painful. Cortés wrote this book in the late 1980’s and according to Vice, our world is fighting the same battles because media holds even more influence in our lives. Vice cites 2012 research findings that found white boys to be the “only demographic that didn’t experience lower self-esteem after watching TV.” The reality is that nobody should be subjected to cuts to their identity while watching stories that we value enough to broadcast on television, but most other demographics do not even get to see themselves represented. If they are included, Vice continues, it is often in a negative and stereotypical light. The LA Times analyzed New York theatre roles from 2006 to 2015, and while white people made up about 44% of the United States population, they took home about 78% of stage roles. According to playwright and Columbia University professor David Henry Hwang, having conversations about representation means that our culture is moving forward, so there is hope. Most motivational is the fact that proper media representation empowers young people by giving them positive role models. Actor Danai Gurira from the revolutionary 2018 film Black Panther, says that she hopes the film will give young black girls the permission to explore themselves, to believe they deserve to achieve their dreams, to dare to find value in both “ferocity” and “femininity.” PBS interviewed high school students in Pennsylvania who explained that as they grew up, they became confused as to why they could not find anyone who looked like them on television. The energy expended on trying to figure out why they didn’t deserve a part in the cultural narrative is exhausting and leads to poor self-esteem. The more voices represented in the media, the more empowered our world is to make important political and cultural changes.
While visual representation is vital for empowering marginalized communities, the work cannot stop there. Snehal Desai, the artistic director for the East West Players in Los Angeles, explains that using visual representation as the end-all-be-all has the potential to unintentionally enforce stereotypes. Color-blind casting, he reminds us, does exactly this by ignoring the symbolism that aspects of our identity have come to hold in society, especially in terms of race. Storytellers must acknowledge the narratives that have preceded their own and intentionally interact with them. Otherwise, Desai tells the LA Times, “seeing only color, sexuality or disability is that it can lead to a ghettoization;” actors are only hired to play a character of their particular identity, and often written stereotypically. Hopefully, and historically speaking, this will not always be a problem if we move forward acknowledging that visual representation is only the first step of leveling the playing field. For instance, Jon Imparato, the director of cultural arts and education at the LA LGBT Center, says that trans roles should automatically be given to trans actors. He reminds us that it is illegal to inquire about someone’s sexuality for a position of work, so it is difficult to enforce the same kind of representation for gay roles. But he goes on to explain that gay actors have seen a wonderful increase in employment in the entertainment industry; they are no longer consistently playing roles only written for gay people and they are now offered a diverse array of characters to engage with. The same cannot yet be said for trans actors. When asked to find a trans actor for a role, he screens the scripts first, to ensure that he is not placing actors in a situation where they are asked to perform a stereotype of their already misrepresented identity. Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes explains that color-conscious casting represents an understanding and willingness to engage with “what it means to put a body of color onstage.” She goes further to explain that if a role calls for a certain kind of person to accurately represent the story, then the story will not be told until that person is found. Writers and directors have a responsibility to do the text justice and more importantly, to respect the world from which this very text came. Theater, it is important to note, does not exist in a vacuum. Yet, Desai also notes, “I want to be seen as a whole person and not just an Indian.” Identity is complex and not only is the media crawling with stereotypes, but they are also prone to placing emotional burden on actors to tell the story of an entire identity. Visual representation is key, yes, but such a move needs to be paired with nuance. Playing a flat character just to fulfill a diversity quota still does damage to marginalized communities.