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.