Representation

 

It was a somewhat heavy day in Media Literacy class today as we spent several hours exploring the compositional nature of media messages. Representation of non-dominant groups, who are typically portrayed in ways that conform to easy-to-digest stereotypes, cause real harm to minorities.

I often see the phrase “Representation matters” regarding the media. In the past, I had thought about this mainly in terms of quantity – we see primarily white faces in movies & magazines; but as it turns out, quantity is only one aspect of the issue of representation.

Quantity

Here are quantity representation numbers for some of the top 700 grossing films of from 2007-2014 (excluding 2011) courtesy of PBS Newshour:

Comparing that with census data from Infoplease we can get a general idea of how well people are represented in movies:

table - race and media representation

There is a clear bias towards featuring more whites in mainstream films, and an even larger bias against Latinos, who are massively underrepresented. Some possible explanations for these numbers (in addition to the bias to feature whites as the “default” in any media presentation):

  • most media produced in Spanish would not be included in this analysis of top-grossing films
  • the media has not yet adapted to the increased diversity since 2000, which as a percentage of the whole population has seen whites decline by nearly 9% while Latinos increased by about 4% and those falling into the “Some other race” category by about 5%.

Quality

Much more disturbing to me is the “quality” aspect of representation in the media. As whiteness is dominant in our culture, we cast any non-whites as “the other.” When we see a non-white face, we understand that person as representing their ethnicity rather than as a unique person. In contrast, whites are freer to comprise a range of personalities, roles, and archetypes.

As US Berkley Professor put it in his hilarious, insightful, and pretty inappropriate Medium essay Douchebag: The White Racial Slur We’ve All Been Waiting For:

am an individual. I can choose to not be offended, not to be affiliated with any group and rest assured in my sense of self.

Non-whites, in contrast, are often stuck in roles that signal cultural shortcuts. If we see a  black man in loose pants and a bandana, we understand that he’s a gangster. A young Asian woman? She must be a student, and a good one. If we see a Southeast Asian man (which seems unlikely, given the quantity data discussed above) he’s probably a taxi driver or an IT guy. And on and on and on. Seeing people represented in these narrow ways over and over again influences our subconscious thoughts and reinforces stereotypes.

I am hopeful that representation will continue to get better. One helping hand? Technology and the de-coupling of entertainment streaming media from direct demographic advertising of broadcast and cable TV. Programming featuring diverse casts can be produced and watched in new ways. One great example is Aziz Ansari’s show, Master of None, which has been a hit as an original Netflix program.

The show has addressed the problem of representation head on, particularly in the episode Indians on TV.

I’m hopeful for more remediation, conversation, and progress on this issue and will happily do my part by binge watching Master of None season 2 when my Summer term ends.

Featured Image

“Movies” by Terry on Flickr via Creative Commons License. Image digitally altered.

References

Santhanam, Laura, and Megan Crigger. “Out of 30,000 Hollywood Film Characters, Here’s How Many Weren’t White.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 22 Sept. 2015. Web. 06 July 2017.

Population of the United States by Race and Hispanic/Latino Origin, Census 2000 and 2010. Infoplease.
© 2000-2017 Sandbox Networks, Inc., publishing as Infoplease.
6 Jul. 2017.

Cohen, Michael Mark. “Douchebag: The White Racial Slur We’ve All Been Waiting For.”Medium. Secret History of America, 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 06 July 2017.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *