Columns, Opinions

Thomas ’21: Diversity isn’t representation

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The importance of diversity on-screen and in Hollywood has been expressed countless times before. You might have noticed more people of color in movies recently or that more films about people of color have won awards. This can give the impression that representation has markedly improved. Yet, while actors and characters of color may be getting more screen time, we must remember that it’s not enough to simply throw in a “diverse” cast. Diversity doesn’t automatically equal representation, and producers need to understand why it’s important that their shows and movies include casts that are both diverse and representative. The way in which people are presented on screen has consequences for the real world. Thus, for Hollywood to be truly representative, more diverse casts are only the starting point. Effective representation means showing the complex and nuanced experiences of the people these characters represent.

Media producers still have a long way to go in terms of portraying underrepresented characters as multidimensional and human. A multi-university study found that Asian-American/Pacific-Islander characters were generally pigeonholed into five different stereotypes, including the “dangerous villains” and fetishized Asian woman. To just include AAPI characters isn’t enough in the campaign for representation. “Diverse” characters need to be well thought out and developed in the same way white characters usually are. A good example of effective representation is the character Annalise Keating in ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder.” Played by Viola Davis, Keating, a black woman, is one of the best lawyers out there. The experience of a successful black female lawyer is not often shown on primetime television, but that doesn’t mean successful black lawyers don’t exist. Highlighting this more nuanced experience is effective representation. However, characters of underrepresented backgrounds don’t always need to be models of perfection. In fact, Keating’s professional life is not even the most crucial part about her character. The show’s depiction of her flaws is what makes Keating truly representative: She’s human, capable of both success and error. As such, a representative character isn’t a flawless one. It would be unreasonable for a perfect character on any show to accurately represent anyone, regardless of identity, in the real world. A character with imperfections, however, is much closer to reality and much easier to identify with.

The problems that come with pushing out half-baked and narrow representations of people have severe consequences. The Jerry Springer Show, for example, often presents extreme images of black people for the sake of entertainment. While this may seem relatively harmless on the surface, using the struggles of black people for shock value is dangerous. Constantly showing dysfunctional black couples fight over paternity and custody further cements harmful stereotypes about black people. These “representations” are not meant to be taken seriously, but such depictions of black people can easily influence those who do not regularly interact with people of color. Viewers of the Jerry Springer Show might very well internalize the show’s stereotypical portrayals and believe them to be true. They might learn to believe that all black families are broken and that black people, in general, aren’t productive or deserving members of society.

Conversely, fair and constructive depictions of underrepresented communities can yield tangible benefits for society. The ways in which people are depicted on screen impact the ways they view themselves. A study co-authored by Nicole Martins of Indiana University found that children of color experienced lower self-esteem while watching television, and cited a lack of representation as a major cause. This highlights the importance of representative storytelling — if you don’t see yourself in all the media you consume, how can you learn to see yourself as a visible, valued member of society? Television shows need to do more to wrestle with this reality and make sure that their casts reflect their diverse audiences. The upside to effective representation is clear — it can reaffirm the value of individual identities and inspire people to pursue their full potential. A survey conducted earlier this year found that 37 percent of women reported feeling proud to be women after seeing female heroes in movies. The same survey also found that 67 percent of respondents agree that showing women in a wider array of professions — including engineering and technology — would inspire women to pursue those professions. For example, when you see Katherine Johnson, portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, calculate equations for NASA by hand in “Hidden Figures,” you start to believe you can do it, too.

We must begin to think of representation as more than just putting a “diverse” cast on screen. When television shows are not representative — and are, instead, narrow and extreme — the consequences can be costly. But effective representation can help undo the harms of stereotypical portrayals, instill confidence in viewers of underrepresented backgrounds and inspire the next generation of black lawyers or female engineers.

Quentin Thomas ’21 can be reached at quentin_thomas@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.