Representation in Media

[This is the text from a sermon I gave at Northlake Unitarian Universalist Church in Kirkland, WA on 4/25/21. Listen to a recording of the service on our podcast.]

One way to think about representation in books, movies and other media is to use the metaphor of mirrors and windows. “Books can be mirrors. When books reflect back to us our own experiences, when scenes and sentences strike us as so true they are anchors mooring us to the text, it tells readers their lives and experiences are valued.” (Source.) We experience windows when we “read books by and about people who aren’t like us. It’s the only non-offensive opportunity to walk around in the shoes of another person and experience life through their eyes.” (source) When anyone, especially a person with a marginalized identity, tells their authentic story, they are inviting us in to witness their lives, and doing so, I believe, can cultivate respect for their “inherent worth and dignity of all people” and help us understand how we relate in this “interconnected web of all existence.”

Defining Mirrors and Windows

Let me step back and share where I learned the idea of mirrors and windows.

I teach classes that are for parents and children together – I teach toddlers and preschoolers, and early elementary kids. And side-by-side, I teach their caregivers about parenting.

In the field of early childhood education, for mirrors, we talk the importance of children seeing themselves reflected – our dolls need to have a range of skin colors. The plastic food in our toy kitchens should include food from all the cultures represented by our families. In the stories we read, all children should be able to find characters who look like them and have life experiences like theirs. These mirrors create a sense of self-worth, value, and belonging.

We also offer windows into other experiences – introducing the children to all the beauty of our diverse world and helping them see that even in a culture very different from their own, they can still find little reflections that reveal our common humanity.

It’s great that we’re talking about this in children’s education. I’d like us to ALSO talk about representation in the media that adults consume. About how important it is that ALL PEOPLE can find mirrors… and how those mirrors have not been available to many people. The mirrors are missing because most stories in our popular media are written by people who are white, cis, straight, middle class, Protestant, educated, able-bodied and male. Their stories are the ones bought by publishers and producers, because those are the stories they believe the audience will buy. If diverse creators come in with more diverse stories, they’re told – “oh, your story won’t sell – it might have some niche appeal, but most people just don’t want stories like that.”

But when those folks’ stories are not told, it means everyone else is missing windows into those worlds… windows that could broaden our perspectives, enrich our worldviews and increase our empathy for others and desire for justice for all.

We have the ability to change the world not just through political votes, but also with our economic votes. If each of us were to choose to read and watch more diverse stories, and elevate them into the broader conversation, we could prove there is a market for these stories. This can be a part of our social justice activism. And, we’ll bring richness to our lives as we peer through windows into the lives of people whose identities are different than our own.

I want to say up front that I’m talking about all sorts of identities. I don’t just mean racial and ethnic diversity. I’m also talking about stories of people of all religions, all abilities, health and mental health status, neurotypical and neurodiverse, all genders, all sexual orientations and family compositions, different socioeconomic status, rural and urban, liberal and conservative, military to gig economy, sci fi geeks and readers of romance, and so much more. No matter what our identities, we deserve to find mirrors, and we benefit by peering through windows.

Experiencing Mirrors

I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on your experience of mirrors in the media. Have you ever read a book where you’re meeting a character, and you think “oh my gosh… that person is exactly like me?” Or have you ever watched a movie, and thought “That’s my life – I’ve had an experience just like that!!” Or seen a character in a video game where you think “oh, those are my people!” And maybe you identified with EVERYTHING about a character. Or maybe you just saw one little part of a character that you had in common – but you still felt seen. “I thought I was the only one who likes to eat all the frosting before I eat the cake!”

All of those experiences can be described as “mirrors” – finding yourself and your life experiences reflected in a story. And it’s important, and it’s powerful when that happens. It helps you to feel like you matter and you belong. And it MIGHT have given you a sense of possibility… “people like me can be…”

Mandy Shunnarah says: The ability to see yourself in books is a beautiful thing and I hope every reader has the experience of feeling understood on a deep level through reading. While I wish that for everyone, it’s much easier if you’re …. straight, white, and able-bodied, you can see yourself in hundreds of thousands of books, in virtually every imaginable genre. People of color, LGBTQIA people, and disabled people can’t say the same. The ability to see yourself in books––whether as you are in reality or in an aspirational sense––is a privilege, one readily available to some, but not all.”

I would love to share with you some stories of people whose stories are under-represented finally finding their mirrors. You can read the quotes – all about the immigrant experience, or watch the video (which includes LGBT, disability, and race as identities), or both! [Or you can skip to the next section.] I include links so you can read/watch their full story.

  • On /Filmcast, my favorite movie podcast, the hosts have shared a few stories from their experience… One has said “In the movie Hook, I saw the character Rufio – the chief of the lost boys – he was a brown kid! Brown like me – it was the first time I’d ever seen that in a movie.” Another said: “In Always Be My Maybe, the scene where all the Asian kids were at a birthday party, and when they came in from the backyard, they all just took their shoes off and lined them up next to the door – that’s what it was like at every party I went to as a kid.”
  • Supriya Keklar says “I’m thankful for Love, Hate & Other Filters, by Samira Ahmed. It’s the story of… an Indian-American, Muslim teenager living in a small Chicago suburb… [This book] happens to be the first time I ever saw myself in a book…at the age of 37. It reiterated to me, as a writer, just how important it is for all kids to see themselves in books.”
  • Claribel Ortega: “I lost count of how many times I read The House on Mango Street as a kid. … It was the first time I felt really seen, in any book. … Growing up in the South Bronx, never feeling Dominican enough or American enough, Mango Street was my anchor – the book I kept coming back to when I felt misunderstood by my immigrant parents and left out by my American friends. … I’m grateful to have had at least one book to help me navigate a childhood with a foot in two different worlds.
  • Alex Alvarez: “I can remember the first time I saw a family like mine on television. They were called the Delgados, and they lived on a pretty famous street. [Sesame Street]. Luis and Maria Delgado… played by a Mexican-American and a Puerto Rican actor acted and sounded a lot like my own parents. …. they made me feel, from an extremely early age, that my story was one worth telling, one that deserved to be on television and shared with an audience.”
  • Janice Bae: “All the books I [read] told stories of quirky white American children dealing with problems that seemed like fantasies to me… These books built an image of what being a “normal” American kid meant and the more I realized I didn’t fit this image, the more I took it as a personal failure and an inherent flaw of my family. …. I happened upon A Step From Heaven by An Na…. I could relate to everything in this story: not speaking any English when I started grade school, an abusive father who beat his wife and children, …spending idle afternoons behind my parents’ business…, the shame of concealing your home life from your American peers… I devoured the book in two sittings and felt a tragic sense of loss when I finished it. I searched in vain for other books that could do the same but to this day, I’ve never found one that came so close to being relatable, to understanding me on that kind of level.

Sources of clips: “Why Representation Matters”, People Living with Disabilities review characters with Disabilities; When did you first see yourself on the screen as an LGBT personFirst Time I saw Me / Trans Voices; First TIme I Saw Me / Antoinette

I’ll let Eric Anthony Grollman summarize mirrors… “To not only see LGBT people like me… but to see them loved by others, or in love, is emotionally overwhelming because these images are new to me.  I am disappointed, however, that I have to feel such joy just to see someone who looks like me — a joy whites, men, heterosexuals, and other privileged groups do not experience because their representation is the norm.”

Representation by the Numbers

Let’s take a look at a few statistics. Let’s start with racial diversity in children’s books. (source)

diversityinchildrensbooks2015_f

You can see that American Indian, Latinx and Asian children have little tiny mirrors. White kids… are surrounded by mirrors in their books. For comparison, the percentage of US Children in each group is 1% American Indians, 26% Latinx, 5% AAPI, 14% Black, and 50% White. It did improve by 2018. (See updated illustration.)

In 2018, 50% of main characters were white, which lines up perfectly with the actual population, and the representation numbers for American Indians, Asian-Pacific and African American are closer to parity. The biggest problem in 2018: although 26% of children are Latinx, only 5% of main characters in the books they read are. While 27% of the characters are animals, trucks, crayons, etc.

And gender representation in children’s books? Main characters are twice as likely to be male, and for ALL characters, there are three males for every two females. (Source.)

Disability Representation? 13% of US students receive special education services for physical disabilities or learning disabilities. But in 2017 books, only 3% had a disabled character and only 0.3% were main characters. (Source) And of course, in older books, the percentage would be even lower.

Is it better in media aimed at adults? So, our population is about 50% women, right? In movies from 2011-17, women had one-third of leading roles, while men had 2/3. (Source)

Race? Non-whites make up 39% of the population, but only 19% of lead characters. It is much better than it was even a few years ago, but there is still a very long ways to go. And it’s not just lead roles that are lacking… when we look at ALL characters, we still see whites are over-represented, and all other populations are less likely to see mirrors on screen. (Source)

How about disability? The CDC reports that overall 26% of Americans are living with a disability. But in movies, only 2.7% of characters have a disability.

While women are generally under-represented in film, a particularly invisible population, as you can see on the right, is LGBT females, who did not appear in 91 of the top 100 films. (Source)

The lack of diverse characters also means a lack of opportunities for diverse actors. As some examples: African American women play a lot of nurses and waitresses. Asian American women play a lot of doctors and judges. Muslim American men are often cast as terrorists. And that’s not even addressing the issues of blackface or yellowface or straight cis actors playing LGBT roles, or the fact that most disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors. In Glee, the character Artie was in a wheelchair… but the actor was able-bodied. In one fantasy sequence, he jumped out of his chair and led a big dance number…

Not only is diversity under-represented ON screen, behind the camera there are huge disparities. The vast majority of film directors are male – 96% in 2016. Writers’ rooms are better, but there’s still just one woman for every 6.5 men amongst film writers. [source]

It’s similar in TV: While almost 40% of Americans are people of color, only 9% of television shows were created by a person of color. [source] And why is that? It’s because almost all the people who decide what movies and shows get made are white.

Note: On April 22, 2021, a new Hollywood Diversity Report was released, that indicated that 2020 was perhaps the most diverse year ever. Which is exciting news! But it’s also worth considering that many major budget movies that were supposed to be released in 2020 were put on hold till 2021, so that might skew the numbers.

Stereotypes and Hollywood Tropes

One side effect of the lack of diversity in the creators is that when characters from under-represented groups DO appear, they often appear in certain stereotyped ways, to serve a standard trope.

  • On the rare occasions when a disabled character appears, there’s only a few possible story lines –the tragedy story, or what the disability community calls “inspiration porn” where the character “overcomes” their disability. We rarely see characters who just happen to be disabled but that’s not their whole story.
  • Zeba Blay, a Black woman, wrote: “I’ve seen [people who look like me]… as a housekeeper, a teen mother somewhere in the “inner city,” a child soldier, a slave…. ”
  • Carol Kuruvilla, a South Asian-American wrote: “In Bend It like Beckham, I saw a brown girl like me… Jess wasn’t just the nerdy best friend, the submissive shy girl, or the exotic temptress (all common tropes for Asian women). She was the main character ― a girl with many layers and quirks…” 
  • Charles Yu, an Asian-American author wrote: “I watched a lot of TV as a kid. Growing Pains. Who’s The Boss. Family Ties. Mr. Belvedere. I watched attractive white people living in huge houses, and eating a lot of pancakes. There were a few black people. Arnold and Willis. Theo and Rudy. No Latinos. No LGBTQ. America, according to my television, was a country of, by and for white people. Whenever I did see an Asian, all my family would be excited for about ten seconds. Which was how long it took to realize the Asian was either:
    • Doing kung fu
    • Delivering food
    • Portrayed in a way that was kinda offensive
    • Preceded or followed by a gong sound, or
    • All of the above

As “mirrors”, these stereotypes do damage. If you are a black, Asian or Latinx person who only sees these distorted reflections, you may wonder if that is all that is expected of you in society.

As supposed “windows” these stereotypes are also harmful. A 2011 study  found that black males are usually portrayed negatively, or limited to a handful of “positive” stereotypes, or missing. Audiences with little exposure to [Black men] think these media representations show the real world. That can lead to “less attention from doctors to harsher sentencing by judges, lower likelihood of being hired for a job or admitted to school, lower odds of getting loans, and a higher likelihood of being shot by police.”

Michael Morgan, who studies media impact says “Entertainment provides the seeds [for racism and sexism], because we’ve seen a thousand images of ‘Latinos are violent,’ or ‘Asians are invisible,’ or ‘blacks are this’ or ‘women are that,’ so it is so easy to exploit because it’s a knee-jerk reaction. [People think] ‘Oh yes, yes, of course. I know that.’”

On the other hand, if the show included nuanced storylines with sympathetic portrayals, it motivated the viewers to take real-life action to support the rights of people who have that identity, such as when immigration storylines were covered and viewers then attended community events or rallies or signed petitions on immigrant rights.

We need more stories

We need fewer of these stereotypes, and tired tropes. We also just need more stories… more representation. As the video at the start of the service said – there is danger in a single story.

For example, published representations of the autistic experience that are written by actually autistic authors are very rare. And, even if one piece is excellent, a common phrase of neurodiversity activists is “if you’ve met one autistic person – you’ve met one autistic person.”

About 20 years ago, a book called “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” came out and it had a lot of important things to say about the need for cultural sensitivity in the health care setting. But, then it started to be over-generalized and people of Asian descent were frustrated, saying “because the nurses read one book about Hmong beliefs, they think they “understand” all Asian people.”

Zeba Blay wrote there’s an idea “that Uzo Aduba can be the inspiration for all dark-skinned black … actresses, or Shonda Rhimes can be the beacon of hope for black women who want to be TV bosses. In reality, no one black woman can encompass the entire black experience… That’s why more representation, more complex portrayals of all identities are needed in media: the black female experience is not just one thing. Neither is the queer experience, the Muslim experience, or the experience of having a disability.”

The barriers to diverse media

We need access to many stories about diverse identities and intersections of identities, ideally all created by people who have those identities and can create authentic, deeply layered portrayals of characters living full diverse lives. Why are there so few of these stories?

It is because when people of color, queer folks, and disabled folks and so on come in to do their pitches, publishers and studio execs say “it sounds like a great story… it’s just too niche.”

These producers talk a lot about what “the market will bear.” The assumption is that everyone will watch movies about white folks. But when there’s a movie with a black cast, a whole lot of folks look at it, and think “oh, that’s not for me.”

I admit I have been very guilty of this over the years. I am working hard right now to change that knee-jerk response of “that’s not for me”, and instead actively seek out those “niche” pieces.

But until the buying public shows there is a demand for queer-centric media, for media about Black lives, for media about actually autistic people, the gatekeepers will keep just selling the same stories.

I can speak to this personally, as a creator… I co-author a couple of books. We try to be as inclusive as possible – for example using gender-neutral language about “pregnant person” rather than pregnant woman. We work to use illustrations that show the broadest possible range of people. But on the cover of our book – on every edition so far – a white woman.

And yes, the authors pitched hard for more inclusive covers. But the cover design is not in our control. It is totally the domain of the publisher. And the publisher told us – these were the images with “the broadest market appeal.” Here’s the irony… our other book, which is written at a 6th grade reading level vs. 12th grade level… guess what the covers have looked like. Yeah… the publisher figured the low literacy book would appeal to people of color.

On those books, I was the new author on a team of authors with an existing agreement, so there was only so much I could push. And to get our book, with that revolutionary gender inclusive language, out there, I had to live with the cover art.

So… I am speaking about mirrors and windows today, not just because our lives would be enhanced by peering through more windows, but because representation is a social justice issue. As Unitarian Universalists, who speak of the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the free and responsible search for truth, I believe choosing Windows is a spiritual practice.

Where do I start?

I’ve started by just taking a moment… when I’m choosing my next book or my next movie, instead of just choosing a mirror, I look at what windows are available.

When Netflix or YouTube or Amazon algorithms shows me the “hey, if you liked that, here’s 10 more things you might like,” I look, and I choose the one that will most broaden my horizons.

You can search for lists of recommended works. (I have a post on “seeking diverse media” that has links to several lists and also includes criteria to help you evaluate what you read and watch.) You may have heard of the Bechdel Test, for representation of women which asks questions like “do the women talk about something other than a man.” The Fries test asks: is the disability resolved by either curing it or by killing the character?  You would think these criteria wouldn’t be hard to meet but a lot of media fails them.

Many of the media recommendations you hear are for serious literary or cinematic works. Now… I have to confess… I don’t often watch or read those. I’ll hear about documentaries or dramas like 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, The Invisible War, and How to Survive a Plague. I’ll put them on my watchlist because I know that I would learn important things by taking in the full pain of those experiences. And sometimes, when I have the emotional reserves, I take one on.

But, here’s the thing – most of my media consumption is watching rom-coms and sitcoms during my morning workout, or watching sci-fi, kids’ movies or British comedies with Peter and Ben after a long day of work and school. My reading is mostly fluffy genre fiction for 15 minutes before bedtime. The spaces in my life right now are not the space for heavy emotional work.

But, even in the midst of lightweight escapes, I can still choose windows… I’m going to give a few random examples of shows I’ve watched recently… I am not saying that these are the most amazing media ever, or promising that they perfectly capture the experience of any diverse person. However, they are times when I made the simple choice of window, not mirror.

In the mornings, as I row on my rowing machine, I might watch Grace and Frankie, a great sitcom featuring characters in their 70’s who are actually played by actors in their 70’s. Or this week, I watched the Mole Agent, an Academy Award nominated documentary that let me spend time with elderly folks in a nursing home in Chile. I might watch Pose – which has great drag queen shows, and talks about the experience of trans people of color, where the actors are actual trans people of color, and so are the writers. Or This is Us – a mainstream NBC drama which includes stories about veterans, transracial adoption and being Black in America and has Black writers and veteran consultants. I might watch Worn Stories – a goofy documentary about the clothes people wear which, ironically, gave me insight into nudists. And in December, I intentionally dug up the diverse Christmas movies under the giant pile of Christmas movies about straight white people in small towns in Connecticut.

For the things I watch while rowing, I don’t do my research to see who the writers and creators were. But you can tell. If it was written by mainstream folks, there’s broad strokes and stereotypes. If it’s written by someone who shares that identity, there will be tiny little details that give depth – like in Minari, where the Korean mother cleans her child’s ears with a metal tool, or in Kim’s Convenience, with episodes about the competitiveness of the church potluck at Korean church. Now… Kim’s Convenience also had a lot of stereotypes… perhaps because the Korean-Canadian creators figured that humor would sell.

So, any one of these windows is not enough, but the more times I step into other worlds, the more I can start to discern the real stories from the stereotypes.

So, I’m not holding myself up as a perfect example of someone who is doing the hardest work of examining systematic oppression. And I get that it’s a privilege to opt out of that on the days it feels like too much. But, I’m taking baby steps to broaden my world view. Just like at last week’s Earth Day service, we talked about what steps we could take to make the world better… some of us take giant steps, some take baby steps, but they all add up.

I will also note that advocates for diversity in media say things like “there is more to the being Black than slavery and civil rights”, and “the queer community has stories to tell that don’t end with characters dying of AIDS or homophobic violence.” Disability advocates say “I’d like to see a movie where the person doesn’t miraculously overcome their disability, but they just figure out how to have a fine life as an accountant who hangs out with friends on the weekend.”

So, I’ll cast my votes for the YA romance novel featuring first generation Vietnamese Americans written by one, and the postapocalyptic sci-fi novel with an autistic lead, written by an autistic person, the chick lit about the Muslim Pakistani-American dating an Indian man, written by someone who shares that identity, and the novel about Asian-American actors that addresses lack of representation in Hollywood. And for a book which provided for me a mirror I’d never seen in the media… this teen romance whose lead happens to be an amputee who chooses not to wear a prosthesis, written by someone who looks like me.

Mirrors matter – it’s a comforting relief to find stories like ours out in the world. Mirrors especially matter to those who often feel as though they don’t belong in their worlds. We can help ensure more mirrors are available by creating a market for as many diverse stories as possible. And in doing so, we open up our own windows to understanding diverse life experiences. I invite you to join me in opening more windows.

Learn more:

Check out my post on seeking diverse media to find recommended works, and questions to help you evaluate the media you consume. Also, check out my post on windows and mirrors in children’s books.

During the service at Northlake, which was held online, I asked attendees to type their “mirrors” and “windows” into chat. Here are works that had meaning for them.

3 thoughts on “Representation in Media

  1. Sharon Edwards says:

    Thanks Janelle for putting g this link in the UU talk since I missed it. I have been working to make my medias more diverse in this pass year of Covid shut down. Thanks for given me and others something to look at ourselves . I do try to go to diverse type movies, and if more did this then the film industry would react more hopefully.

    Like

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