Seeking Out Diverse Media

TL; DR: When we choose to read or watch media that features diverse characters, created by diverse people, we get a window into life experiences that differ from our own, which helps us to build empathy and compassion. We are also casting an economic vote for more of this media to be produced, which helps increase the chance that all types of people can find themselves reflected in meaningful ways. This post includes questions to ask yourself about whether the media you are consuming is inclusive and authentic, and recommendations for books, movies, and TV shows that include meaningful representation of various identities.

Mirrors and Windows

In early childhood education, we talk a lot about mirrors and windows. When children see people like themselves in books, that reflection helps them to feel seen, and understood, and feel that their story is worth telling. When they see and hear stories about people not like them, it offers them a peek into other people’s lives, and helps to expand their horizons and their empathy.

I think it’s also important for adults to experience mirrors and windows in the media we consume – the books we read, and the shows we watch. The media I’ve been exposed to throughout my life in the United States offers me the privilege of lots of mirrors… As a white, cis, straight, middle-class, Protestant raised person, it is easy for me to find my reflection. For people of color, LGBTQ folks, and other marginalized identities, the mirrors are hard to find. There are very few characters like them in the media, and when they do appear, they are often stereotyped – either negatively or positively – or they are token background characters without agency, and they are often played by actors who do not actually share that identity. The lack of representation and the prevalence of biased tropes is because the majority of the gatekeepers who decide what stories get told (the publishers, the studio execs, the producers) are not very diverse.

I am intentionally seeking to broaden my reading and watching to include as many voices as possible from lives that are different from my own and different than those most prevalent in Hollywood. Doing so provides me a window… what one writer calls “the only non-offensive opportunity to walk around in the shoes of a person with one or more marginalized identities and experience life through their eyes.” (source) Also, when I purchase diverse books, or stream diverse movies, I am casting an economic vote for more of these stories to be told and make mirrors available for more people.

Choose Authentic, Respectful Stories

Sometimes I have to search to find stories with diverse characters, and then when I find them, they’re problematic – full of stereotypes and tired tropes. Here are some tools I use to guide me in evaluating what I am reading and watching.

Who are the creators?

When possible, check out: for books – who wrote it? Do they share the identity they are writing about? If so, it is more likely to be a more nuanced and authentic story than if someone who does not share that identity is the author. Or do they at least have a close relationship with someone of that identity? What efforts did they make to understand the identity more deeply before writing about it?

For movies / shows: who were the writers? who was the director? were there other people involved in the production who share the identity depicted? The more people from that identity who were involved in the production, typically the more authentic the story.

“Nothing about us without us” is a slogan that originated in the disability rights community to refer to the idea that policy decisions that effect people should be made with the input of those people. It has also been applied to stories – people with a particular identity should be involved in the telling. If, for example, for a movie about disability, none of the creators have that disability, and they cast actors who do not have that disability, that is a less authentic story.

Is Diversity Represented Appropriately

When you look at the data from the Annenberg Foundation about representation in film, there’s lots of problems. For example, 18% of US residents are Hispanic, but only 3.1% of characters in US films. 26% of Americans have some form of disability, but only 2.7% of our movie characters do. Women are over 50% of the population, but only 31% of the characters, even less of older characters. Of 100 top films, only 8 had a major character who was a woman over 45 years old.

So, there absolutely needs to be more diversity / representation in the media as a whole. But that doesn’t necessarily mean every movie has to be perfectly representative. For example, I just watched “Lovers’ Rock” where virtually the entire cast is West Indian, because that’s the story it’s telling. No one would suggest it needs to have more white people in it. And Dead Poets’ Society, set at a boys’ boarding school, and Dunkirk, a World War 2 drama, shouldn’t logically have more women in them. The question to ask for any one movie is: is the level of representation appropriate to the setting of the story? (And the question we ask of the whole movie industry is: why do we make so many Dunkirks and so few Lovers’ Rocks?”)

Are they inclusive? (Really?)

The first question is do people of all identities even appear in the work? Often diverse folks are left out completely. And, if they do appear, what is their function in the storyline and how are they treated? Here are some questions to ask yourself about any given work. They can be applied to any identity – race, religion, gender, etc. These questions are inspired by the Bechdel Test and the Maisy Test for representation of women / girls, the Vito Russo test from GLAAD, which addresses LGBT inclusion, the Fries test for disability, and the Representation Test.

Does the story contain a named character that is identifiably __________?

Does the _______ character have unique character traits other than only those stereotypically assigned to that identity? (Or is the only thing that makes them unique is “the gay one” or “the veteran”)

Is the _______ character important to the plot so if you removed them it would have a significant effect? (Or are they just there for colorful commentary, or setting up a punchline, to be “saved” or to meet a diversity quota – like the person in the wheelchair talking to the woman in a hijab in the background of a scene)?

Is their storyline something other than one of the standard tropes for that identity (see below)?

Does the character have to code switch or mask their diversity to be more like the dominant culture in order to be successful? (e.g. does the autistic character have to “act normal”, does the disability need to be “cured”, does the woman need to “man up”, or the immigrant lose their accent?)

Does the work have more than one _______ character?

Do characters of ________ identity talk to other characters of that identity? And when they do, do they talk about things other than _______? (So, if there are two women, do they talk to each other? And when they do, do they talk about anything other than men?)

Do people of different identities have the same opportunities? (e.g. are the lawyers and the admins both diverse, or are all the lawyers white men and all the admins women and people of color)

Is everyone’s physical body treated respectfully? (Or are some types of bodies naked while others are clothed? Some admired and others ridiculed as in fat-phobic scenes? Are signs of aging OK for some identities but not for others? Are there healthy and realistic attitudes toward body types?)

Are there intersections of identities and are those accurately portrayed? (e.g. the experience of white transgender men is very different from white transgender women which is different than transgender women of color, and a story should acknowledge that)

Is the sole function of the marginalized character to help move the story along for the benefit of the dominant character?

Just like you don’t want a story where the character is solely defined by one identity, you also don’t want the identity to be completely ignored. For example, if you had a Middle Eastern actor playing a role but everyone interacted with them like they were white, that’s not realistic. Or if a group of friends decided to meet at a London club, and the person in the wheelchair didn’t have to ask if the club was accessible. The reality is that our identities impact our lives in a broad variety of ways, and that should be reflected in a story.

Mediaversity Scores

I’ve discovered a website that looks like it will be very helpful in evaluating options. It’s Mediaversity Website – https://www.mediaversityreviews.com. It’s a movie review site where the focus is on social context, diversity and inclusion. Their reviewers include queer folks, people with disability, people of color, etc. They grade a film, where A = Inclusive AF and d**ned well made, C = diversity was not a priority, and F = how was this greenlit?

They examine these categories: technical merit- is it a good film? then they rate it on gender, race, orientation, disability – both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. These are each given separate scores, from 1 – 5 and those are averaged for the final grade. I have always appreciated how Common Sense Media rates movies for parents on several categories – I don’t worry about language in my kids’ movie viewing, but I do worry about violence, and their nuanced summaries let me make the choices that work for me. It looks like Mediaversity will be similarly helpful by allowing me to look at specific categories. I feel like because I am disabled and female, I can make my own judgments about how those topics are addressed in a film, but reading their scores and discussion of race issues will help me notice any blind spots I might have that would cause me to miss the impact of portrayals of race in a film.

Tropes to Watch Out For

Within every identity category, there are common stereotypes – both negative and positive. It’s worth being aware of those common stereotypes so you notice if that stereotype is all you’re seeing in a particular character versus seeing a fully fleshed out individual. I’ll add notes below about stereotypes to be aware of.

There are also common tropes – standard Hollywood storylines that often play out for characters with particular identities. There may be important and valuable stories that line up with these standard storylines, but if every movie you’ve ever watched about that identity tells that story, it’s time to broaden your perspective.

One Story is Never the Whole Story

Peering through windows into another identity is not a “one and done” proposition. No one story tells the full story. For example, I am an amputee due to cancer forty years ago. I could write one very real and authentic story about what it’s like to be an amputee, both in the big picture and with all sorts of specific tiny little details – like how my shirts all wear out on the sides because of my crutches and the fact that when I choose my seat in a restaurant, I’m looking for somewhere I can set my crutches that they won’t be in the way. But my story is only my story, and another amputee might have a very different experience.

Watch “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for more thoughts on this. And Zeba Blay from Huffington Post: “…. no one black woman can encompass the entire black experience, no matter the heights of her success. That’s why more representation, more complex portrayals … are needed in media: the black female experience is not just one thing. Neither is the queer experience, the Muslim experience, the experience of having a disability.”

So, the more stories you experience, the broader and more complete your knowledge will be. Here are some recommendations to get you started.

Recommended Media

Note: these are recommendations for media for adults. Here are recommendations for diverse books for children.

Jump to recommendations for: Stories about people who are Black, Asian, South-Asian, Native American, Hispanic, Muslim, Immigrant, Disabled, Autistic, LGBTQIA, Rural.

Black Stories

Recommended Works:

What to be aware of: The most common storylines for Black Americans are about slavery, civil rights, and police brutality. And yes, these stories are an essential part of understanding the Black experience, so do watch/read some of those. But you’ll see that some of the works in the recommendations I link to above tell stories about completely different topics – check out some of those too!

Be wary of works that include only stereotypes, like urban gang members, people living in poverty, drop-outs, teen moms, sassy maids, basketball players, mailmen and police officers. The negative stereotypes in media can cause real harm to Black individuals. Seek out stories that include all sorts of Black characters.

Asian-American Stories

Recommended Works:

What to be cautious of: Media that paints all Asians as the same, without understanding the differences between, for example, Japanese-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans, between recent immigrants vs. 2nd or 3rd generation Asian-Americans. Also watch out for images of the overachieving model minority. Other stereotypes include: Asian women as submissive sex objects, men as meek and sexless, parents as harsh, all Asian cultures as obsessed with honor and sacrifice, and all Asian characters doctors and scientists OR they’re all workers in restaurants, convenience shops and dry cleaners.

South Asian / Indian-American Stories

Some of the lists above may include South Asian stories as well, but I wanted to call them out as a separate identity. Some of the tropes and stereotypes are similar. Add in Indian match-making tropes.

Native American / American Indian Stories

Recommended Works:

What to watch out for: Any media that assumes all tribes are the same – look for the specificity of Choctaw, or Kiowa, or Northern Arapaho, not generic “Native American.” Watch for brownface – caucasian actors playing the role. Stereotypes like: beautiful maiden, stoic Indian, magical medicine man, bloodthirsty warrior, welfare-dependent alcoholic on the rez, worker at a casino or fireworks stand. Read “Why I Won’t Wear War Paint and Feathers in a Movie Again.”

Hispanic / Latinx

Recommended Works:

Stereotypes to watch out for – Positive stereotypes are family oriented, hard working, religious, honest. Negative: steal jobs, work illegally, refuse to learn English, less educated, have too many kids. Stereotyped roles: gang member, domestic (gardener, maid, restaurants), Latin lover, Mamacita. Learn more about the Impact of Media Stereotypes on Attitudes toward Latinos. Also: watch for things that assume that all Hispanic people are Mexican, or that lump recent immigrants from Guatemala in the same category with third generation Cuban Americans.

Middle Eastern and/or Muslim

Recommended Works:

Stereotypes to watch out for: terrorist, wife of terrorist, religious fanatic, woman in hijab, belly dancer, taxi driver, wealthy sheikh who is attracted to white women. Notice how they always have strong accents – it is very rare to see second-generation Arab-Americans who were born and raised in the US. Read this great article about Muslim-American actors talk about their experiences with auditions and casting: “You may know me from such roles as terrorist #4.

Immigration Stories

Recommended Works:

Immigrants are under-represented in the media, and when shown, tend to fall either into rags to riches assimilation tropes or into being shown as permanently on the outside of the mainstream society. Stereotyped storylines include getting their citizenship, working in the family restaurant / store, and going to jail. In reality, immigrants commit less crime and are less likely to be incarcerated than native born Americans, but in 2018, 34% of immigrant characters were associated with a crime. Positive storylines with nuanced characters inspired people to real-life action for immigrant rights.

Stories about Disability

Recommended Works:

Disability Tropes to Watch Out For: On the rare occasion that disabled characters are shown in movies, their story tends to be either a tragedy, a story that enables an able-bodied character to be a savior, or a story of the person “overcoming” their disability (what the disability community calls ‘inspiration porn’). And that is true of some of the movies recommended above. They may still be good movies, with valid stories to tell, but remember those are not the only stories people with disabilities have to tell. Also, most disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors. (A third of recent best actor winners at the Oscars were able-bodied actors playing characters with a disability.) Ask yourself if this had to be the case (for example, if we see a character before the accident that leads to the disability, they may need to be able-bodied to play those scenes) or if an actually disabled actor could/should have been cast.

Autism / Neurodiversity

This one is tricky… first read this article to understand some of the issues with how autism is portrayed in film and TV: “The #ActuallyAutistic Movement vs. Sia’s Movie, ‘Music’” by Meg Hartley. https://medium.com/halcyon-musings/the-actuallyautistic-movement-vs-sias-movie-music-3d4f9391618

Here are two lists of movies… some of the recommendations are OK, but the article’s introductions are really problematic, the first has stereotypes… the second views autism as a disability which can’t be “cured” and must be masked. Learn why that’s problematic in this discussion of autism acceptance month.

LGBTQIA+

Recommended Works: There are LOTS of lists of recommended movies, where you can look specifically for Lesbian romances, or LGBT coming of age, or teen, or best of the 2010’s, or whatever. Here are some good broad recommendations with a wide range of identities and storylines represented:

Tropes: For a long time, queer characters were either absent, predatory, promiscuous, or the target of a joke. As more movies began being made, they tended to focus on only a handful storylines: coming out, forbidden love, homophobic violence, and dying of AIDS. Again, these are all important stories. But they’re not the only stories.

Stereotypes to Notice: Gay Best Friend, closeted jock, transgender hooker with a heart of gold, murderous bisexual, depraved homosexual, all LGBTQ people are promiscuous, butch lesbian, all lesbians want children, lesbians hate men.

Rural America

From 2020, add Nomadland and Minari to these lists!

Stereotypes to be aware of: Movies set in rural towns, especially in the south, often depict the residents as supremely ignorant, gullible, racist, xenophobic, lazy, wild drunken partiers, or hillbilly savages. Also, there are a lot of slasher films set in rural areas, and stories of crazed rapists. On the other hand, there are stories that totally romanticize small town life (like every Christmas movie), and imply that all rural people own quaint family farms. Reality: 1 in 5 Americans live in rural communities. 1 in 5 rural residents are people of color. Less than 6% are employed in agriculture – more work in education, health care, retail, transportation.

And More Stories

“8 Movies That Got Mental Illness (Mostly) Right” by Juliette Virzi https://themighty.com/2017/11/good-portrayals-mental-illness-movies-depictions/

“13 Great Rom-Coms starring older actors” https://www.aarp.org/entertainment/movies-for-grownups/info-2021/romantic-comedies.html and “8 Romantic Movies about Older People in Love.” https://movies.allwomenstalk.com/romantic-movies-about-older-people-in-love/

I hope that you enjoy looking through some windows into other lives and “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

For more thoughts on this topic, read my post on the importance of Representation in Media, or listen to it on a podcast from Northlake UU Church.