Kendall Aronson, Campus Carrier Social Media Director
Representation, or the way people in society are presented to audiences, is extremely important for groups in society. Particularly for minorities which have gotten less representation in the past, it can be important to create characters who represent them. However, just because creators have improved the amount of minority characters on screen does not mean the representation is entirely better.
Solely creating a minority character in a show or film is not the only thing of importance. Having on-screen representation that is not stereotypical is equally important for audiences. When one sees a character with only a few key attributes, like all gay men being flamboyant or Asians being smart or girls being submissive, over and over again on screen, it can be very damaging to viewers.
It feels less socially acceptable when one doesn’t necessarily fit into those characteristics. It can feel like that is the only thing society wants from minorities.
Studies done by The American Communication Journal have shown that the more media that someone consumes, the more likely they are to buy in to the messages they’re seeing, and the more likely they are to adopt them into their worldview. This can have damaging effects for both the people being represented and those who are viewing the representation as an observer. If someone sees frequent representations of a group of people as solely a stereotype they will begin to associate that group of people only with that stereotype. Now, representation continues to improve as the years go on, but it definitely still has a long way to go.
Specifically, creators of shows announcing that their character is gay or book authors saying that a character could be black is not really representation at all. While some fans who keep up with those updates will be grateful to know that one of their favorite characters on a show has the same sexuality as them, wouldn’t it have been more impactful if that sexuality was actually explicit in the medium that it was released and did not have to be stated after the fact? Many people who watch those shows or read those books will never find out about these after-the-fact declarations, and even if they do become aware, they’ve already created an image of the character at that point, and it is less meaningful to change that. The same is true of race, gender and other attributes. We need to be more focused on creating representative characters and not twisting existing ones into checking those boxes.
Now, representation is important, and I think it is great that shows and movies are doing better at including people. But I also think that we are far from perfect. We should make sure that the shows and films that we are praising for their inclusivity are actually accurate and complete.