By Ana Sofia Hibon
Social Connectedness Fellow
As children, many of us re-enacted our favorite stories growing up and can recall fondly the fictional characters that every kid on the playground aspired to be. But if you reflect back on that for a moment, have you ever considered: Did those characters look like you? Did they come from similar cultural backgrounds? Did you see yourself represented by them? For many, the answer will be no.
Historically, popular culture and mainstream media have isolated countless people, rendering them invisible or reducing them to caricatures. Among many examples, minorities, women, those living with an intellectual or physical disability, and the LGBTQ community have all been underrepresented. When they are built into storylines, it is often in the form of one-dimensional portrayals.
This is especially true in children’s programming. In 2012, 12% of U.S citizens reported living with an apparent disability. However, only 0.9% of regular characters on American primetime broadcast were depicted as people with disabilities in 2015-16.
Similarly, a 2014 study by the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg found that no media platform produced content that matched proportional representation of the US population. That year, more than 22% of the broadcasted content featured no Black or African-American characters, while 50% of all productions featured no Asian or Asian-American characters in speaking roles.
The problem of underrepresentation and exclusion begins in the production room. Despite the fact that women represented over half of U.S media consumers in 2015, more than 70% of television network studio heads and management in the U.S. were male, over 90% of them white.
Experiences with media impact our individual development. We find role models in media, and our self-perceived likeness to those role models can significantly influence our self-esteem. In addition, understanding a character and their story can help build empathy and respect towards people who look like them, or whose stories are similar to that of their fictional counterparts.
Fortunately, activists, artists, and production houses around the world are taking action towards a fairer representation of minorities and vulnerable groups in media.
The Representation Project is an organization whose goal is to “rewrite the story” and challenge narratives that perpetuate stereotypes and derogatory representations of communities. The organization partners with community groups and schools to create and distribute media literacy curricula at the grassroots level. Their advocacy work also includes collaborations with high profile ambassadors, such as Tony award-winning actress Laura Benanti and actor, activist, and albino top model Shaun Ross.
Progress is being made in production rooms as well. Last April, Sesame Street’s first character with autism, Julia, made her TV debut. Her character was developed through years of consultation with families and organizations in the autism community. A member of the Sesame Street Workshop stated that their goal is to model “the way both children and adults can look at autism from a strength-based perspective: finding things that all children share,” rather than focusing on differences.
Kamala Khan, A.K.A. Ms. Marvel, one of Marvel’s newest comic book characters, is one of many examples of how fictional characters in media can help fight negative stereotypes about different communities. As a first generation Pakistani-American super teen, the character combats crime, but also Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments by challenging the assumptions Americans have about Muslim immigrants.
Maria W. Norris, founder of the Comics, Human Rights, and Representation week at the London School of Economics, said that “the practice and promotion of human rights is at its core about challenging invisibility.” As audiences, we cannot downplay the importance of positive and balanced representation of minorities and vulnerable groups in media. Let’s challenge invisibility by demanding more inclusive content. Let’s also foster dialogue about the media industry’s responsibility to build diverse creative teams.
Some argue that deliberately including more diverse characters in media is forced and not representative of real life. This could not be further from the truth. The reality is that our world is diverse and constantly changing. Therefore, the next generation of beloved characters we see in television, film, comic books, and other media should reflect that.