Representation in the media matters. When we watch films or TV shows, we relate to the characters and insert ourselves into their stories. We read books and imagine ourselves as the main character. But what if you don’t see yourself in any of the characters?
White, Blonde, Blue-Eyed
I am a white, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed woman. I have seen many characters that look like me on my TV screen. One of my more salient memories as a child was wondering why people who look like me are always SO MEAN.
Regina George from Mean Girls.
Cher Horowitz from Clueless.
Heather Chandler from Heathers
It always seemed they were the Queen Bee, the leader. They were often shallow, cruel, and only rarely had a true redemption arc.
I did not identify with these characters. I was a bookworm who struggled to make friends or fit in. Sure, there were some white, blonde, and blue-eyed characters who were relatable, but a lot of the time I wondered if this was the way I should be acting?
My point is, representation in the media matters.
I did not like a lot of the characters that looked like me, and to a point, this led me to wonder if I should even like myself. But I was lucky. There were other stereotypes that I could latch onto.
However, for many people of color, this is not the case, and a lack of representation of diverse, strong, and admirable characters can impact one’s mental health, especially when you are from a marginalized community.
Black Representation in the Media
Brooks and Hébert, two feminist scholars, strongly criticized the lack of representation and harmful stereotypes on Black women in the media, including matriarchs, mammies, welfare mothers, jezebels, or tragic mulattoes. Black women are portrayed as poor, over-sexualized, dependent on the state, and aggressive. Furthermore, Black men and other people of color suffer a variety of stereotypes and limited media representation.
While media diversity is improving, different “diverse” characteristics are still rarely layered on top of one another. Frequently, characters of color act “white”, and neglect their unique cultural heritage. Additionally, white actors and actresses still play characters of color in too many movies.
But why should we care? It is improving – does it matter if we hit every box? Isn’t this pandering to the snowflakes and politically correct propaganda?
While I urge you to check your privilege and acknowledge that you have rarely had to watch a Hollywood movie where the cast was mostly of color (not including movies depicting slavery), there are very real health consequences to not being represented in the media.
Media and Reality: The Role of Implicit Bias
Some people will tell you that works of fiction do not affect reality.
But, for every child who wished for their Hogwarts letter, I am here to tell you that fiction does indeed impact reality.
Truthfully, fiction and media, construct the reality around us. If you’re watching crime documentaries all day, you may fancy yourself an amateur detective. Studies prove that those continually watching negative news casts will see the world as a dangerous and dark place.
Moreover, media builds stereotypes, tropes, expectations, and roles for people to fit into.
Therefore, when representation in the media is limited, the roles of people who look like you can become limiting.
Why are all Arab women belly dancers? Why are all Chinese men really good at math or hitmen?
If you’ve only ever seen yourself represented as a single mother or a criminal, then how can you imagine yourself as the president of the United States of America?
One research study analyzed the portrayal of mental illness in the media and the public’s perception of mental illness. Frequently, the media associates mental illness with a crime, and though people struggling with mental illness are rarely violent, the public perceives them as dangers to society. Something that isn’t statistically true becomes perceived as truth because of limited media representation.
Implicit bias is the perceptions we have that we do not consciously recognize. Black people are often stereotyped as criminals. This leads to implicit biases that cause a cop to perceive a cell phone like a gun and shoot an unarmed Black man.
People of color are aware of implicit bias, and how it has a real impact on their safety. They experience the racism and the impact of poor media representation that most white people are too privileged to recognize.
Having privilege isn’t about deliberately demanding something – it’s just about the circumstances of your life that give you benefits you never asked for.Maisha Z. Johnson
Racism and Mental Health
In short, implicit bias is an underlying, insidious, and hard-to-change impact of institutionalized racism. After all, the institution is what influences the media, and the media is often what influences us.
Unfortunately, implicit bias is something all privileged persons must acknowledge in themselves, as well as where it originated from, and how they can begin to change it. Without recognizing the racism that persists in our perceptions created by media stereotypes, racism will continue to exist.
In some of my articles, I discuss the fact that stress has enduring impacts on our mental and physical health. Communities and persons who experience racism are under daily chronic stress that is severely detrimental to their health. Additionally, poverty and marginalization compound the effects of racism, which in turn justifies many of the stereotypes that exist in the media.
It is a vicious cycle, and changing it starts with ourselves.
But it also starts with the media we consume.
Why Representation in the Media Matters
We all like cheering for a hero who reminds us of ourselves. That’s because we all want to be a hero.
- shares a message that everyone has a place in this world
- promotes self-esteem
- allows people to identify with diverse characters
- serves as inspiration
- challenges existing stereotypes and preconceptions
When we allow and celebrate diversity in our media, we challenge our perception of the world and in turn are more open to meeting new people, learning new things, and unlearning old ideas.
We challenge our implicit biases, and in turn, we can challenge racist perceptions. Challenging racism is imperative to supporting community health from the ground up, and the potential of the individuals in those communities.