Why Does Media Representation Matter?

Despite our best attempts to deny it, our media profoundly reflects our real world attitudes and biases. Our media does not exist in a vacuum and cannot be removed from the societal context in which it was made. This is part of why it is so important to critically analyze the media that we consume instead of taking it for face value. If a show, film, or book is reinforcing harmful and demeaning gender roles or contributing to the stereotyping and/or erasure of people of color or GSRM, then it needs to be called out.

It’s extremely easy for people in the majority to say that media representation does not matter because they have it. Just as it’s easy for people who are financially privileged to say, “It’s just money” when spending a few hundred dollars eating out at a fancy restaurant and buying drinks. When we have something, we’re inclined to take it for granted.

If you’re reading this, you more than likely have a reliable source of water and food. The idea of not knowing where your next meal is coming from and when it will be is completely foreign to myself and many others who have internet access. Since it’s become such a non-issue for me, it’s easy for me to think that food isn’t a big deal just like it’s easy for me to forget that others don’t have the same financial situation as I do, especially since I’m in college.

So when people in the majority claim that media representation isn’t important or that people of color are just being too sensitive and whiny, what they are actually saying is they have taken their representation for granted and don’t at all understand what the topic is about. This is usually accompanied by complaints that minorities just can’t "empathize with people other than other minorities" and that there’s nothing wrong with media- minorities are just being entitled. But that displays a surprising lack of self-awareness.

These are usually the same people that complain about the BET as a racist channel since it does not feature the aggressively white-washed media we are used to seeing. Or that categorize media featuring primarily people of color as "Black films" or "films about race". If anything, people of color are forced to be able to empathize with white people because the vast majority of protagonists they will see and be expected to empathize with are white. On an even greater scale, GSRMs are forced to empathize with heterosexual cisgender people because pretty much every single love story they ever encounter [even in advertisements, like Google’s Nexus 7 commercial about a phone] will involve people that are heterosexual and cisgender.

But if we turn it around, we get the consistent message that white audiences don’t want to see a biracial Spiderman. They don’t want to see a Wonder Woman movie. They want a Katniss and a Khan and a Rue and a Lavender Brown that are white, damn it! If anything, it looks like people in the majority can’t empathize with people in the minority.

Media representation is important because stories have always been one of the most important ways that we teach our children and our peers about the world. From Biblical stories to Aesop’s Fables, we have always used stories to explain what values we should hold dear, what situations we should avoid, and the types of people that are “bad”.

So when I, and plenty of other kids, grow up consistently seeing that I cannot be a Hogwarts wizard, or an elf, or a superhero, or even an extra in the background of a New York sitcom, the message is clear: people like me don’t get to be heroes. We don’t get to be protagonists. We don’t get to be love interests. We don’t get to be anything. If we’re lucky, we get to be depraved villains.

I can’t think of a single well-known character in popular television, film, or literature that is both Asian and gay. I literally do not exist in the world of fiction, a world that is supposed to help us escape from our real lives, a world that is supposed to entertain us and lift our spirits, and help us forget about the problems in our real life. A world that has coincidentally never included people like me.

Growing up queer especially is difficult when there’s no role model to grab onto. There were no superheroes or wizards or vampires that I could look up to. Nothing to reaffirm that I wasn’t somehow horrifically damaged for being attracted to my own gender. Every once in a while I would get a hint from somewhere. A Northstar here or a… honestly I can’t even think of another example from my childhood. And when they did exist, they were such minor characters, so rarely shown, never easily found, that they hardly did any good.

And I’m completely aware that the common response to this is, “There’s just no way to mention sexual orientation in media without making a big deal out of it! Assuming that everyone is straight is bad! There could be tons of queer wizards and superheroes and vampires but you’re just assuming they’re straight!” but that comment is horribly misguided.

Firstly, we reveal sexual orientations of straight characters all the time without explicitly saying so. We see them holding hands, we see them kissing, we see them with biological children, we see pictures of their families, they talk about their husbands and wives. And most of them never say, “HI! I’M STRAIGHT!”

Secondly, while it’s not ideal, we live in a society that assumes straight and cisgender until proven otherwise. If you meet a new Hogwarts student named Ben, more likely than not, people will assume he’s straight [and cis and white, but that’s another issue entirely]. We can’t settle for “Well they MIGHT be queer, it just doesn’t say” because that’s still contributing to the erasure and invisibility of queer characters.

And finally, people forget that these stories are not true. They could be written differently. They could be written with these issues and their effects in mind. Every aspect of the stories that we read or watch are constructed by people who make decisions. Stories can be written in any number of infinite ways. The way stories are written is inextricably linked with the author’s prejudices and internalized biases.

Media representation is important because the media profoundly influences our worldview and what we find ‘normal’. It’s important because if the lives of my close family and I were suddenly broadcast as a sitcom, people would say that the producers were trying too hard to be politically correct and the demographics were too unrealistic. It’s important because the continued erasure of minorities in fiction only serves to perpetuate the continued erasure of minorities in real life.

Our stories have never been important enough to be told in the pages or frames of popular media. It’s no wonder they’re not important enough to be listened to outside of it.