Why Representation Matters
Stories and tales are amazing ways to transport yourself to a faraway place, meet and get to know complete strangers and explore cultures and traditions unbeknownst to you. We all know that stories are of paramount importance in our lives because they affect how we see other people and how we think about ourselves. This is particularly true in countries and places where there are millions of people who live in communities where they don’t have exposure to people who aren’t like them; people who are of a different age, colour, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, race or even lifestyle. The only way these millions of folks get to know these different ways of living is through stories on television, in the news, on social media, through books or even through hearsay.
What you see becomes a part of your memory and thus a part of your life experience. Movies and other story-telling formats serve as proxy methods for us to bask in experiences and live lives of people so different or so relatable to us. Unfortunately, formulaic character tropes are still ubiquitous in many movies and story books — be it the nerdy Asian math student, the sassy black sidekick, the fat comic relief or even the icy female boss. These tropes do so much damage in portraying stereotypes based on gender and background. Shoving away the underrepresented into a box not only restricts the way a character can/should behave, but also don’t reflect the breadth of the life experience of such a character. Since visual media teaches us how the world works, when you don’t see people like yourself in it, the message is either that we don’t have a place in it or that we’re invisible.
As a kid, especially, seeing someone who looks just like you on screen in a very one-dimensional way can make you wonder if that is how society sees you; moreover, it can make you wonder if that is what is expected of you in society. Media plays a very significant and powerful role in shaping children’s interests and ambitions. It is also a place where children find role models they can look up to and empathise with. So when the majority of the stories they hear and watch portray women as damsels in distress/sidekicks/plot devices for romance, what kind of message does that ingrain in children’s minds about women’s role in society? If Muslims are solely portrayed as terrorists or violence-mongers, what kind of harmful ideas are projected? If non-cis gendered people and non-heterosexual people aren’t represented on screen, does that make their experiences any less valid?
The conversation about diversity in the movie industry, especially in Hollywood, often centers around fairness. The last two editions of the Academy awards produced a trending hashtag on twitter: #OscarsSoWhite, which obviously aimed to show the discrimination and basic lack of opportunities presented to people of colour, Asians, Latin people etc… in Hollywood. The 90th edition of Oscars seemed to have fared better, with numerous ‘firsts’ such as the first time a woman (Rachel Morrison for Mudbound) is nominated in the category of “Best Cinematography”. They say that art imitates life. In an unfortunate case of the saying, gender and ethnic bias are prevalent in many arenas of our society (media, politics, books) as they are in our day-to-day life. The saturation in award shows with predominantly white nominees only mirrors the abundance of whiteness we see on screen.
The polemic debate about whitewashing in Hollywood is also more heated now than ever. An example of whitewashing that sparked a lot of fury on social media is that of Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, a film adapted from Japanese manga. So why exactly is whitewashing a problem? Isn’t it an actor’s job to immerse themselves in any role, regardless of colour or race? The problem arises in that the white actress benefits and in this case, the Japanese actor is not even given the opportunity to begin with. Whiteness becomes set as the default norm — they portray all races and colours and these stylized versions eliminate the real experiences and the raw portrayal that could be achieved by casting accurately. Whitewashing also deliberately discriminates against ethnic minorities and leaves a gaping lack of representation. Most dangerously, though, whitewashing alters perceptions of histories and stories and erases the minorities’ contributions and experiences.
Of course, nevertheless, the fact remains that no single person can encompass the entire experience of being a minority who is underrepresented/forgotten/sidetracked on screen. This is because representation is incredibly personal just as feeling seen or feeling like a character is relatable to you, is incredibly personal. Never is any identity just one thing. Not a queer experience. Not a Muslim experience. Not the experience of having a disability.
Ultimately, that is why more representation doesn’t just mean more images and more people of colour on screen. It also means that more complex personal experiences, stories, identities and ideas are shared and hence become universal. Give us portrayals that break the mold, step outside the box and shatter glass ceilings. The more these types of stories are shared, the more diverse, textured and nuanced our world view becomes. These voices need to be heard, now more than ever, given the global political climate and growing discussion about inequality. They need to be heard because equality is still seen as the exception rather than the rule.
Author: Vaishnavi Pallapothu