I’ve recently finished the first season of Jane the Virgin, which is both lighthearted and intense, comedic and inspiring. One thing that stood out to me particularly was the diversity amongst characters – in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender, appearance, income level. Apart from this show, several other popular shows- Orange is the New Black, Scandal, Pretty Little Liars, and more, have been cast and written in a way that includes people of various ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations. Considering the media’s role in our society, and the fact that as Americans, we take pride in being a conglomeration of cultures, this is a very important feature for viewers everywhere.
We are all influenced by media- television, film, music, internet culture – almost more than we are influenced by our surroundings. Thus, it’s important for characters and themes to be inclusive of all kinds of people. Traditionally, most characters across TV and film have been heterosexual and caucasian, unless they are filling a derogatory stereotype within a script. In many instances, we see diversity in a storyline, but it is more a formulaic trope, perpetuating a negative stereotype. We’ve been conditioned to accept the lack of appropriate representation as normal, to the extent that when we do see ethnic, sexual and cultural diversity, it’s notable. With time, fortunately the media has begun to depict a much more realistic society, showcasing the diversity that we see in the real world.
Representation in media is important for several reasons. Some may argue that race, ethnicity, and other physical attributes are just that- physical attributes. However, while these may seem like superficial characteristics, they are also indicative of something much more profound. Race and ethnicity are representative of ones’ belief system, cultural identity, and are the segregating factor between groups of people. The issue is, these divided groups do not all have equal privilege and power in society. When the minority or disadvantaged groups are poised in the media in a positive light, stereotypes are abolished, especially for younger generations who are repeatedly exposed to this.
Furthermore, a lack of representation is isolating- it causes one to perceive themself as “different” and unusual. Minorities and marginalized groups need to know they are included and celebrated as a regular part of the world. A significant part of how we understand ourselves is through a social lens- that is, it’s important to have images and characters we can relate to, in order to understand how we fit into society. This can inspire confidence and security in our uniqueness. When characters who resemble us are portrayed in a positive context, we are empowered with the knowledge that we also can be those positive things. Additionally to being reflective of ourselves, the media can introduce viewers to less common groups. For instance, many would be more understanding, comfortable, and accepting of someone from an outgroup (such as transgender individuals or a particular minority race) if they were first exposed to this in a fictional environment on TV.
If we fail to accurately and positively portray all types of individuals- not just heterosexual, muscular, caucasian males – we erase the stories of the majority of the world. It’s unfair to deprive viewers, especially highly impressionable, young media consumers, of the reality. To sequester entire groups of people is to silence them, which is an offense to both those very individuals, and the rest of us, as it leaves us ignorant and close-minded.