Why Representation Matters

Image: Thomas Quine (shared under Creative Commons)

Representation is a topic that is growing in momentum across the media. Though for the most part that media seems to be of a social nature. As a public we seem (for the most part) to recognise that there is an issue in the kinds of people and stories coming across our screens, and we want it fixed. Representation is a broad issue that touches all minority communities. If you identify yourself as part of a minority community, chances are you’ve witnessed a lack of representation.

There are still people who don’t agree that representation is an issue that’s worth its salt. Who argue that there isn’t a need to be making such a fuss about the faces and stories we see plastered across our media, or who argue that now infamous excuse: “they just weren’t the best person for the job.” I’ve heard many times that representation shouldn’t matter as much as people want it to, because we’re all the same, and we shouldn’t be trying to make an issue out of something that isn’t that important. But that’s exactly why it is important, because we are not all the same. We’re all different. And that’s ok. In fact, that’s better.

The growing unease around the issue is not new, it’s just that it’s only now coming to the forefront of conversation. Underrepresentation causes a butterfly effect. If you can’t see people who are like you in the media, it becomes a lot harder to see yourself. By underrepresenting these communities, the media are passively discouraging and erasing them. Speaking as a member of the LGBT+ community, growing up there was virtually nothing I had to relate to or see myself in. There’s no doubt that there was material out there for LBT+ women, but it was of a specific kind. It was either oversexualised, sensationalised, romanticised or demonised. It wasn’t until 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Colour that I, and no doubt many others, found a more normalised and real representation of LBT+ women and youth. It wasn’t long after that I came out to my friends.

If you identify yourself as part of a minority community, chances are you’ve witnessed a lack of representation.

Representation matters because it gives us something to recognise, something to pinpoint that exists in ourselves and also in the real world and others. A connection, a similarity, a simple knowledge that people like you exist. And not just in the plotlines of our film and television but also in those responsible for them; the writers, producers, directors, and of course, actors. The importance of these figures being from minority communities is that it inspires others, allowing them to believe that if someone like them can do that, then they can too.

Though simply providing a spokesperson from a community isn’t enough. Representation can often be seen to have been boiled down to a simple case of inclusion, when in reality it is clearly a far more complex issue. This is when those attempting to fly the flag of ‘representation’ fall foul of tokenism. Tokenism a weak and lazy attempt at representation and rarely has a genuine concern with the issue, rather those who are guilty of tokenism are just trying to create the illusion of representation as a ‘shield’ of sorts, apparently giving them a ‘get out of jail free card’ against potential accusations of discrimination.

Tokenism is not representation. Tokenism is stereotypes and archetypes and idleness. Representation is, in fact, an issue that is far easier to amend than many make it out to be. And tokenism is one very easily avoided. Revelation such as blind casting in film and television have given us better diverse casts such as those of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, both from acclaimed producer and writer, Shonda Rhimes. But if we’re slowly weeding out tokenism and seeing an increase in things like blind castings, why is representation still an issue? Because Shonda Rhimes won an award for the diversity of her shows. Because equally representing minority communities in media is still not common place enough. Whilst Rhimes’ work is indisputably important and necessary, and a clear example to be followed, the fact remains that representation is still regarded as something unusual.

The media is guilty of a long history of white-washing and erasure, and it can’t just be wiped out overnight. There are front-runners and leaders in the fight for representation, new media all the time with bigger and better and more diverse casts than we could have ever hoped for twenty years ago: shows like Orange is the New Black, How to Get Away With Murder, and Atlanta. As well as films such as Hidden Figures, Romeos, and Blue is the Warmest Colour. We’re getting there, but there’s still a long way to go, and whether it’s accepted or not, #RepresentationMatters.