From the [Arab Film and Media Institute] (https://arabfilminstitute.org/what-exactly-is-media-representation-anyway/) to the [United Nations Foundations] (https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/its-time-to-hear-and-see-women-in-media/), there is continuing discussion on the numerous benefits that come from the equal representation of minorities in Western film, television and books, especially representation of BIPOC (black, indiginous and people of color) and LGBTQ+ communities. Many individuals are beginning to notice the various problems in how these communities are written and portrayed by primarily white creators to an audience that is now more diverse than ever before.
An issue that takes precedence in much of the aforementioned representation is that of [tokenism] (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tokenism), which, according to Mariam-Webster, is a policy or practice making only symbolic effort. In mainstream media, particularly television and film, we constantly witness instances of tokenism without realizing what they are. From “the gay best friend” trope to the “Indian guy with an accent named Raj”, these attempts to represent cultures and minorities are ever-present. Tokenism continues to be a problem, as we still see these stereotypes on screen, and actors in the industry carry on playing them due to typecasting – being given roles specifically in relation to their orientation, skin color or nationality.
Bad representation leads to the perpetuation of stereotypes by boiling down a character’s entire personality to a single trait – typically that of their ethnicity or sexual orientation. Viewers may form perceptions on how a person of a certain minority should be or act, for example, that all Muslim women must wear the hijab or that all Russians are crime lords. This sort of stereotyping is harmful, not only because it stunts accurate and more nuanced representation, but it can also lead to members of minority groups feeling like their experiences are not valid because they don’t live or act in accordance with their media depiction.
As a generation that grew up with the rise of the Internet, most of us are very conscious of the influence that media has on our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. Yet, many do not realize how media can influence things like cultural beliefs and attitudes toward ethnicity and gender. For the members of marginalized groups who often only see their members reduced to the villains, sidekicks and sexual conquests of cisgender white male characters, this form of sparse and stereotypical representation can severely impact their self-esteem. In fact, in a study done on the relationship between women's representation in media and their participation in STEM fields, they found that exposure to stereotyping may be a factor leading to gender disparities in [these fields] (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02435/full). As for the majority group, having no other depiction of marginalized communities beyond those on TV can affect their perception of themselves and others, which may result in the exaggeration of [racial biases] (https://scholars.org/contribution/how-racial-stereotypes-popular-media-affect-people-and-what-hollywood-can-do-become).
Minority characters in television and film often make up a very small percentage of the entire ensemble, and are therefore often expected to be cultural delegates that represent their entire demographic. Therefore, they are not allowed to have character flaws. Of course, there are instances where this criticism is valid, for example, the queer-coding of villians in movies traces back to the now defunct [Hays code] (https://www.acmi.net.au/stories-and-ideas/early-hollywood-and-hays-code/), which stated that “sexual perversion” should not be shown unless it was explicitly condemned, resulting in many villains having their evil nature tied directly to their queerness. But, this does not mean that every instance of representation should be of a perfect moral paragon. One example of this was the backlash to Erika Sanchez’s [“I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter”] (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/29010395-i-am-not-your-perfect-mexican-daughter?from_search=true&from_srp=true&qid=0H7ld3fgaG&rank=1). Readers criticized the book for being a bad representation of Mexican people because they found the main character unlikeable. This is not to imply that no diverse media should ever be criticized, but it should be noted that this novel attracted harsher criticism than might have been leveled at a less diverse novel because of this idea that diverse characters must act as ambassadors for their group. For one thing, this is just boring character writing; who wants to read a book about a protagonist with no flaws and, therefore, no relatability? Additionally, this hinders writers from creating good, well-rounded and interesting characters, thus. stunting accurate representation of humans in general.
But to get to the root of the problem, we should look at what happens behind the scenes. One example that highlighted the lack of minorities working in production was the case of Amita Suman’s stunt double in Netflix’s recent hit show “Shadow and Bone,” based on the successful trilogy of the same name by Leigh Bardugo. Upon allegedly being unable to find a South Asian stunt double for Suman, the producers decided to hire a blonde, white stunt double, put her in a brown bodysuit and paint her face brown. This caused an outrage among the show and book fans, as many viewed the show as groundbreaking for featuring a diverse cast. The case of the stunt double clearly undermined those views. This instance highlighted the bigger issue than merely a lack of skill that often ends up producing a one-dimensional token character that is seen across all forms of media. It uncovered a lack of diversity behind the scenes in much of film and television in general, a systemic issue that needs to be addressed before we can expect any major changes in how minorities are represented.
Ultimately, every instance of representation coming from a white creator could be criticized if not done in consultation with people from the minority it is trying to represent. [Many BIPOC writers] (https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/don-t-dip-your-pen-in-someone-else-s-blood-writers-and-the-other-1.3533819) have pointed out in their work that they do not need white people to speak about their experience, but rather allow them space to voice themselves. And if they choose to do so, they should aim to do it with respect and without harming the minority they are writing about.
Emily Yoo, Sara Vuksanovic and Malak Elmallah are Book and Movie Columnists. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.