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Minority media representation matters


Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend about media representation and whether or not it matters. My friend was of the opinion that the burden of responsibility lies with parents, who should choose to show their children content with diverse characters, while I believe producers should take initiative in representing minorities in films and on news networks. I thought about it for a while afterward — our arguments each had their merits, but I remain convinced the issue of representation is still a large one at its root. Not only do white males dominate the screen, but even characters who should be represented by people of color are traditionally depicted by white people, like Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” (who was described as having olive skin in the book) and Cleopatra.

First of all, there is huge inequality in the movie industry. There’s a 5:1 ratio of men working in films to women, and during the 85th Academy Awards, no women were nominated for directing, cinematography, film editing, writing or music. Of the four female filmmakers nominated in Academy Award history, only one has won (Kathryn Bigelow) and none were women of color. In 2013, Angelina Jolie made approximately the same amount as the two lowest-ranked male actors. And of women on screen in general, only 30.8 percent were speaking characters, according to the New York Film Academy.

The problem extends beyond Hollywood. Sixty-five to 70 percent of the guests on MSNBC, CNN and Fox are male. Worse still, 83 to 88 percent of their guests are white guests, with a number of ethnic groups disregarded entirely, according to Media Matters for America. There is absolutely no lack of qualified women and men of color, but mainstream news tells us a different story. It appears that women and people of color are more likely to be invited as guests only when the topic concerns race, sexism, domestic abuse or anything specifically pertaining to a particular group. Otherwise, white males dominate the scene on politics, foreign policy and economics.

Why is any of this important? Stereotypical representations of minorities perpetuate cultural ideas that encourage racism and sexism. They influence attitudes and reinforce gender and racial segregation still present in society, no matter if messages you might receive tell you otherwise. And worst of all, they dehumanize people and reduce them to one or two characteristics associated with a race or gender.

So, if the answer is to filter the content we watch so we see ourselves represented in more diverse characters, the question is: Where do we find that content? Ask yourselves if the movies you watch pass the Bechdel test: Do at least two female characters talk to each other about something other than a man? Do the news networks you follow feature guests who aren’t cookie cutter professionals and who represent the diverse range of people actually in the workforce?

On a more basic level, it’s easy to understand why people need to see characters that look like them. Growing up, I wanted to be something I wasn’t because the movies and television shows I watched idealized women who didn’t look like me, and, frankly, didn’t have the complexities that most, if not all, pre-teen girls have. In other words, I was socialized into thinking I wasn’t good enough. Media is threaded into our daily lives, whether we acknowledge it or not. Minorities are people. They have the same experiences, emotions and desires and should be treated as such.

We can do better than this. The first step is to critically analyze the messages we get from media about minorities. The second step is to support movies with equal representation. And the third, of course, is to demand for them. It all starts with being more aware.

Sara Zayed is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in computer science with a minor in mathematics. Her column, “#RealTalk,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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