Representation. Representation? What exactly does that mean to me? Well, representation to me, is to be seen. In film and music this involves how a community is portrayed through the two mediums. When strong representation is said to exist, there will likely be different and diverse storylines being told about people of all diverse nationalities, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, genders and more. Additionally, it encompasses showcasing mental health and other struggles that individuals and communities face and projecting them to a wider audience. The concept is relatively simple but it can be difficult for some people to see the clear link between representation and the positive impact on the individual. I am here to explain…
There are numerous reasons why it is important for individuals to see themselves represented on film and through music. The main overarching idea is that to see oneself represented is validating. It normalises and brings a sense of belonging and identity, especially to young people. Your perception of reality is ultimately composed of what you are exposed too. This means if you are never exposed to certain themes then you may not register them as normal in society. Our societal roles are based and are a reflection of the things we observe and hear. So what happens when we cannot see ourselves through the mediums of film and music? This idea is concerning because our society is multicultural, multifaceted and contains differentiation in every form. Yes, there are dominant groups in society but dominance does not necessarily mean the majority, it just means that there is a ruling and accepted norm. In turn, it is extremely important for those individuals who don’t fit within the confines of the normalities in society to know that they are valid, belong and can achieve and strive for the exact same things as those who mould societies idea of normal. This is a simple but impactful concept but Hollywood still hasn’t got it perfect.
In particular focus on film – for decades, white men have dominated screens and as a white male myself, I am aware and critical of the narrow portrayal of society through film in the past (and that hindrances that still exist today). Themes of mental health were often brushed over or the ‘toughen up’ ideology would arise (which is a whole other world of problematic). While there has been many great films and stories told, they have not always been a reflection of society. In addition, we have seen minorities and difference portaged in film for years now too. However, the portrayal has often existed through stereotypical characterisation or just a lack of leading roles for individuals who don’t reflect the dominant paradigm. Unfortunately, this means that individuals may then perceive themselves as inferior or unworthy of particular aspirations.
Aside from that, representation brings joy. Plain and simple. Think about how good you felt the last time you related heavily to a character or felt emotionally connected to a particular song. How validated and happy or sad (depending on the circumstance) did you feel when you experienced this? It brings a sense of relatability that goes beyond the emotional and conceptual side of representation. By that I mean, for years individuals who do not fit the dominant social mould have enjoyed movies and music because they could connect with the emotional or thematic concerns that characters go through, even if physically they could not relate. Thus, a tangible and physical portrayal of difference can only enhance the experience for the individual and create a more validating space for them.
It is educational! Representation is educational – which makes it extremely important for all individuals to see the diversity in film and music, not just those who can relate. It can provide a sense of acceptance for difference by those who do exist within the societal normalities. This is especially important for particular situations where one may not have physical access or be surrounded by the difference being portrayed on a screen or through a song. Film and music can offer an accessible means for one to see societal groups or aspects of humanity that they may never have considered or seen physically. This also assists in normalising difference, as it means that not only can an individual feel validated within themselves but others can be more accepting and inclusive of the difference.
Life imitates art. A common phrase that has been around since Oscar Wilde penned it into existence in 1889. If you want to delve into this through diversity lens, one could argue that life imitates art, only because the art, media, film attempt to depict aspects of humanity. Therefore, if art does not showcase diversity or represent difference in its many forms, then reality will see a similar effect. The difference and diversity won’t disappear but it will exist as perceived by its society; defined by stereotypes and lacking in acceptance.
Now for some examples to explain my point a little further…
Think about the portrayal of African Americans in film over the past couple of decades and watch how it has evolved. There has always been so many stereotypes surrounding this societal group in film. For such a long time, African American characters were the ‘funny sidekick’ created for comedic relief. They were the criminal, the ‘thug’ or just the less intellectual character. So many stereotyped ideas that created a completely false portrayal of this community. During the 2010s if you had have asked young Generation Z individuals or young millennials in the 90s how they perceived African American individuals, you would most likely get more stereotypes than you could count. This is because the portrayal was consistent in all mainstream Hollywood films. The effect of this on young African American boys and girls would have been detrimental to the psyche and identity of those young children. To only see yourself portrayed in that light would have affected ones perception on their future, potential, validity and place in society – and we are still seeing the effects of that today.
Now we have films such as Black Panther, Moonlight and Hidden Figures, which all portray a completely different aspect of humanity on film. Yet, all have one thing in common – leading African American characters. Each film is validating to this societal group in a spcieifc and different way dependent on the circumstances of the individual. I do not and never will claim to understand the hardships of this community and so I am of course speaking from knowledge and generalisations here. However, the sheer power in seeing a black superhero like T’challa, three female African America women lead the charge at NASA for one of the greatest operations in space history (and history in general) or seeing the struggles for acceptance and identity of a young gay black male in a low income neighbourhood in the 1980’s cannot be understated. To someone who does not physically identify with these characters it made be hard to understand the impact that films such as these (which are fantastic as films in their own right) have on a generation of African American youth. But it is important that we learn to gauge an understanding of the importance of these films, so they can become more frequent and widespread.
This concept applies to all areas of diversity. For young Asian girls and boys to be able to see an all-Asian-led cast create the blockbuster Hollywood film like Crazy Rich Asians is validating. I would say most people would struggle to find 3 asian led romance movies from the 90s/2000s. It is difficult to think of, because there simply are not very many. Some people argue that they are not a minority due to the sheer population of Asia as a continent combined. However, what those people forget is that in Hollywood Asian people are a minority. For a societal group with such large numbers across the globe, they are represented so little in film. That is where the problem lies.
We can also see the impact that particular music has had on culture and representation. Normani’s ‘Motivation’ and move into the solo pop genre of music is groundbreaking because it has been a long time since a mainstream black female artist has charted in the pop music category. There seems to be a stigma and limitation to R&B and hip-hip, which are all amazing in their own right but young black girls deserve just as much representation in mainstream pop as they do in the other genres. It may even be more important in the pop category, since that music genre is what often appears on billboards and on the radio. Just as there is International representation, there is also national, especially through the representation of Indigenous voices in mainstream music – recently from artists such as Thelma Plum and Jessica Mauboy. Let’s not forget the impact that seeing Lizzo sing about thick girls has on anyone who feels insecure in their own body. It is empowering and the impact that she is having on young plus size girls of the future is phenomenal. Love yourself with passion and as Lizzo would say ‘be your own soulmate.’
However, sometimes it isn’t a physical feature that is represented on-screen or through music that resonates with someone. Sometimes it is the story or experience that resonates and that is equally valid. Seeing a problem or an issue you have faced, be represented in popular culture is powerful and can be so important to those who have suffered through trauma or serious events in their life. No matter what form representation is in, there will always be someone who can relate and feel seen and that is important and necessary. Always.
I decided for this blogpost that I would include some anonymous stories/testimonials from people on the internet and that I know who were so brave in sharing their own experiences with me. I am so grateful and honoured that people put their trust in me to share these stories. They are touching and I guarantee you will be able to relate to them somehow. These are some of the very personal, own-voices quotes from people who privately sent me messages and so I ask that everyone please be respectful when reading and sharing. Thank you again to those who shared these stories with me, if I could give you all a hug right now, I would. I do hope they reunite with whoever is reading this post and can inspire you to speak your truth.
“The show atypical means a lot to me as my autism may not be bad as bad as the characters on the show but he does things that as a child and growing up I use to do and watching him react to certain social situations, in the same way, I would I really sympathise with his character and it made me feel a lot less alone as I have never seen someone with autism properly represented in a TV show even mum loved it just for the way that it showed family’s struggling with children of Autism.”
“I feel like the film ‘Perks of Being A Wallflower’ has represented me especially through the main character, Charlie. He is an introvert and most of all, a wallflower. He is an awkward freshman in high school, who mostly just observes people, but when the moment permits that he is finally alone, that’s when he lets out everything he feels. He writes in his journal as if it’s his close friend, although he has a brother and a sister, and amazing friends… but he never failed to be himself when he writes on his journal. That’s when he expresses himself. And that is the very reason why I feel like I can see myself in him. I can see myself in this film. I can finally relate to someone who does the same things as me, who is thought of as weird, who is bullied for being weak, who is mentally and socially challenged every single day. I have never felt so close and so intimate with a character like Charlie. It really made me realise that hey, we may have our flaws but in that very moment, when we’re finally given that chance to be ourselves, we really are infinite”
“Three years ago I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and pretty much never socialised, always stayed in bed and never went out and enjoyed life as a young teen. I then went through a breakup and it broke me. I however found one of Selena Gomez songs “The Heart Wants What It Wants” and it honestly changed my life. Ask anybody who knows me, for about 6 months I listened to Selena on repeat. Being the house, going for a walk, on the bus, in the car, going to sleep! Her voice, her stories and words and even just her tone of her music made me not feel so anxious and sad anymore. I 100% believe that music, artists and films can help people. For me it open up a new mindset. A new confidence.”
“Music is a large influence on me personally, especially most recently the universality of Taylor Swift’s Lover album (cliche- I know). But again she pursues the representation of love in all its forms and through this exposes herself in a way that makes her audience feel noticed and heard in all their words (whether it be race/sexuality/etc.). And this remains true throughout her entire discography. I’ve got another cliche one but Love Simon, and yeah the book is better and all but the film itself was the spark to a wave or new age lgbt films and series which have helped push the representation of lgbt youth especially in the polarised views today. I guess I relate to this heaps cause of my own sexuality but from seeing that representation on screen and being such a large part of today’s lgbt representation, I’ve sorta held onto it as apart of me accepting myself. As that’s what the film is solely about.”
“I guess the movie I can relate to is La La Land. I have watched this movie countless times and never seem to get over it but what I think has created such an impact on me is the idea that life can be so beautiful but paths aren’t always meant to cross. Through relationships and life events I have experienced, I have always dwelled on the devastation of something not working out the way I wanted it to (not in a spoilt brat way, but in a way of wanting to please someone else, and in some way, myself) and truely the representation of the struggle with self worth. I guess the movie taught me that something can be so amazing, but maybe it’s only meant to be temporary. In terms of culture; The Rabbit Proof Fence and The Sapphires will always move me. The movie accurately discusses the issue of light skin aboriginals getting it a little easier than those with darker skin pigment, which is still present in today’s society that needs to be showcased and brought into mainstream conversation.”
“So last year my pop passed away and it was honestly one of the hardest, if not the hardest time of my life. He got sick then got better but was still not himself due to the poison still being in his system. After his fall it really all was just going down hill. We had to look at respite care but within less then a week of his fall it was all over. Being someone who is pretty realistic I just knew he wasn’t coming out of hospital. 4 days after being taken to hospital by the paramedics, it really started to hit the rest of the family he wasn’t coming home and that tomorrow we needed to go start saying goodbye. The next day we got a call from the nurses at the hospital saying you need to get here cause it wasn’t good. To walk into the room and hear the words “have you told her yet” and to turn around and see my mum with her head in her hands crying uncontrollably was one of the worst things I could ever experience. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I knew I had to be the strong one and keep it together for everyone else. I didn’t sleep at all that night and didn’t stop crying from the moment we left the hospital. . The next day we were all together at my Nan’s house and got the call he was gone. That pain in my chest came back and so did the tears. Going to the hospital was so hard and seeing him just lying there was horrible but in a way I knew he was in a better place. I knew I had to be there for my family, even tho I just wanted to give up. Through this time I really connected to “Million Reasons” by Lady Gaga. There were so many reasons for me to give up but I knew I had to keep going and that reason was my family. One of he reasons I feel a connection with this song was when Gaga says “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away, but baby I just need one good one too stay”, and that was my family.”
“To me, representation has always been something that I’ve been aware of whether I wanted to or not. Because for people of minority groups representation isn’t just about the lack of visibility of our stories in media but it is also about how and what the minute representations show us as, creating a basis of how others perceive us. The idea of having a “token” minority character can often be more bad than good. When creators include minority characters as a “diversity hire” it’s far too often just to be PC. The big issue with this is how these characters are represented, instead of creating these characters to represent the unique stories of minority groups they’re there instead to add colour to a group. This then can skew viewer’s ideas of the lives and stories of minority groups thinking that we’re either “not white” or “not ethnic” enough, as we don’t fit in with their expectations of minorities. In my own experiences at a young age, even though Mulan isn’t the same Asian as I am, she still showed me I can be Asian and not fit typical gender and racial stereotypes put upon us by not only non-minority but also our own minority groups. Willow from Buffy showed me that liking men and women is a real thing, and that bisexuals aren’t confused about their sexuality they’re just confused about the world like everyone else. Quite honestly the biggest representation I’m still waiting to arise is the stories mixed race people. I think being mixed, you have a unique outlook being both apart and separated from every side. Honestly, I don’t have great hopes of seeing someone like me portrayed truthfully on big screens but if I can even share one part of my experiences upon people with incorrect perceptions, well I guess even that small change of representation within a person can aid the rest of us from being not so alone in our stories.”
Now that is a handful of the responses I received, that I felt had the most variation between them and demonstrates the scope of this issue, showing that it is not limited to particular experiences but representation is varied and diverse. I also received a really important and informative piece of writing that I think is worth sharing with everyone reading this. I would like to end on this particular quote, so if you have anything else to say, contribute or discuss – leave it in the comment box below this post! Thank you for taking the time to read and engage with what is a very relevant discussion that needs to be had.
– Joshie (and anonymous users)