The Need for Representation in Western Media
This article was contributed by Museera Moghis. Museera is one of our Launch gURLs interns who has helped make our Girl Boss pilot possible!
“There’s this body of research and a term known as ‘symbolic annihilation,’ which is the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.”
Growing up as a South-Asian, Muslim girl, I never tried to find characters in movies and books who looked or sounded like me. I didn’t feel the need to and neither did I think that anything was missing from my life. As I reflect more on what that means for my current, university-going self, I realize that the characters I grew up with had an influence on the goals I set in life and, more importantly, how achievable those goals seemed. The lifestyles, forms of speech, and notions of beauty were all linked to a singular Western ideal. This singularity goes on to neglect diverse lived experiences and consequently determines what people who do not look or sound like movie characters can or cannot do.
For a long time, media portrayals of minority groups have continued to do two main things. Firstly, in their representation of the ‘other’ they make use of common stereotypes that are associated with particular groups. For example, some common stereotypical representations include portraying Black men as dangerous, Asians as nerds, Muslims or Middle-Easterners as dangerous, and Latinx and Hispanic characters as dramatic. Additionally, these characters tend to take the back-seat playing the best friend, the sidekick, or background characters. They are also often heavily accented, smell funny, and are portrayed as ‘misfits’.. While it can be said that more people of color are taking up lead roles recently, it is important to remember that stereotypical representations still exist and continue to perpetuate prejudice.
Secondly, underrepresented groups are often added as tokens to claim diversity while there is no real effort to support minorities. Little effort is made to give those groups any true representation and, as mentioned earlier, they often play secondary roles. The media then becomes a place where those who are accepted are glorified and the ‘other’ is outcast. This lack of representation doesn’t only exist in media outlets. It extends to workplaces, storybooks, politics and simply, almost every aspect of daily life.
What we then need is for different voices to be heard loud and clear in their true forms. This means proper representation regardless of one’s color, ability, beliefs, sexuality, gender and all things that make individuals, individuals. Minorities need to be represented properly doing incredible things in the world and not merely as tokens. I wonder how different my self-perception would be if I saw women who looked like me from a very young age in the Western world. While I have started seeing it now, it cannot be denied that we have a very long way to go.