Why Representation in Media Matters

Nya Herron, Staff Writer

Despite a clear lack of diversity on screen, we constantly absorb the messages depicted in mass media — internalizing signs of who is valued and who we should aspire to be. Media has a profound influence on how we see, understand and treat people, both within and outside of our own race or ethnicity. Studies have shown that individuals engage with media in order to fulfill social identity needs, which has a major impact on one’s psychological development. Media can influence viewers in positive ways when handled carefully, as representation can serve as opportunities for marginalized people to find community support and validation; this becomes problematic, however, when considering the negative portrayal — or complete lack of representation — of certain identities.

Viewing emerges so early in life that the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) released guidelines about screen time for children, recommending no screen time at all from 18  to 24 months, and less than an hour from the age of two to five years. Cultivation Theory states that exposure to media helps shape thoughts, perceptions and behaviors, and viewers adopt the assumptions and beliefs of media content as reality. Children are particularly vulnerable to media messages and use what they see in media to form their beliefs about themselves and others. This gives the media industry immense power over the socialization and self-concept of young people. 

Research shows that people of color (POC) often struggle with their racial and ethnic identity development — with many individuals citing how a lack of media representation negatively impacts their self-esteem and overall views of their racial or cultural groups. Scholars and community leaders have declared mottos, like it’s “hard to be what you can’t see,” asserting that people from marginalized groups do not pursue career or academic opportunities when they are not exposed to such possibilities. The dominant, wide-spread TV shows and movies we grow up watching are overly concentrated by white or light-skinned protagonists, and institutionalize Western and heteronormative ideals and behaviors. Decades of research into how the representation of ethnic-racial groups in media affects individuals demonstrates that influential messages are communicated through media about who a culture views as “normal” and therefore “good” or “different” and therefore “bad.” This feeds into the binaries that dictate who we are in this world, with very real implications as we constantly engage with media over time. 

Representation can be helpful in reducing negative stereotypes about other groups. Dr. Gordon Allport’s Intergroup Contact Theory reveals that the more exposure or contact that people have to groups who are different from them, the less likely they are to maintain ingrained prejudices. 

A recent political science study argued that positive LGBTQ+ media representation helped transform public opinions about people who identify as LGBTQ+ and their rights. In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that the general U.S. population significantly changed their views of same-sex marriage in just 15 years — with 60% of the population being opposed in 2004 to 39%  in 2019. While there are many other factors that likely influenced these perspective shifts, positive depictions of individuals that identify as LGBTQ+ in the media played a significant role.

Messages portrayed in the media become all the more complicated as their impact compounds with intersecting identities. The few visual examples of anyone LGBTQ+ involved mostly white, gay, cisgender people, with their storylines often appearing unrealistic, contributing to a fundamental misunderstanding of the LGBTQ+ community. This is important, considering recent studies have found that social media has given LGBTQ+ youth the outlets to connect with others — especially when the COVID-19 pandemic has limited in-person opportunities. Given the increased suicidal ideation, depression, and other mental health issues among LGBTQ+ youth amidst the global pandemic, visibility via social media can literally save lives.

However, representation is not enough — especially when it’s one-dimensional, superficial or not actually representative. A recent Oxford study described how media depictions of POC still tend to reinforce stereotypes and fail to reflect the true diversity of communities. Representation should never be the final goal; instead, it should be one step toward equity. Simply checking off a box to fulfill diversity is pointless if there aren’t actual efforts to address the systemic obstacles that prevent marginalized people from succeeding in the first place. Instead, representation should be intentional; people in power should aim for their content to reflect their audiences — especially if they know that doing so could assist in increasing people’s self-esteem and wellness. By providing youth with visual representations of people they can relate to, media can potentially save future generations from a lifetime of feeling underrepresented or misunderstood.