A Case for Representation

Most people understand on some surface level that representation is good, but most people who aren't part of a marginalized group don't fully understand why. It's a hard concept to grok if you haven't experienced the complete absense of representation of people like you.

Marginalized groups have long campaigned for more equal representation in the media; they want to see more people like them in books, movies, shows, games, and other forms of entertainment. Many people outside those groups, however, don’t understand why they make such a big deal of it or why current efforts to improve representation are not enough for them. Content creators argue that they need to appeal to the largest market segments, that having too many minority characters in a story is unrealistic, that representing certain groups could be controversial, and that diversity just isn’t as important as some people make it out to be.

For people who are underrepresented or hardly represented at all in the media, representation is crucial. Content creators often don’t realize how much harm they’re doing by failing to represent certain groups. Here are some reasons why representation is so important to the people who don’t have it.

People need heroes who are like them

Heroes are people we aspire to be; we choose our heroes because they embody the qualities we want to see in ourselves. When someone has a hero that looks like them, acts like them or comes from a similar background, it’s an empowering experience. It gives them hope that they have the potential to be the person they want to be. When people aren’t represented by the heroes in the media, they don’t have examples of people like them who achieved success. This can make a person feel like their goals are unattainable, which is a discouraging experience and often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A pantheon of heroes that isn’t representative of the members of a society sends the message that only certain kinds of people qualify as heroes, no matter how brave or selfless or caring they might be. Heroes are supposed to tell us what we need to do to be better people, but poor representation corrupts this purpose by telling us that heroism is something you are, not something you do.

People need to feel validated and acknowledged

When the people in media look and act like you do—when it’s been that way your entire life—representation feels like a given. To someone who is used to having ample representation, it may not be obvious how many others are not being fairly represented, and it may be hard to understand how isolating it can feel.

When almost nobody in the media is like you, it feels exclusionary. When the lack of representation is so pervasive, it can feel more like a deliberate omission than an accidental oversight. It can make minorities feel like society doesn’t want or value people like them—like society is trying to erase them or pretend they don’t exist. We all want to feel accepted, but the media consistently tells minority groups that they are not welcome in our society.

For people who face adversity, having little-to-no representation in the media can be an invalidating experience because it sends the message that their problems are too trivial or unimportant to acknowledge—or even that they don’t exist. Without the affirmation that they are not alone in their struggle, underrepresented minorities can feel isolated.

In some cases, poor representation can go beyond just making people feel invisible; it can actively deny their existence. As we form new communities and coin new terms to celebrate and understand the identities that our society has repressed for so long, some people will always be unwilling to leave behind old labels and assumptions. Sometimes, when people don’t understand some aspect of a person’s identity, instead of seeking to understand it, they will deny its existence. This is one of the most invalidating things you can do to a person—refusing to acknowledge their strengths, weaknesses, struggles, differences, and defining qualities.

Poor or absent media representation feeds into this problem by denying minority groups the simple acknowledgement of their existence. When a group is not just poorly represented, but completely ignored by the media, it can leave members of that group feeling alienated and invalidated. This form of exclusion doesn’t necessarily happen out of hatred or malice; it can happen even when content creators have good intentions.

Media influences public opinion

Members of marginalized minorities often struggle just to be accepted by their peers. For many of these people, adversity and discrimination are a fact of everyday life. Many minorities have to hide who they are just to be treated with common dignity and respect, and many others don’t have that option. Public opinion influences how different minorities are treated in different parts of the world, causing many to be seen as alien, inferior, sub-human or other.

People tend to inherit the opinions of the culture in which they grew up. Homogeneous communities with little diversity are especially at risk of becoming echo chambers of prejudice in which hateful attitudes are passed down through generations and residents are never exposed to contrary views. People in these communities can form dehumanizing narratives about other groups because, in many cases, they don’t know much about them. It’s easier to hate someone you’ve never met because you never risk having your assumptions about them challenged.

Public opinion fuels discrimination against minorities, and the media has the power to influence public opinion. The media is a platform through which ideas and attitudes are disseminated, and we can use it to alter the narratives people have constructed about minorities. By giving minorities representation in the media, we can educate members of the public about different minority groups by disproving stereotypes and eliminating stigmas. The media can reach homogeneous communities to combat a lack of diversity and its influence on public opinion. Through adequate representation, we can give reaffirm the humanity of marginalized minorities in the mind of the public by demonstrating, through example, that they’re people like anyone else.

Media influences how we form our identity

Much of our culture—including what actions and behaviors we consider to be socially acceptable or appropriate—is defined through the media; the media sets the goalposts for what we call “normal.” In this way, a society forms its own definition of normalcy, which almost always describes that society’s majority demographic. “Normal” is an inherently arbitrary distinction which serves to alienate minorities because of their differences, and the media is a tool for enabling this discrimination. Poor representation perpetuates this exclusive definition of “normal,” which is problematic not just because it affects how minorities are perceived by the rest of society, but also because it can influence how they see themselves.

When the media barrages us with its insular notions of normalcy, people who don’t fit those archetypes are left without a sense of identity. When people don’t fit society’s definition of “normal,” they can feel lost, like they don’t belong anywhere. When the media fails to represent the broad spectrum of ways in which people can identify, it leaves minorities feeling like their identity isn’t valid because it doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes prescribed by society. For some groups, a complete absence of representation can leave them unaware that others like them even exist.

The effect that poor representation has on our identity can also influence our self-esteem. When people never seen others like them in the media, they can feel like it’s not okay to be who they are, like there’s something wrong with them, like they’re broken. For these people, the media sends a clear message that they are not normal and that being abnormal is not okay.

Having little-to-no representation in the media can also cause people to suppress their emotions and mask their identity. When the media refuses to represent—or even acknowledge—you, it can feel like society is denying your existence. When society tells you that you don’t exist, that you can’t exist, that you’re an impossibility… you start to believe it. You start to question your own identity and whether you really know who you are. You start to repress the thoughts and feelings which don’t conform to societal norms. No amount of pretending can change who you are, yet many minorities repress their true identities in a desperate attempt to fit society’s expectations of them. For people in this situation, their own happiness is secondary to society’s need for conformity; they are so worried about what society tells them they should want that they are unable to pursue the things that will truly bring them fulfillment.

Participation isn’t the same as representation

Including minority characters in a story isn’t the same as representing them. Diversity in a cast doesn’t constitute fair representation unless that diversity extends beyond supporting roles. When minorities are relegated to secondary roles, their representation consists of flat, token characters. This is a problem because a simplified character gives people a simplified understanding of the group that character represents.

Flat characters tend to be based on generalizations, and when these characters are representing minority groups, they will inevitably reinforce the stereotypes and stigmas of the culture that created them. By failing to create complex, three-dimensional minority characters, the media homogenizes entire demographics and promotes misunderstanding.