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Why does diverse representation in media matter?

All around the world, storytelling is a powerful and important tool. If you think about it, we’re constantly being exposed to all sorts of stories through mass media — movies, books, TV shows, music, advertising… it’s everywhere. So the messages these stories are sending out are bound to affect us, right? 

From a young age, the media we consume shapes our identity, thinking, and way we view the world. Representation in the media is super important, as it influences ideas about our own identity, where we fit into society, and directly impacts the way we feel about ourselves. If the characters that look like us on screen are always the uncool, ugly, unpopular, unimportant side characters that no one else in the story seems to like or care about, it can make us feel negative about ourselves. Or if our identity isn’t even represented on screen in the first place, it’s contributing towards making that identity invisible in society. 

This is why the stories we tell, and who is telling them, matters. 

How diverse is the Australian media landscape today? 

There are now more First Nations people, disabled people, LGBTQIA+ and non-European people on our screens than ever before, but a 2023 Screen Australia report has shown that there is still lots of work that needs to be done. The overall representation of diverse communities on our screens is still below that of the general population. For instance, while 18% of the Australian population identifies as disabled, only 7% of main characters in Australian TV dramas are disabled. 

The report also found that while 25% of the Australian population is Non-European, only 16% of main characters in TV dramas are Non-European. By contrast, while 53% of the population is Anglo-Celtic, 82% of main characters in TV dramas are Ango-Celtic. Talk about double standards, right? 

What’s the link between harmful stereotypes and what we see on screen?

Have you noticed that in many TV shows the main characters are white, and that characters from other cultural backgrounds are a token best friend or just don’t seem like the complex, normal human beings we see in our everyday lives? This spreads the harmful and incorrect idea that whiteness is the default, and that those from other cultural backgrounds are secondary. 

Sadly, there are many media stereotypes that portray people of certain backgrounds in a negative way. For example, Black women have too often been reduced to racist caricatures in media, such as the submissive ‘Mammy’, sexy ‘Jezebel’ and sassy ‘Sapphire’. Media tropes like the ‘Dragon Lady’ and ‘Lotus Blossom’ have fed the (false) stereotype that East Asian women are hypersexual, submissive, and demure. Sometimes white actors have even played characters from non-white backgrounds in offensive and ignorant ways, such as Chris Lilley in Summer Heights High and Scarlet Johansson in Ghost in the Shell — this is called whitewashing. 

Check out this video, where Michelle Yeoh talks about why representation is so important in her Oscars speech:

@varietymagazine #michelleyeoh on the importance of her historic #oscar ♬ original sound – Variety

Many disabled characters have been portrayed in the media as inaccurate stereotypes including the ‘villain’, ‘superhero’, and ‘victim’. They have also been depicted as being naive and childlike, or are mocked for cheap laughs. In reality, disabled folk are complex and three dimensional people, and deserve to have their stories told on their terms.

LGBTQIA+ folk have also been represented negatively in the media. They have been portrayed as bad or evil people, in tokenstic ways, given shallow roles like ‘the gay best friend’ or as the subject of mockery. 

These media stereotypes have a hugely negative impact on society. It can make audiences watching these TV shows and movies think people are like these stereotypes in real life. Obviously this is NOT true!

Where do incorrect and negative media stereotypes come from, and why do we still see them on our screens?

Well, it’s all about power and control. Historically, the majority of writers, directors, and powerful people in the media have been cisgender, heterosexual, and non-disabled white men. If these powerful people have bigoted views about marginalised identities (for example if they have transphobic ideas about how trans folk might talk, dress, and go about their daily lives), it’s probably going to affect how these identities are portrayed in TV and movies, right? 

Are things getting better in the media?

Thankfully, things have been shifting in the media industry. Heartbreak High (2021) has been hugely successful in portraying Australian teens in all their diversity — there are First Nations, queer, asexual and neurodiverse characters, and a young brown woman as the main character. Heartbreak High has been a huge hit both here and overseas, proving that people want authentic representation and like seeing it on screen! 

Other popular TV shows and movies with diverse representation include Sex Education (2019-2023), Never Have I Ever (2020-2023), Heartstopper (2022-), To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) and many more! 

By consuming more media with thoughtful, positive, and authentic representation of diverse people, we can create greater empathy for others and better understand the world we live in. 

Why is it important to apply critical thinking to what you watch or read?

If something feels off about a TV show, movie, or book series, it can be a good idea to stop and reflect on why that is. Is there a character in the work that looks like you and/or misrepresents your identity? Or perhaps it portrays people of a certain identity in a way that feels negative or offensive? 

Follow these questions up with curiosity: Why have these characters been represented in this way? Who is the creator? And what is their relationship with the identities portrayed in this work?

By asking critical questions and being aware of the media we consume, we can start to recognise negative representations. And once we recognise them, we can create a healthy distance and resist its influence on the way we feel about ourselves. 

If a certain show is making you have negative feelings about yourself, don’t watch it. Or if something feels wrong, talk about it with family and friends. We can also challenge negative representations by speaking publicly about it or even telling our own authentic stories instead.

Representation matters, and we can all do our bit to challenge negative stereotypes in the media. 

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