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Minority Representation: The Media’s Portrayal of a Single Story and Its Impact On the Viewing Audience

How much time do you spend sitting in front of a TV? Well, studies have shown that the average American spends upwards of five hours each day, with teenagers spending around nine hours every day consuming media. You get home from a long and hard day at work or school and you want to relax, so you allow yourself to get lost in whatever is on your television, escaping into whatever show is your guilty pleasure. What you may not realize, however, is that as you are watching TV, you are also absorbing messages and ideas about how society functions, including how certain groups and communities function within society.

It’s no secret that minority marginalization in media is a problem. Think about it. How many POC lead characters are there? How many characters are LGBT? How many disabled characters are there? All right, so there may be a list that you have made, but let me ask you this: How are these characters treated? Do they get the same attention as their heterosexual white male counterparts? Do they get the same amount of screen time? Equally well-developed character arcs? Whether you realize it or not, minorities are, for the most part, underrepresented in the media.

This lack of representation, paired with the misrepresentation for those few minority characters that do grace your TV screens presents a real issue. It presents the issue of, as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adicihie has dubbed the term, a single story. Stories shape our expectations of others and of society. A person who only ever sees the story of a minority character ending badly or simply serving to benefit the majority will feel as if that is how the real world functions; they will have been exposed only to a single story.

This issue of a single story has recently been brought to the forefront of discussion in the wake of the many lesbian deaths that have seemingly haunted shows. From The Vampire Diaries to The Expanse, The Magicians to The Walking Dead, lesbian and bisexual women have fallen victim to the trope known as “Bury Your Gays.” The most notable death, however, could arguably be said to be Commander Lexa’s on the CW’s The 100, which has since sparked various campaigns calling for equal representation.

On the night of April 19th, Clexacru began a Twitter campaign “Good Representation Matters.” Venture into that tag and you will hear the heartbreaking true stories from real people of why minority representation matters to them.

The 2016 viewing season has been riddled with poor minority treatment:

  • Lexa on The 100 killed by a stray bullet after being intimate with the bisexual lead character
  • Lincoln on The 100, who barely had any screen time this season other than being imprisoned
  • Denise on The Walking Dead, who was killed by a stray arrow and whose death serves to further the pain of another character
  • Abbie on Sleepy Hollow, whose death serves to further a white male’s storyline

The fact that it is 2016 and we are still fighting for good representation in and of itself presents how large of an issue this is. In a time where people pride themselves on being so open to differences, of being so accepting, why does it still stand that this isn’t reflected in the media? The simple answer could be that these are fictional shows with fictional characters, that what happens in these shows is solely fictional and doesn’t transcend into our everyday lives. But let me counter that argument by quoting Jeremiah J. Gatterson: “Changes in public opinion can occur when there is a systematic and permanent change in the way the media, entertainment and news, presents the lives and issues of minorities. When women are shown working outside the home in films, the public ought to become more receptive to women working. When gays and lesbians appear on television in positive roles, the public ought to become less likely to view them as abominations.”

A poll published in The Hollywood Reporter reflected the correspondence that the rise of queer characters on TV had with the public’s acceptance of same-sex marriage. 27% of people said that shows such as Modern Family, Glee, and The New Normal, all shows that feature gay marriages, influenced them to become more accepting of same-sex marriage, while only 6% stated that it made them more anti-gay marriage. Even more astounding are the statistics for younger audiences, those under the age of 35, whose poll results showed that such shows influenced 35% of them to be more open and accepting of same-sex marriage.

The young mind is impressionable and young people are open to changing their views and opinions. When the media presents a same-sex couple in a loving and healthy relationship equal to a heterosexual relationship, the “otherness” of the other is removed. They become equals. When women are seen in lead roles, working outside of the home, as strong as men, the message is being sent that women are equal to men. When a POC character is seen receiving the same character development and same quality of plot as a white character, they are being viewed as just as important and dignified as their opposites.

A child or young adult who is watching TV and sees themselves reflected in a character will relate to that character. They will latch onto that character. They will feel legitimized. But if that character is marginalized onscreen, that child or young adult will associate that view with the larger view of the real world. They will internalize this viewpoint, this skewed single story that is portrayed on their TV screen, and it will have an effect on them. Furthermore, the person who has little experience with people of other groups will draw on the experiences that they have seen portrayed in the media, which has already shaped their understandings and expectations.

Good representation matters because minority characters should not be reduced to tropes and plot devices. LGBT characters should not constantly fall victim to the Bury Your Gays death trope. A woman’s pain should not serve to further a straight white males plot. A POC’s death should not serve simply to act as shock value. Good representation matters because it can give hope; it can allow viewers to feel legitimized and understood and it can change the ways in which people perceive others.

The media is portraying a single story. This single story is creating stereotypes that are becoming representative of all people within that group. If the media continues to portray minorities as one thing and never allows them to achieve the same things that their white straight counterparts do, that is what they will become. Minorities will fall victim to a single story over and over again until the media rejects that single story and instead offers many stories that empower and humanize.

Written by Allison Schonter

Binger of TV. Writer of words. Forever daydreaming about fictional characters. My current obsessions include The 100, The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead, and Wynonna Earp. So go ahead and talk to me about those.

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  1. I like the idea, because I think it’s obviously a hot topic at the moment. POC treatment isn’t getting any better and it is getting to a stupid stage now. I like how you analyzed the topic, found some journal papers. Though I think it’s an article that’s very similar to an article already on here that I’ve read and was very popular that covered minorities in a much more empathetic way. I think the two authors here had very different styles… whereas this one was more curved towards the academia side of things, the other was deeper into the fandom/fan reaction (while also citing academic articles). I was wondering what made you want to write this? Just to cover more academia? (Not a criticism) I wouldn’t compare the two because I don’t think it’s a competition.

    Any kind of minority coverage, from this website especially, is surprising and actually welcome.

    I think a majority of fans used to only ever visit for certain articles but I hope Talk Nerdy With Us keep up with these kind of articles because minorities do matter and they’re very topical. Its weirdly surprising it’s come out of this website too. It would be nice to hear from a minority voice though, I think that’s why I as a MOC myself empathized more with the other article than this one but this was nicely researched too..I appreciate your effort and understanding but quite often it’s hard to fully comprehend the situation if you’re not a minority yourself. Which is why I think the facts and figures are great, but not necessarily evoking of any emotion. But I don’t think anybody expected it at all, so thank you for stepping up and writing about something that’s still relevant I think you did well.

    • I wrote this article I feel that the more voices that are heard, the more people speaking out about this issue, the better.

      This article is not simply about how poor minority representation on TV affects minorities; it is about how poor minority representation affects everyone, including the majority. The person sitting in front of their TV who isn’t a minority will garner an opinion on said minority and the opinions that society holds towards that minority group. If the media stops presenting this single story of minority characters being disposable, being less than, then people’s opinions and viewpoints will start to change. The media has the opportunity to, as I stated in the article, take the otherness out of the other….the media has the opportunity to equalize, humanize, dignify.

      I understand that as part of the majority, I cannot even begin to understand the pain and heartache that those of the minority feel, and quite frankly I will never be able to accurately depict the emotional toll that this poor representation has on minorities. I will never pretend to act like I know what it feels like. But I hope that my voice is able to bring some insight and help start discussion about this topic, because it’s not something that should be pushed to the side and forgotten.

      Thank you so much for reading…and leaving a comment! It really means a lot to me, and I always love to hear what people think!

  2. Thank you for writing this up I think its an important issue that won’t go away. I also think that like Layne Morgan said on her twitter, frequent internalized things like racism still exist very much so in our world. Often the privileged don’t see themselfs as privileged so they do not think like that.

    I have read an article before on this website about the same topic and i think both are great. Definitely tje 1st one captured immediacy of the situation and got closer i think to the fans or viewers… i like that POV .. while putting in articles … i also like this one too because you also put in articles to substantate your claims. i hope people continue to read around subject and realize importance of this issue as minorities are often bullied sometimes openly, sometimes on the sly, and nobody realizes.it is shameful on society. thank you to touch on this issue or to carry on writing about them because I understand the instigator of lgbt / minority articles firstly has now gone from the website,to a shame,but I hope you carry on to write the topics so sensiitively,perhaps as a not POC maybe full empathy=impossible, i think really only minorities can…but it is nice to see to try to understand.

    Sorry my english is bad!

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting! And you’re English is amazing!

      I would definitely have to agree with you…the privileged oftentimes don’t see themselves as privileged, which can present a problem. Furthermore, with the media furthering these stereotypes about minorities, these stereotypes become ingrained in our culture, and it’s really hard to escape the influences of culture. While simply having better representation in the media won’t solve the problem, it will be one step towards progress.

  3. I think you are very right in your answers. I admire your willingness to tackle the area which is important right now but the truth is is that the privileged, white elite (and they ARE) simply ,generally, don’t want minority voices to be heard or will silence them, maybe for fear of offending other privileged, white elite and that attitude has got to go. Its nice that there are people like you to try and talk about the issue even though you understand that you can’t really empathize. I think you covered one point nicely that the other (great) article on this website didnt was that how it affected the majority…again but I don’t think that, while an issue as you outlined, is the critical issue at hand. For years and years in life and TV minorities have been bullied and put to one side. Whereas you say having better repsentation in media won’t solve the problem (i agree) I think you have to think about how media has also changed, just look at The 100 as a show and how that exploded on social media, youtube, twitter, tumblr … As for viewership figures it remains dire but on social media its a huge topic because it’s such a bad mess. And a ssomeone said previously it IS a surprise that this article is on tnwu and not on more diverse websites because I think it is nice to have great allies like yourself but there needs to be more minority voices writing articles about minorities. It’s an untidy situation I understand but look how ingrained it is within culture as you point out ….. how many minority writers are there now on this website ? I would hazard a guess and say not many. The one writer who did spark all the attention the website ever got for her good coverage on minorities is out- but nobody talked about it before (not least here on this outlet) so I think you are absolutely right. It is ingrained within our culture… and the privileged don’t see it. I am grateful you wrote this article, but I think people will only really empathize on platforms like social media or connect with it on a personal level from a minority.

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