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.
— Clexa Brasil (@Clexa_Brasil) April 19, 2016
Good Representation Matters because without it, children will grow up believing they are abnormal for being different than what they see.
— Holly Winebarger (@EverythingClexa) April 19, 2016
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.