Representation Matters: Why We Need It & How We Keep It
By TaRessa Stovall @taressatalks
You don’t have to be a Person of Color or member of any marginalized group to know that mainstream art and entertainment has a well-documented “diversity problem.” But if you’re in one of the demographics rarely seen portrayed onscreen, you’re hyper-aware of the fact that most TV and movies look nothing like the actual world that we inhabit. You know the constant hunger and thirst to see some aspect of your reality served up with any mix of authenticity, respect and humanity.
Lately, you might also know how delicious it can be to have that hunger and thirst sated, at least for a while.
That’s why the Disney Marvel film “Black Panther” is slaying box office records and delighting audiences of all races not just throughout the U.S., but around the globe. As The Washington Post reported:
Ryan Coogler’s take on the beloved Marvel character grossed nearly $1.08 billion at the global box office in just four weeks … Four other Marvel Cinematic Universe releases have hit that mark: “The Avengers,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Iron Man 3″ and “Captain America: Civil War.”
No other Marvel movie has sat atop the box office for four weeks in a row since premiering…Domestically, “Black Panther” has grossed $562 million, making it the No. 7 movie of all time in North America … and surpassing “The Dark Knight” to become the second-highest-grossing superhero movie in the United States …
- The second-highest-grossing Marvel Cinematic Universe movie at the domestic box office. (“Marvel’s The Avengers” occupies the top spot, with $623 million).
- Tied with “Jurassic World” as the second-fastest movie to reach $400 million at the domestic box office. Both movies hit that mark in 10 days. Only “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” did that faster (in eight days).
- The highest-grossing movie with a Black director, according to Fandango, even after adjusting for inflation.
- According to Fandango, joins “The Avengers” as the only comic-book superhero movie with a perfect rating on CinemaScore, which polls moviegoers on opening night.
Ryan shared how he “yearned” to see stories about people who look like him onscreen. As he told NPR, “there’s a massive audience—not just of people of color but everybody—who wants to see different perspectives in this myth-making. They want to see something fresh, they want to see something new, but also feels very real.”
Hot on the heels of “Black Panther” is another Disney film, “A Wrinkle in Time,” helmed by visionary director Ava DuVernay. She became the only Black woman to make a $100 million dollar film when she envisioned a totally White 1962 classic, award-winning children’s book as a multicultural tale of empowerment with a Mixed family and a trio of magical beings portrayed by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling.
Ava enjoyed films like “The NeverEnding Story” and “Escape to Witch Mountain” when she was a girl. “But never did she, as a black girl in South Los Angeles, actually see herself reflected on-screen,” The Los Angeles Times reports. “There’s something about loving those types of films and being absent from them, and not even knowing that at that age,” she said. “But you want to be the one who flies. You want to be the one who saves the world.”
Actress Storm Reid, who portrayed the lead character, Meg Murry, who is Biracial, stated that, “Representing young Black girls and giving them hope and the light and letting them know that they can do anything is important to me as a little Black girl too.”
These brilliant young filmmakers made recent history as the first two Black directors with the two top spots at the box office.
As Hollywood continues to struggle with diversity and inclusion, that is a very big deal.
A 2016 study on Hollywood’s lack of diversity and efforts to be more inclusive from the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism analyzed 900 popular films from 2007 to 2016.
Variety reports that the study examined “nearly 40,000 characters for gender, race, LGBTQ status, and disability in 900 films, including the top 100 movies of 2016. (The report encompassed films released from 2007 to 2016, but excluded movies from the year 2011, which a separate study had covered.) Almost nothing has changed in terms of representation of these groups on screen, according to the study, and behind the scenes, the pool of directors proved even less diverse.”
In 2016 films alone, the study found that:
- 31.4% of speaking characters were female, up from 29.9% in 2007
- 34 films had a female lead or co-lead
- 70% of speaking roles in the top 100 were White, 13.6 were Black, 5.7% were Asian, 3.1% were Asian and 7% were “Other”
- 72 of 2016’s top 100 films had no Hispanic or Latina female speaking roles
- 91 of the top 100 films had no speaking roles for LGBTQ females
- 2.7% of characters with disabilities were in films that year
- Behind the scenes, women made up 4.2% of directors, 13.2% of writers, 20.7% of producers, and 1.7% of composers
A recent episode of the ABC sitcom, “Fresh Off the Boat,”—one of the first to feature an Asian-American family in prime time—featured half of the dialogue in Mandarin. Jeff Chiang, who wrote that episode, stated in The Hollywood Reporter:
“As a first-generation Chinese-American who grew up in the 1990s, I didn’t see a whole lot of Chinese people in American pop culture … I think that’s why writing for is a very meaningful experience for me. Working as a TV writer, I never thought there would be a primetime network sitcom centered on an Asian family. The fact that I get to work on it and pull so directly from my childhood, being a half-Chinese kid raised in a Mandarin-speaking household, is still hard to wrap my head around.”
Representation is why Normal Lear recently reworked the 1970s sitcom, “One Day at a Time,” which featured a White family, to focus on a Cuban family headed by EGOT winner Rita Moreno. “The Alvarez clan faces the same struggles many sitcom families confront—family strife, petty fights, health scares—but does so from a vantage point that even now is rarely seen on television,” states Vanity Fair.
Representation goes beyond Hollywood. When the Obamas selected high-profile visual artists to interpret them for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, responses from adults were mixed. Many Black women complained online that the First Lady’s complexion was gray rather than warm brown in the portrait by celebrated artist Amy Sherald. Meanwhile, a photo of a two-year Black girl went viral with the most powerful response of all.
An image of Parker Curry staring enthralled by Mrs. Obama’s painting spread through social media like wildfire, giving life to the First Lady’s words when the painting was unveiled in February. “I’m also thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who, in years ahead, will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution.”
Soon after, Parker enjoyed a talk and an impromptu dance party with Mrs. Obama who told her, “Keep on dreaming big for yourself…and maybe one day I’ll proudly look up at a portrait of you!”
More recently, Parker met up and bonded with artist Amy Sherald.
When you rarely see yourself portrayed in positive ways, it takes a toll. It weighs you down. It can harm your sense of self and possibility. You are likely to feel invisible, unimportant and overlooked.
Representation matters to people of all ages in every group, tribe, culture and nation on earth. When we see ourselves depicted in ways that we can relate to, we gain a new sense of confidence, of feeling seen, heard, understood. We are reminded that we count.
Representation matters when most depictions of folks who might resemble you are one-dimensional, predictably limited and constrained to the perceptions of those who have no idea that you are as fully human as they consider themselves to be.
Representation matters when the people creating the art and entertainment look like you and understand something about your journey through the world.
Representation matters when new possibilities are presented that enable people of all races, ethnicities and colors to view themselves and each other beyond the status quo.
If we want to see more of it, we have to do our part. Just as regular folks and celebrities alike crowdfunded and paid for thousands of children and low-income families to see “Black Panther” and “A Wrinkle in Time,” we can raise our voices to make sure we’re consuming the content that can not only reflect us, but inspire us to dream, to dare and to grow.
Representation matters. Always and in all ways. Let’s create it, let’s support it, let’s lift it up and spread it around and sprinkle it wherever we can. On the page, on screens of all sizes, wherever our gazes might fall.
PHOTO CAPTION: Storm Reid, star of Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” at the film’s Los Angeles premiere.