Representation in Media

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The Representation In Media toolkit was developed by Clarkisha Kent and includes the following: an introductory overview, a list of key terms and definitions, a list of experts on the subject, links to additional resources on the topic, an accompanying presentation, and activity worksheets.

Created by Clarkisha Kent for Equality for HER

Table of Contents


Visual Guide

Overview

Generally, media representation can be described as the ways in which media presents, and sometimes interprets, various groups, peoples, and lived experiences.

The history of representation in media cannot be discussed without looking at the history of America as the global leader in film and entertainment thanks to Hollywood. Therefore it is necessary to examine the unsavory history of the United States and understand that the reality of American history is not as glamorous or charming as the surface level appeal of Hollywood. In truth, the history of the U.S. finds itself mired in racial, social, and economic injustices and inequalities.

In short, America is racist. And misogynistic. And homophobic. And ableist. And frankly, the list can and does go on. These various forms of oppression extend to the way media representation manifests and is discussed in America. In the American context, media representation is created and interpreted through a White supremacist lens. This is a big deal since media greatly shapes perceptions of race, gender, sexuality and so on in society. And this is something many marginalized people have been up against throughout the 20th century. Even as we have made momentous steps toward self-determination, equality, and autonomy, the goal posts always move. These same groups have found that they have not been fully integrated or included into American society—especially if you look at oppressive tactics employed in media.

Racist, sexist, ableist, and queerphobic stereotypes that favor the majority. The fight to root out these subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) White supremacist ideologies from our media at-large continues.

Over the last couple of decades (and frankly the past century) table shakers within Hollywood have sought to change it from the inside, but changing an institution is always hard. You can see this in every “first” that is broken in terms of representation. Sidney Poitier became the first Black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor in 1964 and decades later Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress in 2002. Representation is slow when you consider the inordinate time that goes by before that first is accompanied by a second. Or a third. Or a fourth. This pace prevents the normalization of inclusive representation in our world.

Of course, while broad inclusion has not arrived yet, greater strides toward this becoming a reality have been made in the past decade, but especially in the last three years. Movements like #OscarsSoWhite (created in 2015 by April Reign, a Black woman) have forced the lackluster representation of all marginalized groups (and the languid access that they are granted to these systems) to the forefront of popular culture and discussion. Institutional changes have been made (for example, the addition of more actors and actresses of color to the Academy in 2016) and are being made as we speak. And now with the emergence of movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp joining the fray, it would seem that these changes are bound to continue.

Terms & Definitions

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popular culture - The act of studying cultural aspects of mass media (such as film, TV, advertising, etc).

social media - Websites/applications/platforms designed to enable users to create or share content across the internet.

demographic - A factual (not perceived) characteristic of a population that includes race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, etc.

diversity - A surface level attempt to include people of different backgrounds in a production in order to appear progressive that centers whiteness as the default and what needs to be “diversified”, while positioning people of color (or other marginalized individuals) as the “other”.

inclusion - The meaningful act of "including" marginalized people in institutions that they have historically been barred from. Inclusion requires the tools to enforce the necessary institutional changes that will allow marginalized individuals to thrive.

stereotype - A culturally fixed (and often offensive) image or portrayal of a specific demographic.

archetype - A familiar stock character who has emerged as a result of many years of fables, fairy tales, etc.

counter-typeA positive stereotype that is designed to debunk an existing offensive stereotype.

racism - Discrimination and antagonism directed at individuals of another race accompanied by the belief that this race is inferior to the race of the individuals in power. In the American context, white supremacy.

colorism - Discrimination against individuals with darker skin tones within the same ethnic group as well as preferential treatment of individuals with lighter skin tones.

patriarchy - The institutional system that prioritizes men over non-men.

transgender - An umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. Always use the descriptive term preferred by the person.  

cisgender - An adjective used to describe a person who identifies with the gender they were assigned with at birth.

anti-LGBTQ - The prejudiced treatment, stereotyping, or discrimination of LGBTQ people. 

ableism - The systematic discrimination against disabled individuals and the belief that they are inferior because of their disabilities.

lived experience - Used to describe firsthand knowledge and impressions of living as a marginalized member of a marginalized group as they dwell among the majority group.

white supremacy - the simultaneous belief that white people are superior to all races of people (and should therefore dominate society) as well as a historical and institutional system of oppression that centers on the exploitation of peoples of color and their homelands by White people and European nations.

white privilege - The institutional system of preferential treatment that favors whiteness.

“Bury Your Gays” - A trope where a gay character is seemingly killed off for no good reason and is especially offensive if said gay character is a token character.

tokenism - The act of including only one member of a minority group in a production in order to avoid criticism about “diversity”/“inclusion” and to appear more progressive.

blackface - A racist form of theatrical makeup (including literal black paint) used by a non-Black person to "represent" caricatures of Black people.

brownface - A racist form of theatrical makeup (including literal brown paint/bronzer, etc) used by a non-Brown person to "represent" caricatures of South Asian, Indian, [non-White] Middle Eastern, Arab, Pacific Islander or [non-White] Latinx people.

redface - A racist form of dress and theatrical makeup (that includes warpaint, feathers, headdresses, etc) used by a non-Native to "represent" caricatures of Indigenou/First Nations people.

yellowface - A racist form of theatrical makeup (including the racist use of epicanthic eye folds) used by a non-Asian person to "represent" caricatures of a Asian (most commonly East Asian) person.

male gaze - The act of viewing a piece of media from the defaulted cisgender male perspective.

white gaze - The act of viewing a piece of media from a defaulted white perspective. Also described as “the study of the other” because it normalizes white experiences while considering the experiences of everyone else to be novel or bizarre.

whitewashing - The act of casting a white actor as a person/character who is historically/canonically a person of color.

sidewashing - The problematic act of interchangeably casting actors of color in certain roles for which they lack the cultural background. Example: Casting South Asian actors as Egyptians. 

genderbending - The act of purposefully casting a character who is canonically one gender as another underrepresented gender.

racebending - The act of purposefully casting a character who is canonically one race (usually white) as another underrepresented race.

pinkwashing - The practice of advertising a business, company, or other institution as LGBTQ+ affirming than it is in actuality for the purpose of increasing sales.

People

As implied above, changing something as insidious and as long-standing as lack of access and biases in media representation not only requires dedicated power players and agitators on the inside, but also requires the help of agitators and advocates on the outside. The rise of social media in the last decade or so has helped with this, leveling the playing field for members of marginalized communities—who are not immediately a part of the Hollywood machine—in terms of access and granting voices and platforms to these same individuals.

With this being the case, it is my belief that wide-sweeping and institutional change as it regards representation in media cannot be implemented without incorporating the power of social media AND the countless advocates that utilize the medium. Some of these advocates—chiefly women/femmes of color, who have risen to the forefront of conversations on the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, etc and their representation—are as follows.

Click each person's name to follow them on Twitter.

Name of Advocate Representation Advocacy in which They Specialize
Jamie Broadnax Black/Femme/Nerd representation
ReBecca Theodore-Vachon Better (and universal) representation; Black/Femme representation
Vilissa Thompson Black/Disabled/Femme representation
Alice Wong Asian/Femme/Disabled representation
Fangirl Jeanne Femme/Pasifika/Queer representation
Nancy Wang Yuen Asian/Femme representation
Keah Brown Black/Disabled/Femme representation
Aditi Juneja Brown/Asian/Femme representation
Kat Blaque Black/Femme/Trans representation
Raquel Willis Black/Femme/Trans representation
Valerie Complex Black/Femme/Queer representation
Meleika Black/Indigenous/Pasifika representation
Clara Mae Asian/Femme representation
Latinx Geeks Latinx/Femme representation
Lakshmi Gandhi Brown/Asian/Femme representation
Wei Ming Kam Asian/Femme/Immigrant representation
Preeti Chhibber Brown/Asian/Femme representation
Ellen Oh Asian/Femme representation
Desiree Rodriguez Latinx/Femme representation
Evette Dionne Black/Femme/Fat representation
Swapna Krishna Brown/Asian/Femme representation
Mia McKenzie Black/Femme/Queer representation
Mari Indigenous/Disabled representation
April Reign Better (and universal) representation
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Learn More

The following list of databases, social media accounts, websites, and etc are good starting points for individuals interested hearing different perspectives on representation in media:

  • Queer Women of Color Media Wire: “a media advocacy organization and online platform that amplifies the voices of lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender, and intersex people of color around the world.”

  • The Critical Media Project: a resource for educators, activists, and people interested in media that encourages media literacy and discusses the politics of identity. It breaks down discussions on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and etc.

  • Bitch Media: A nonprofit feminist media organization that encourages and provides thoughtful feminist critiques in regards to mainstream media and pop culture.

  • The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film: “Research center at SDSU examining the representation and employment of women in film and television.”

  • Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: “Founded in 2004, the Institute and its programming arm, See Jane, are at the forefront of changing female portrayals and gender stereotypes in children's media and entertainment by working within the entertainment industry to dramatically alter how girls and women are reflected in media.”

  • The National Hispanic Media Coalition: “A non-partisan, non-profit, media advocacy and civil rights organization created to advance American Latino employment and programming equity throughout the entertainment industry and to advocate for telecommunications policies that benefit Latinos and other people of color.”

  • Dismantling Arab Stereotypes: “An online exhibit and blog whose mission is to challenge media portrayals of Arab Americans and demonstrate the integral role Arab Americans have played in U.S. society since its inception."

  • After Ellen: “Founded in 2002, AfterEllen.com quickly became the largest and most comprehensive website dedicated to the representation of lesbian/bi women in popular culture.”

  • The Root: “a news, opinion and culture site for Black influencers founded in 2008, under the leadership of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Root provides smart, timely coverage of breaking news and thought-provoking commentary”

  • Colorlines: A daily news site that centers race in art and culture; as it pertains to gender and sexuality, in pop culture, and etc.

  • Asian Americans Justice Center: “Founded in 1991, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC works to advance the human and civil rights of Asian Americans, and build and promote a fair and equitable society for all.”

  • Black Girl Nerds: “[an] Online community for nerdy Black women”; “Black Girl Nerds is a place for women of color with various eccentricities to express themselves freely and embrace who they are.”

  • Nerds of Color: “community of fans [of color] who love superheroes, sci-fi, fantasy and video games but are not afraid to look at nerd/geek fandom with a culturally critical eye.”

  • Nerdy POC: A publication dedicated to POC who love anything nerdy!

  • Geeks of Color: “a community of Geeks that strives to be a leading voice in the fight for Diversity & Inclusion in all aspects of entertainment”

  • Every Single Word Spoken: A Tumblr site dedicated to highlighting the lack of inclusion in movies by cutting all dialogue spoken by white characters.

  • Valerie Complex’s List of Need-To-Know Women of Color Critics - a great list (and reference) of WoC writers, cultural critics, journalists, and bloggers published on Black Girl Nerds’ website.

Worksheets

Coming Soon...

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