Seeing Ourselves

By Samantha Locke

Art by Chloe Jung



I’m watching the pilot episode for Aidy Bryant’s Shrill. It’s 9:43 P.M. on a Saturday, I’m miserable for no reason in particular, and when I see how her character, Annie, relates to her friends, coworkers, and strangers, I can’t help but think, “she gets it.” It’s a relief. Even though I can’t relate to a number of Annie’s experiences, and I want to remain critical of the series, a story featuring the characters of Shrill would have struggled to find an audience even five years ago.

Representation is hard to define because it describes so many things. It’s an umbrella concept that refers to the many different characters shown and narratives told on screen — sometimes just who is present in a narrative, but often more complex and nuanced than that. For example, Queer Representation doesn’t just refer to how many characters are queer, but how many of those characters have traits that vary from stereotypical, traditional caricatures of these stories. Representation doesn’t just refer to gender, sexual orientation and race. In addition to these mostly-static characteristics, representation refers to the way these characters behave, how much space they take up within a narrative, and how they interact and form relationships with other characters.

Hollywood and mainstream American media is notorious for focusing on the stories of upper-middle class to rich, straight, abled white cisgender men (as well as only hiring people in that demographic). Since these characteristics have been traditionally considered “default,” many tokenizing “diversity”[1] efforts won’t include people with different characteristics. Intersectionality, a term created by Kimberlé Crenshaw, refers to the way marginalized characteristics overlap, and can be used to consider how far a creative piece strays from the aforementioned default. For example, there are often more men of color in mainstream entertainment than women of color and more white women than women of color. The further away from straight white cis abled male, the (generally) less likely that character is to exist onscreen.

The prioritization of some stories in terms of screen time and nuance measurably affects the self-esteem and reactions of viewers. A 2012 study of 396 adolescent Black and white boys and girls found significant change in their self-image over time: only white boys felt better about themselves after consuming media, and all other demographic groups felt worse.[2]

“Representation Matters” is a widely-held opinion, visible from hashtags to blog posts to praise of media like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther and Pose. But what does that really mean? Nonetheless, a number of people disagree on the form that representation should take and how it can be achieved. At the same time, media organizations like GLAAD[3] that measure representation of queer people and people of color in feature films show that exclusion is not the exception, but generally the rule.

Some complexities of the entertainment world make it far less hospitable to people with marginalized identities than other industries. For example, so many writer’s rooms, producers, and other sub-industries hire based on previous connections instead of open applications.. These connections are much more likely to be made by those who already share certain privileges, like family relations and acceptances to exclusive groups within universities. Among other complications, workplace standards are more difficult to navigate because jokes and comments that may handle subject matter entirely inappropriate to most offices will be written in scripts for entertainment workplaces. (For example: a joke about genitalia would be inappropriate for most opposite environments; writers would be expected to discuss the joke if it was written in a script.)

Representation is so complicated largely because it’s so amorphous: what does it mean to tell different stories? Which stories are worthy of the big screen and in an era when entertainment is still profitable, how can honest narratives successfully market themselves to people who might not relate? Most people still don’t know, and we’re all trying to write what we can. I hope every aspiring creator, like me, shares some certain anxieties about what to put into a final draft. How can I avoid repeating negative biases that I don’t intend to have, but were learned in a culture that values some people above others? How can I grow, take space for myself and (try to) have a job without stepping on the toes of peer creatives?

I hope to actively wrestle with this and discuss with people who consider these too. One step forward is to consider the representation that exists already: what stories are told, how they’re told, and what stories are missing entirely.

II.


Many efforts for representation have ended up tokenizing minority groups. The difference between tokenism and representation, though nuanced, usually comes down to intention.

It’s well known that there are some stories that can only be told by certain people. It’s agreed upon that white actors should only play white characters.[4] Cis characters playing trans characters and straight characters playing queer characters remain hotbeds of controversy.

After Scarlet Johannsen was cast as a transgender man in “Rub and Tag,” actress Trace Lysette’s tweeted response went viral. Lysette tweeted, “Oh word?? So you can continue to play us but we can’t play y’all? Hollywood is so fucked... I wouldn’t be as upset if I was getting in the same rooms as Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett for cis roles, but we know that’s not the case. A mess.”


Other trans actors echoed her opinion, writing that trans women were often denied the roles afforded cisgender actors. “It wasn’t against Scarlett personally,” Lysette later told Variety. “It was more pointing out the double standard. I’m not getting into rooms for cis roles. I started my career auditioning for those roles, and then I went to play trans roles. And now, I feel boxed in.”


Of course, not all trans actors have the same opinion, and experiencing a world of hate and discrimination but also a passion-filled career leads to far more nuance than anyone could summarize simply looking in.


Laverne Cox, a Black transgender actress known for Orange Is The New Black and The Mindy Project said in the same interview, “We just want more opportunities….I think if all things were equal, then everyone should be able to play every character. But all things are not equal. As an artist, I don’t ever want someone telling me that I shouldn’t play something. But the reality is, 84% of Americans do not personally know someone who is transgender. So most Americans learn what they learn about trans people through the media.”

Representation of queer people by cisgender actors is less controversial, as LGB[5] people can, on average, pass for straight people more easily than transgender people can pass for cisgender people. Nonetheless, many write that straight people can not portray the experience of being queer. Natalie Dokken ’23 wrote for The Dartmouth last May, “To pretend to be gay for the screen is to pretend to understand the ways in which queer people have learned to adapt in order to survive in a heteronormative society... this knowledge is not something one can, nor should, forge. Meanwhile, to pretend to be straight is to pretend to subscribe to society’s expectations and understand what it means to be like everyone else — which in many ways is what queer people have to do to survive.


Many share Dokken’s perspective that straight people can’t understand or honestly express the experience of being queer, though others resent the idea that a person’s sexuality should limit the roles they are able to play. This is further complicated when some other members on the creative team are queer, especially when scripted television and movies are often considered a director’s medium. Instead of playing to a stage, an actor will repeat the same scene over and over with new notes and from different angles: depending on a directing style, a five-minute scene might take hours to film. In this way, an actor has far less control over the final product than high-level executives. It’s up to writers, directors and executive producers to make sure queer people aren’t portrayed as caricatures instead of people.

Storytelling is not limited to the voices and faces of actors cast as characters, but also refers to the music and video editors, writers, directors and producers who manipulate them. (Here are a few terms for anyone unfamiliar with the entertainment industry: “Above the line,” a term referring to higher-ups in production whose salary depends on the success of the project. “Below the line” workers are paid for their job regardless of the financial success of the project.) Already, the tournament culture of Hollywood is a breeding down for biases and descrimination. An unsaid ethos says “you are replaceable.”


“Below the line” workers report high levels of microaggressions, especially based around race. As they can be nameless and faceless outside of their division (for example, cameramen may not know every set artist), prejudices may play a larger role in dictating action.


Artisans of color report feeling as though they have to be perfect to receive the same amount of recognition as white colleagues, as well as incessant microaggressions.[6] When technical creators are told their race makes them “hard to work with” or are harassed by security guards under a suspicion of trespassing, their jobs become more difficult in an already personal, challenging and competitive industry.

III.

To avoid tokenism and embrace representation, people with different stories to tell need to have a voice off-camera, as well. For example, white women, who have been physically present on-screen, are often yet to earn equal representation among writers, directors and producers. Perhaps as a direct consequence, many feminine characters still lack distinct personality traits and nuanced development despite maintaining fairly consistent screen time.

A remarkably few number of films and mainstream television shows pass the Bechdel test — even some of my favorites. (To pass the Bechdel test, two women must talk to each other about something other than a man. That’s it.) That means that so many female characters become props for male characters or portray gender stereotypes not because it’s essential to their character, but because the male writers couldn’t think of a woman any other way. I’d like to be clear, though: a woman acting feminine isn’t inherently anti-feminist. There’s nothing wrong with a girl who chooses to wear dresses every day, who is invested in romantic relationships or cares about fashion and style. There is a problem when every girl shares traits simply because they’re women written by men on the show because authenticity is neglected.

In fact, despite the fact that (white, cis, straight) women appear quite frequently in movies and television, the repeated portrayal of warm, unassertive women has been tied to lower mental health in women viewing.[7]

If anything, the fact that women have been represented literally on screen for decades shows that simply showing a demographic or character onscreen is not enough. Underrepresented people must have the same space and ability to be assertive and free from stereotypes as characters whose stories have been told for generations. Emphasis on representation means more than a minute on screen, it means a voice, an action and a fully developed character that influences a plot.

IV.

Representation can’t be the end of discussion, because advertising means that a targeted audience is a commodity. As an audience, it has become our responsibility to know that our eyes is a commodity for advertisers. When I see Rachel Bloom sing “You Stupid Bitch,” and I think “oh, okay. She gets it” or when I identify with Syd’s general frustration in I Am Not Okay With This, a more cynical part of me realizes I’m a much easier target for mass marketing. They found my demographic. With the ever-increasing pace of social media innovation, the relationship between viewer, creator, and anonymous ad seller becomes even more complicated. Even people who only pay for add-free services aren’t immune from subtle marketing. Spoiler for Knives Out: director Rian Johnson told Business Insider’s Paige Leskin that Apple wouldn’t let any villain use an Apple product. The intention, of course, was to maintain a brand image. What similar subliminal advertising could be shaping our perspectives? The easier it is to target any demographic, the harder it is to separate a director’s creative vision from intentional corporate advertising.

It’s nearly impossible to capture the nuance that exists within mainstream stories. Now that these stories include more people and have a wider reach (Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians were remarkably successful in box offices) are more people falling victim to corporate-encouraged messaging?

A personal frustration of mine was Love, Simon. It was a movie that represented some queer people: a young, gender-conforming, conventionally attractive white boy in a comfortable family came of age. There were people who saw themselves represented in a way they had never been before. It didn’t sit well with me, and I didn’t understand it until I read Jacob Tobia’s “Is There Room For Queer Kids In Hollywood?” The answer from that movie? No. Although it showed that some gay kids were fine, it looked down a gender-nonc-conforming Black gay character named Ethan. We don’t know what happens to Ethan, except that Simon isn’t comfortable to be associated with him. Ethan is not granted narrative dignity, he does not get the same celebration of his sexuality as Simon. Simon’s coming out is a big deal; Ethan’s coming out scene is comic relief.

If queer characters are shown on screen, represented in a strictly literal sense but stereotyped and criticized, is there a benefit? This progression parallels the way that the media in general sells stereotypes and unachievable standards to women. Compare the mainstream gay characters to the people who model pride merch in June: often white, often cis-presenting and gender-conforming. As soon as a subset of queer people were able to enjoy a reflection of them in a mainstream narrative, and arguably just before, they were already a targeted audience for rainbow t-shirts and headbands and shoes.


I don’t mean to say that we’re doomed: positive representation exists. Nonetheless, mindful engagement with media, active critique and conscious exploration of our media landscape remains absolutely necessary. Authentic representation remains a work in progress; there is still so much good to be done.


[1] I’ve included diversity in quotes because even though diversity literally refers to variation, actively sought-after diversity usually refers to a step away from aforementioned “default” characteristics.

[2] Nicole Martins and Kristen Harrison, “Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem: A Longitudinal Panel Study,” Communication Research 39, no. 3 (2012): 338-357.

[3] GLAAD originally stood for “Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation” but have since changed their name to GLAAD to better represent their efforts in supported bisexual and transgender people.

[4] That’s actually only mostly true. Alison Brie apologized this year for playing Diane Nguyen, an animated Vietnamese character, in Bojack Horseman. Many believe she wasn’t in the wrong for accepting the role.

[5] As well as pansexual, asexual people, and anyone who falls under those umbrellas

[6] David S. Cohen, “Artisans So White: Minority Workers and the Fight Against Below-the-Line Bias.” Variety, August 9, 2016, variety.com/2016/artisans/features/below-the-line-diversity-racism-artisans-1201833014/.

[7] Martins and Harrison, “Racial and Gender Differences.”


Other Works Consulted


Easton, Anne. New Research Indicates Top-Rated TV Content Created For Boys Reinforces Male Stereotypes. 1 July 2020,www.forbes.com/sites/anneeaston/2020/06/30/new-research-indicates-top-rated-tv-content-created-for-boys-reinforces-male-stereotypes/.

Elbaba, Rawan. “Why on-Screen Representation Matters, According to These Teens.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 14 Nov. 2019, www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/why-on-screen-representation-matters-according-to-these-teens.

Hicks, Alexandra. Keeping Up With the Joneses: Socioeconomic Class Representation in Sitcoms , Robert D. Clark Honors College , 2014, pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a8cb/300250d9fda7b5644eae7451065d1023a154.pdf.

Lawson, Kimberley. Why Seeing Yourself Represented on Screen Is So Important, Vice Media, 20 Feb. 2018, www.vice.com/en_us/article/zmwq3x/why-diversity-on-screen-is-important-black-panther.

Morris, Wesley. “TV's Dwindling Middle Class.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Apr. 2016,www.nytimes.com/2016/05/01/magazine/tvs-dwindling-middle-class.html.

“Overview of Findings (2019).” GLAAD, 23 May 2019, www.glaad.org/sri/2019/overview.

“Victims or Villains: Examining Ten Years of Transgender Images in Television” GLAAD, 23 May 2019, www.glaad.org/sri/2019/overview.

Villafañe, Veronica. “Latino, Black And Middle-Eastern Immigrants Portrayed As Criminals On TV.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 19 May 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/veronicavillafane/2017/05/18/latino-black-and-middle-eastern-immigrants-portrayed-as-criminals-on-hollywood-tv/.

Wolf, Jessica. “2020 Hollywood Diversity Report: A Different Story behind the Scenes.” UCLA, University of California Los Angeles, 6 Feb. 2020, newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/2020-hollywood-diversity-report.