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I am going to ask you to do something before I try to make my point. Pause for a few moments and think of your favorite fictional characters that are in TV shows or movies that you enjoy. If you don’t mind, please do that now.
Thank you for your participation. If you are anything like me, you chose your favorite fictional charters rather quickly. For the record, I chose Cristina Yang, Jon Snow, Albus Dumbledore, and the Little Mermaid’s Ursula. I chose these people because I somehow personally relate or connect with each character. I look somewhat similar to, but am significantly less attractive than, Jon Snow. As a teacher, I aspire to be as inspirational as Dumbledore was. I admire Dr. Cristina Yang’s incredible drive and focus when it comes to reaching her goals. And let’s be honest: How can you not love an over-the-top purple sea witch with tentacles whose features were modeled after a drag queen?
We live in a society that places value on the familiar. We gravitate towards characters who look, speak, act, or think like us because it’s comforting and safe. This is why we must do a better job when it comes to showing a variety of peoples and personalities on our movie and television screens. We need more visibility and more accurate representations of people who are part of minority groups or are not the core/mainstream of society. It doesn’t just move those who are seeing themselves on the screen, it helps society as a whole.
In the past week, a four-minute short film called “In a Heartbeat” was added to Youtube by two College animation students for their senior thesis. As of the writing of this article, it had 18.6 million views in three and a half days. On top of its professional, well-made look, the whimsical dialogue-free story is about a young teen boy’s first crush—on another boy. In the span of four minutes you are taken on a roller coaster ride as you see a boy lay his heart on the line, be judged and ridiculed by his peers to the point where it breaks, and have his heart be put back together by his crush.
I am going to come completely clean and say this film rocked me to my core. I cried big heavy tears and for a long time, I couldn’t understand why. Once I realized why it spoke to me, it makes perfect sense why it resonated with so many of my friends as well. Growing up (especially in the South) I never saw a story like that where I had a personal connection to a boy who could also have a crush on another boy. I felt alone, because I was alone. I didn’t know there were other people out there going through the same thing I was. Had I known, it would have significantly altered my world view and my self-esteem for the better.
One of my closest friends since the sixth grade had a similar experience seeing the cinematic masterpiece that is “Moonlight.” “Moonlight”’s all African-American cast that has two LGBT people of color as the main focus was a first for my friend. In the 28 years we have been on this earth, he had never once seen or been exposed to a character like that before. He said, “It sounds like a dramatic cliche, but for the first time in my life I feel like the rest of the world finally acknowledges that I am here. That I am a person.”
Visibility doesn’t just affect the average Joe. It also affects those who are in the entertainment profession. At the 2016 Star Trek Convention, Whoopi Goldberg spoke candidly about how seeing Nichelle Nichols star as Uhura in the original series affected the nine-year-old Goldberg. Seeing a Black woman play a non-servant role, let alone a leadership role that white women didn’t even have in the real world, made such an impact that Goldberg begged for a tiny recurring role in the “Star Trek: Next Generation.” Fast forward a year to the present and you can clearly discern how impactful seeing Whoopi Goldberg having her own Broadway Comedy Special was for the current funny girl of comedy, Leslie Jones.
The examples here involve the Black and LGBTQ communities, but the idea of more visibility and more accurate representations can be applied to any group that is inaccurately represented or not visible on TV and in films. And while we have made strides recently, we still have a long way to go.
The data paints a dreary picture. According to research by USC Annenberg’s MDSC Initiative, the entertainment industry in all aspects (acting, writing, directing, producing, and so on) is still predominantly white, male, cisgendered, and able-bodied. For instance, 71% of on-screen characters were white in 2016, down from 78% a decade earlier. Many films have no Black, Latino, or Asian speaking characters at all. Very few LGBT characters were shown; only one was transgender, of the movies USC Annenberg examined. Meanwhile, less than 3% of speaking characters are shown with a disability. When religion is shown, it is almost exclusively Christianity or Judaism.
By the year 2040, White Americans will no longer be the majority in the United States. If this is a last ditch effort to “hold on to power,” it needs to stop. It should be obvious to everyone at this point it is making the diversity narrative worse.
More visibility and accurate representation are needed now for the very fact that it is more than just giving a lonely person someone to root for in the quest to sit on the Iron Throne. It does more than just let someone clap along to the next powerful song to come from Empire. It is more because it changes those who don’t relate to those characters as well. When people watch LGBTQ, or Intellectually disabled, or Muslim, or Hispanic characters on TV and in films portrayed in positive ways, studies have shown they become more open and more accepting. This would be a small but important step in the right direction for our society if we truly want equal and equitable treatment for all.
When Viola Davis became the first black women to ever win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series her speech was pure awards night gold, and spot on. Davis said, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that aren’t there. The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” While speaking for women of color in her category she is correct but the sentiment can be applied throughout. Until we have more seats at the table for more diverse opinions, we aren’t progressing anywhere. We will just be sitting and watching as the same story gets told, again and again.
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