In this day and age, nearly all of us have favorite movies, books, songs, and TV shows. We watch the news, use Facebook and Twitter. We live in a world made up almost entirely of culture and media. However, more often than not, the culture and media that make up our world has a tendency to provide an inaccurate representation of that world. They fail to show the diversity of the real world; when they do, they rarely deviate from the stereotypical formula often used to represent those of different races, different sexual orientations, different physical and mental abilities.
Many may believe that an issue such as this doesn’t matter. Why should we care so much about the way movies represent everyday people? After all, they’re just movies. Why does it matter that fictional stories don’t show the “real world?”
What those people may fail to realize is the influence of culture on our unsuspecting minds. Without even realizing it, we are all greatly affected by what we are exposed to in all kinds of media. We are influenced by both fictional characters and famous icons. Pop culture and media wields the power to bring about change and awareness to esoteric issues. It can give a voice to those who are oppressed and help them feel recognized and heard.
It is human nature to have difficulty understanding something we have never experienced. People who don’t recognize the struggles of others have difficulty relating to them. The white population may have difficulty empathizing with people of color. Those of sound mind and body may not be able to fully understand the struggle of living with mental illness, physical disability, or the stigma that comes with them. Those who can easily obtain a marriage certificate and are comfortable in their own skin can’t completely understand what it means to be a part of the LGBT community.
A lack of understanding creates a divide between different groups, and that divide continues to grow wider. It is through the influence of the media and culture of our world that we can begin to bridge that gap. So much of what we know about the world comes from not only the news, but from film, television, books and even music. When we see a movie, we feel empathy for the characters, an understanding of their struggle as we almost experience it with them. To see a character in a movie face struggle related to their race or sexual orientation, gives viewers the opportunity to see their struggle from a different point of view. If more of our popular culture represented the struggle of those who are oppressed, or at least offered a more representative view of who they are, it would create a better, more prominent connection between groups; a connection formed by a better understanding of one another.
Not only can a movie change one’s perspective of another group of people, it can change the way some see themselves. Sometimes, an understanding of one’s own struggle is the first step to change. When we are young, we look to movies, television, magazines, looking for someone who looks like us, who represents us. What happens if we don’t find what we’re looking for? Rather than recognizing the inaccuracy of the media, we look at ourselves as imperfect and/or unimportant. We lose some of our identity. People of color, those who suffer from mental or physical disabilities, those in the LGBT community, anyone who fails to fit into the mold that has been created by our culture, can begin to look at themselves as outsiders who could only hope to fit in by hiding a part of who they are.
Many of the most popular movies in today’s culture have predominantly white, heterosexual, able bodied casts. Popular shows like Friends, Sherlock, The Big Bang Theory, Family Guy, and Scrubs are shows with mostly white casts, with only one or two token minorities. Even when a character is originally written for a minority, producers and directors will sometimes still choose to cast white actors. Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Pan (2015), Batman Begins (2005), The Last Airbender (2010), The Social Network (2011), and many other popular films are guilty of whitewashing.
Even when minorities are included in any form of pop culture, they are often placed in a certain stereotype, and defined by that stereotype. Films like The Fault in Our Stars (2014) or Me Before You (2016) provide an unrealistic and romanticized view of what it means to live with a disability. LGBT characters in popular shows like Glee are often defined by their sexuality more so than any other characteristic. Oftentimes minorities on television are placed within the confines of some racial stereotype.
Representation means creating characters and providing icons that represent realistic people from all walks of life. It means allowing others to see into a world they may not be a part of and perhaps don’t fully realize exists. It means allowing the members of minority groups to realize their own importance and role in our culture’s story. It means bridging a gap many don’t realize or want to admit exists. The influence of the media is one that can’t be ignored; it is a powerful tool to a bring about change in the way we see one another.