Why Representation Matters
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Everyone deserves to see themselves as heroes. I don’t mean you personally, but maybe someone out there who is representing you and people like you around the world. Whether it be a Black woman taking charge in a courthouse, a young Asian man fighting against zombies, a White woman dealing with a mental illness one step at a time, a Pacific Islander princess who goes out to save her people from danger, or a Hispanic man fighting for what’s right all throughout the galaxy. Representation is one of the key elements within the media, especially in this day and age where everyone–and I mean literally everyone–is either watching a video online, a show, movie or music video on the way to work, or reading The New Yorker’s bestseller list in class. Lack of representation, however, can have long-lasting, negative effects on adults, adolescents, and even on early childhood development.
As a Middle Eastern teenager who suffers from a mental illness, I’ve always felt forced into a secluded box when it came to my representation in the media. First off, middle easterners are never the heroes in a story; we are always the ‘terrorists’, ‘murderers’ and ‘savages’. I’ve never had the privilege of having anyone represent me and the millions of people like me in film, as is the privilege of people considered part of mainstream culture. As for my mental illness, that’s just out of the questions. With the media, mental illness is represented as a quirky and a necessary disability to have in our lives. I’ve also noticed that women are represented with mental illnesses more than men, even when research shows that males die from suicide three to five times more often than females (AFSP.org).
Representations of gender, mental illnesses, and race are not the only issues. There are also physical disability, sexual preference, victimization, body image, and the list goes on and on. The lack of mainstream representation of these groups can be harmful to many people. According to Racebending.org, “If television serves to reinforce gender and racial stereotypes, then social identity theory also predicts that the white girls, black girls, and black boys in the study used messages from the media to evaluate themselves, and that these comparisons can impact self esteem”. So not only does the shortage of representation harm “social identities”, it can also harm one’s self esteem.
I completely understand that society is trying to do something about what it sees as an unsatisfactory status quo. Yet the “dramatic change” we seek won’t radically change the media industry overnight, and to coin a well-worn yet relevant phrase: you have to be the change you want to see in the world. As I see how the world is continuously changing, be it towards race, gender, sexuality, mental illness, physical illness, etcetera, I become increasingly worried because I know that we will eventually make the change, and we won’t look back once it’s done with.
It matters that you are represented accurately on screen. It matters that you can see people like you just living their life and being happy. And it matters because no one should ever feel the the hunger, the near desperation of trying to find someone familiar, someone like you, in crowds of people. It matters because everyone deserves to feel like they belong and like they’re not alone. It matters. You matter.