Why Representation Matters

black child choosing white doll

This past weekend was the 86th Academy Awards, and the country watched as the best movies of 2013 competed for the coveted golden Oscar statue. Very few things can hold the attention of millions of people at once, and movies are one of those rare things. Watching a movie starring beautiful people, shot in glamorous locations is a great break from our day to day lives, and tuning in to your favorite television show every week night is a comforting routine. We all have those special movies or television series that hold a special place in our heart, but for many of us movies and television shows leave something to be desired.

Women and people of color are traditionally marginalized in our society, and this marginalization extends to our media productions. The Women’s Media Center recently released a report on the representation of women and people of color in the U.S media. The resounding result? White men still dominate all aspects of media, from its production to who stars in front of the camera. A few findings from the report:

  •  Of the top grossing films between 2007 and 2012, only 6.6% were directed by Black directors. 
  • In 2012, 76.3% of the characters in the top grossing films were White.
  • Out of the top 100 films in 2012, women only had 28.4% of the speaking roles. 
  • Women are very likely to be hypersexualized on screen, particularly Hispanic women.

People of all races and genders enjoy movies and television, but clearly we are all not being represented equally. But does that representation really matter? I think yes.

In 1947, Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a psychological study where children were shows two dolls, one black and one white. They were asked to choose which one they preferred, which one was “bad” and which one was “good.” The results were the same across races: the children generally preferred the white doll and saw that doll as “good.” In 2006, high school student Kiri Davis replicated this study, and found similar results.  Children of all races are internalizing the idea that being Black is somehow inherently inferior, but it is really no surprise if you look at the media these children are consuming. Of the 12 “Disney Princesses,” eight of them are White. To be a princess, the most basic and adorable of young girl fantasies, means to be White. In 2009 a study of the self image of young girls titled, Am I Too Fat to be A Princess? found that nearly a third of the participants had a desire to change something about their physical appearance. There is no doubt that these messages are being internalized at a very young age, and affecting the way we think about ourselves and others.

Lupita Nyong’o, the breakout star of the Oscar winning film 12 Years a Slave, has stated in interviews that she was inspired to go into acting because of Black actresses before her, like Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. “I feel very fortunate to be in this position, and know that it means more to people because I am an African and I am dark-skinned,” she said. She hopes to inspire other young, Black girls the way Goldberg and Winfrey inspired her. Her Oscar win this past Sunday for Best Supporting Actress and 12 Years A Slave’s win for Best Picture indicate that films by Black directors starring Black actors can and will be successful. Nyong’o’s win validates her presence in the Hollywood spotlight and encourages young girls that look just like her that they too can join the ranks of Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.

The success of 12 Years a Slave is significant, and its win may be heralded as the turning point for racial representation in Hollywood, but we must look at the bigger picture. All the most critically acclaimed Black-led movies of 2013 (12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) were praised for bringing more visibility and representation to Black actors, actresses and directors in Hollywood. However, all three of those movies are based on true stories of Black people. They were starred in by a largely Black cast because they had to be. This in no way takes away from their powerful and positive representations of Black people in the media, but poses a question of when we are going to see the roles of wizards, hobbits, CIA Agents, and even princesses occupied by women and people of color. Representation matters, and telling diverse stories on screen is an important step towards racial equality.


Undergraduate research assistant and blogger for the Moral Communities Project **The opinions and views expressed are my own and do not reflect the official positions of The Moral Communities Project or its funders.

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