FilmSocial Issues

What You Need to Know About Representation in Film

The release of films like Get Out and Wonder Woman have sparked conversations and questions about representation in the film industry. So here is everything you need to know about media representation.

What does diverse and accurate representation in film mean? Ultimately, it is the portrayals of people of all genders, races, sexual orientations, levels of ability and more being presented in the media in a manner that reflects the population being depicted. A phrase often used to describe representation is, “If you can see it, you can be it.” Ultimately, it is about having visible role models to look up to.

Unfortunately, a lot of people cannot “see it.” Many people of various races, genders, disabilities and sexual orientations are not cast in roles that show these minorities in positive and successful situations, if they are even cast at all. This is the issue of diverse and accurate representation in media.

A study conducted in 2014 by the University of Southern California calls this representation, or lack thereof, an “epidemic of invisibility.” The study found that the entire film and television industry to be “whitewashed,” from cast to crew, and that the norms of the Hollywood film industry are not aligned with the demographics of the population these films claim to represent.

For example, while half of the world is female, only a third of speaking roles in the films and television shows in the study were female, only 28.3% of speaking roles were racial minorities, and a meager 2% of speaking characters were identified as members of the LGBTQ community. However, the study names more than just casting as an issue. Only 3.4% of directors in the 109 films studied were female, and only two were directed by black women. The films that were chosen for the study were the top-grossing films of the year the study was conducted. There’s clearly lots of room for improvement, but there are also examples of representation done right.

What You Need to Know About Representation in Film

(Image Source: The Blemish)

The recent success of the new Wonder Woman movie is one of these examples. The film features a woman of colour and former Israeli soldier, Gal Gadot, as the main character. Many characters are racial minorities, including a character suffering from mental health issues and a female scientist villain. Wonder Woman was also directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. While the presence of female characters in Wonder Woman is important, it is equally as important that they are often seen as being strong and independent. The Disney hit Moana is another good example of representation done right, with a cast of Pacific Islanders and a strong female lead chasing her dream instead of a love interest.

However, the importance of diverse and accurate representation is clearest in the films where it is lacking the most. A prime example is the film Ghost in the Shell, where Scarlett Johansson was cast as the lead in a film adaptation of a manga series that was meant to have an all-Japanese cast.

Having visible role models is vital to inspiring people, especially young people, to have goals and to follow them, and it is something that many of us take for granted. Seeing other people that look or act the same way that you do and seeing them succeed in the roles you aspire to is incredibly powerful. However, when genders, races, sexual orientations and more are shown in stereotypical roles, replaced because of “whitewashing” or even not shown at all, it can be extremely damaging and only serves to reinforce that people who are different cannot live accomplished and happy lives. 

When women are depicted as demure background characters and sexual objects, when racial minorities are shown as criminal and lazy, when the disabled are portrayed as helpless and stupid, when white actors are cast in roles that are meant to be characters of colour, these harmful stereotypes are reinforced in societal norms and in the minds of those who see these representations. Whether we notice or not, erasing populations of people or only showing them in a certain light is a problem that cannot go unaddressed.