Time and time again, I hear people complaining about how others react to a lack of representation in the media. They say that those who insist on every show or book being racially and sexually diverse are just being ‘sensitive’. Maybe that’s the truth. Perhaps, at times people do take this desire for representation too far. But most of the time they don’t. Representation and diversity within different mediums such as entertainment and literature are pivotal to our society.
What Is Good Representation?
To me, it is not enough to simply have a gay character or a POC on a show for it to be deemed ‘good representation’. The writers have to treat the character with respect. They have to give them good plot lines that don’t just keep them on the sidelines. These characters must be fully fledged and not remain as two-dimensional — meaning, lacking in depth and failing to add anything to the plot.
A great example of a failure at representation is Bonnie Bennett from the show The Vampire Diaries produced by the CW network. This show butchered Bonnie’s character tremendously. She was given secondary love interests (who were often unimportant to the plot) that were never fully developed. Furthermore, she was repeatedly killed and used as a plot line for the other characters and was unfairly placed into the trope of magical negro, which was an atrocious desecration of her character. Her character was strong and yet she was continuously exploited throughout the show while never really being acknowledged.
Why Is Representation So Important?
There are several reasons for representation being important. The benefits aren’t just for those who are the same race or ethnicity as a particular character on screen. The advantages are for all who watch the show.
Firstly, it’s good to have characters who are similar to real people. It helps the audience who are of the same race, sexuality etc., to more easily identify with a character and relate to them. Yes, we watch TV shows to be entertained but we also watch them in order to escape our worlds. And, we also want to care about the characters that we are watching, which is easier to do when the entire cast doesn’t just consist of white people.
Another reason is to abolish certain stereotypes. I regularly see Latina actors and actresses playing characters that feed into the stereotypes of maids or hypersexualised personas. When an example of good representation comes along (like Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz on Brooklyn Nine Nine) it helps take away those stereotypes by showing another reality. These are, after all, human beings and they do not belong in a pre-defined box.
Lastly, and this point mainly relates to characters of a certain race or ethnicity, representation helps give people worldwide hope. Why? You may ask. Because the actors playing these characters have worked hard. Black actors, Latina actors, Arab actors and many others. When a young child sees them on television or in the movies, it helps them to feel like their dreams are possible too. And that is a very important thing.
My Experience With Representation
I have always believed in diversity on the silver screen. However, as a second-generation Libyan hijabi living in the UK, I have struggled to find characters that I could relate to. This was a problem that I never thought would be resolved. I was wrong.
I began to watch the Norwegian show Skam. In this show, there is a a character called Sana Bakkoush — played by Iman Meskini. Each season of Skam follows a different main character and the fourth one followed Sana. In this season, they tackled the struggles of an Arab girl living in a western country incredibly well. They showed such a positive and beautiful view of Islam, which is something that rarely gets explored given the prejudice. In this show, Islam was shown not to be about hate and anger, but about equality and peace.
I loved the character of Sana because the problems that she faced were the ones that I have faced too. The disconcerting feeling of not knowing where you belong was one that I was well accustomed to. It made me so happy to see that I wasn’t alone. What’s more, Iman Meskini’s determination to never take off her hijab in any of her scenes was both inspirational and something that I greatly admired. It made me so relieved to finally see that I wasn’t alone.
In Conclusion …
Representation matters. It really does. It has the ability to change people’s perceptions and that is important for peaceful coexistence. So, if you ever see someone complaining about those ‘sensitive’ people, be sure to correct them. It may seem a bit melodramatic but it’s an important fight to win. The world isn’t just dominated by white heterosexual people and the shows we watch on a daily basis should reflect this truth.