Seeing yourself represented on-screen matters more than you think

Vogue, January 2020

This article, originally written for Vogue Global Network, has since been published on Vogue

AustraliaVogue India, Vogue Italia, Vogue Netherlands and Vogue Taiwan.

From #OscarsSoWhite in 2015 to #BaftasSoWhite in 2020 — and the marginalised groups that award ceremonies are failing to recognise in between — it’s easy to wonder whether we’re making any progress at all. Vogue looks at why on-screen diversity matters more than ever and the devastating consequences of underrepresentation in Hollywood ...


In 2015, the film industry experienced an unprecedented paradigm shift. Shortly after the Academy Awards announced its nominees on 15 January, #OscarsSoWhite, originally coined by activist April Reign, started trending on Twitter. The reason? All 20 actors and actresses nominated were white, while Straight Outta Compton, Creed and Beasts of No Nation — critically acclaimed movies with black leads — were almost entirely overlooked. 

With only a quarter of all speaking roles going to people of colour that year, these Oscar snubs twisted the proverbial knife further. The backlash took on a life of its own, ultimately precipitating seismic changes within Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole.
 

 

The statistics speak for themselves

In 2019, The Telegraph reported that since the Academy Awards’ inception in 1928, only seven per cent of Best Actor nominees have been non-white, compared to 4.2 per cent of Best Actress nominees and 3.2 per cent for Best Director.

 

Members of other minority groups have fared poorly, too. During its 92-year run, the Oscars have awarded only a handful of ‘out’ members of the LGBTQ+ community (a statistic not taking into account many trophy-worthy performances by heterosexual actors portraying gay, lesbian or transgender characters). 

 

While disappointing, these numbers weren’t exactly born in a vacuum. In 2014, a year before #OscarsSoWhite catapulted the issue of diversity (or lack thereof) into the limelight, a survey by The Los Angeles Times uncovered that 94 per cent of the 6,028 Academy Award voters were white, and 76 per cent of them were men. The Academy has since injected its member board with much-needed heterogeneity, but the issue of representation on screen reaches far deeper than first meets the eye.


Why seeing yourself on-screen is so important

In the 1940s, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan proposed that infants pass through the ‘mirror stage’. During this phase, children recognise their own reflection and distinguish themselves from others. In other words: seeing ourselves reflected back to us helps develop a healthy sense of self. 

 

By the 1960s, American social psychologist Elaine Hatfield had coined the term ‘matching hypothesis’, which claims that people are more likely to form and succeed in relationships with someone who is as socially desirable as they are. Simply put, we are attracted to the familiar. But what does this have to do with diversity in Hollywood? 

 

In short, what we see on screen reinforces our sense of self as we navigate adolescence and adulthood. While culture reflects the zeitgeist through an artistic lens, it also helps mould reality by telling audiences whose stories are worth sharing and whose aren’t, by choosing whom to ostracise from the narrative and whom to place front and centre. Entertainment empowers, yet it also possesses the ability to tear at an individual’s sense of self. 

 

Aloof cowboys, white superheroes saving the day, heterosexual casanovas conquering their love interests — these tales have become so commonplace that we’ve become oblivious to how they have eclipsed the marginalised. Ethnic minorities, multidimensional gay characters, Bechdel test-busting female protagonists have often been relegated to side plots, with devastating consequences.


We need to make the invisible visible 

‘Symbolic annihilation’ — a term forged by George Gerbner in 1976 — describes the absence of representation or underrepresentation of groups in the media with the goal of maintaining social inequality. Simply put: stories have the power to erase entire groups of people from the narrative. 

 

There’s evidence to back this up, too. Studies show that not being able to see oneself reflected in pop culture can have a negative impact on mental health. In 2011, The Opportunity Agenda uncovered a correlation between negative media stereotypes and lower life-expectancy among black men. 

 

“Black women have been the leads in our own lives for years. That should be reflected on TV,” actress Tracee Ellis Ross told Vogue in November 2019. “The thing I find frustrating is that entertainment doesn’t always reflect the world we live in.” 


Ross’s sitcoms, Black-ish and its spin-off Mixed-ish, have both made a point of providing a looking glass for those who have felt marginalised in the past. The show has made headlines by covering controversial topics ranging from police brutality to the use of the N-word. Pushing boundaries and buttons (the Obamas are fans while Donald Trump called it “racist”), the show talks about race in a nuanced way instead of providing black-and-white answers.


Untapping the stories worth telling

Thankfully, things appear to be moving in the right direction. If Black-ish’s 3.2 million viewers and numerous award wins are anything to go by, there appears to be an ever-growing appetite for complex, multidimensional characters of colour. Joining Black-ish are series such as How to Get Away with Murder, Insecure, Master of None, Quantico and Empire, which all feature multifaceted, imperfect characters who happen to be non-white. 

 

Similarly, the success stories of recent films such as Moonlight, Black Panther, Love Simon, Crazy Rich Asians and Captain Marvel have ushered in a new era of inclusive storylines featuring protagonists who have previously been nothing more than supporting players. The ‘sassy gay friend’ has been replaced with a normal, angsty teenage boy who happens to have a crush on another boy. The ‘black sidekick’ has evolved into a superhero with a layered backstory. 


Characters are no longer merely defined by their gender, sexual orientation or skin colour. Instead, these traits have been turned into idiosyncrasies, part of a larger whole. A report by GLAAD found that in 2019, 47 per cent of all regular characters on US-broadcast scripted TV series were people of colour (3 per cent increase from the year prior and a record high). Viewers are no longer content with being sidelined — they demand to see their identities reflected back to them.


Looking back to move forward

These recent changes have made Hollywood sit up and take note, going as far as admitting to past missteps. Recently, Seth Rogen spoke to GQ about the way homosexuality was handled in his films in the early 2000s: “We do not want people to feel bad when they’re watching our movies. I’ve had people come up to me and be like, ‘That made me feel like shit when I was in the movie theatre and everyone was laughing about that.’ Like the ‘How I know you're gay’ thing [from The 40-Year-Old Virgin].”

 

While diversity on screen isn’t where it needs to be (#BaftasSoWhite began trending on Twitter on the morning of 7 January after the list of nominees were all white, while the Oscars barely escaped a similar reprise a week later), these past few years have ushered in an era of important firsts. The way we tell stories has a lasting impact on an individual’s mental health, sense of self and understanding of their place in society. 

 

We’ve made leaps and bounds, and yet we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the kinds of stories waiting to be told. Stories that show us who we are and all that we can be.

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