Representation in media magnifies outreach and power. The media can either reinforce or dismiss those who wield social and political influence. Moreover, the content that the industry creates and how media is consumed lowers people's self-confidence and changes their self-image. The fewer women and minorities that partake in media creation, content, and distribution, the less accurate the media becomes. This article will examine the impact media has on society, specifically how a general lack of representation in the media can negatively affect women and other underrepresented minorities, while also giving those same people a platform through which they can influence society.
Establishing the reach and influence of the media is critical to understanding the magnitude of how underrepresentation affects people. As technology has evolved, the power that media outlets have has grown tremendously. Currently, the media has become all-encompassing and encircles most aspects of our lives. Every day there is media that we consciously choose to surround ourselves with. Whether scrolling through Instagram, creating a Spotify playlist, reading a book, or simply watching TV, we actively choose to be influenced by the media. In 2015, US residents consumed traditional and digital media for over 1.7 trillion hours. This averages approximately 15-and-a-half hours per person per day. In that same year, children (eight-to-twelve-year-olds) consumed an average of six hours of media a day, and teens consumed nine hours (Forbes). Furthermore, there are a whole set of moments where we have no control over the media being consumed and the influence it might have. In unavoidable daily activities like walking down the street or using transportation, the media surrounds us. From music being played to newspapers littering the sidewalks to the poster boards and ads around us, consuming media is an unavoidable part of existence in today's society. These forms of media can be even more constant as they enter subconsciously, and we have no real control over when and where they influence us. As hard as it might be to reconcile and admit, the media has so much power over us and can dictate something as simple as a small lifestyle decision or as significant as someone's self-worth. Society places enormous trust in media sources, and people rely on them to make everyday decisions. We allow the media to create and perpetuate social norms and shape our self-image. Standards of beauty, body image, fashion, and lifestyle are established and distributed by the media outlets around us.
Likewise, the characters depicted in the media significantly impact us and how we view ourselves. Negative stereotyping of a specific group or gender in the media can diminish the self-esteem of its viewers. When women and minorities are underrepresented, and children cannot find admirable people in the media who look like them, then their self-confidence is lowered. A 2011 study conducted by the Opportunity Agenda that looked at representation on TV and its impact on youths' self-esteem reached a similar conclusion. In a survey of around 400 Black and white girls and boys, researchers found that the only demographic that did not experience lower self-esteem after watching TV was the white boys (VICE). Clearly, underrepresentation is so important as today's undiverse and inaccurate media can and does diminish viewers' self-confidence.
Unfortunately, minorities and women are continuously underrepresented in the media; making up around 60% of all main film leads, the white male is still the demographic with the most power. In 2020, the percentage of top-grossing films with female characters in speaking roles was only 36%. Similarly, in that same year, the rate of films with female protagonists was roughly 38%. Additionally, regarding race, ethnicity, and other minorities, the percentage of Black females in speaking roles declined from 20% in 2019 to 17% in 2020. The rate of Latinas increased to 6% in 2020, and in the same year, the percentage of Asian women with speaking roles was also 6% (Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film). Also, people of color only made up 19.8% of all lead film roles in 2019. Finally, across the top 100 top-grossing movies of 2018, only 1.6% of characters were depicted with a disability, and only two portrayed a gay protagonist (UCLA). Conclusively, able-bodied, straight, white male individuals overwhelmingly dominate the film industry and lead roles.
By that same token, the news industry hasn't achieved anything that resembles gender equality. A 2015 Time report that drew on 49 studies of women across media platforms and used numbers from 2012-2013 found that men overwhelmingly dominate the news industry. Women in the evening broadcast news are on camera only 32% of the time, while 70% of all commentators on Sunday morning talk shows are male. Likewise, more than 67% of bylines are male, and men still dominate the "hard news," while women cover the lifestyle and education sections. Men report 65% of political stories, 63% of all the science coverage, 64% of world politics coverage, and 67% of criminal justice news. Unsurprisingly, only 10% of sports coverage is produced by women.
These results are not actually proportional to the US population. Not only do women make up 50.8% of the population, but, according to 2018 US Census Bureau estimates, the nation's population is nearly 40% non-white. Not to mention, the Pew Research Center found that the U.S. will not have one racial or ethnic majority group by 2055 (Pew). These numbers irrefutably show that, across most media platforms, women and minorities are underrepresented relative to the demographic composition of American society.
With great power comes a remarkable ability to do harm. The media has so much control over society, and media attention and screen time give people and groups influence. When the media only represents the abled white male's perspective, it reinforces those who already have social and political power. This constant focus on white, able-bodied men allows them to maintain their authority and disempowers women and minorities by excluding them from processes that are constantly setting standards, determining beliefs, and creating social hierarchies. In essence, as long as white able men continue to control not just the content but also the processes of creating media, they will maintain social power.
Additionally, this lack of representation leads to blatant falsities and the creation of harmful media content. As long as the media continues to only be made and distributed by mostly white, straight, able-bodied men, then it will continue to spread negative and erroneous stereotypes. This is incredibly harmful because when people, particularly children, continually see false information and stereotypes in the media, they begin to believe it. When these inaccurate depictions are constantly reinforced, they become a reality, primarily if a person does not engage with other communities daily. The mass media can serve as a curriculum with an educational impact on people who have very little or no direct contact with members of the groups being portrayed. For instance, people with disabilities have faced centuries of belittlement, forced isolation, and discrimination. It was only in the 1960s that the disability rights movement was formed, and it was even later that basic vocabulary like ableism (discrimination against people with disabilities) was introduced. Therefore, when disabled characters are around 15% more likely to be rescued in family films than other characters (Ford Foundation), it stops progress. The media is reinforcing the stereotype that all disabled people are in need of saving, and that harms society by perpetuating and teaching people this inaccurate perception of all people with disabilities. Basically, the only way to stop these atrocities from happening is to include women and minorities, such as people with disabilities, in the processes of creating media.
To summarize, the media dictates so much in our society. What counts as equitable representation in the media is determined by the kind of society we want to create and who we want to have power. If we want minorities and women to have a platform to influence society in a significant and impactful way, then they have to be represented in the media. Additionally, if we want people to have an accurate understanding of groups and communities they don't engage with daily, then the media must stop perpetuating stereotypes. Furthermore, the only way the media will spread accurate depictions of people and communities is if minorities and women are included in the creation and distribution of that media. Finally, if we want the 15 hours daily we spend consuming media to make us feel good about ourselves and not lower our self-perceptions or self-confidence, something has to change. The same media that dictates and perpetuates harmful aspects of our society, like negative stereotypes, can also be the vehicle by which we achieve positive change, and it's up to us to decide what we do with the power and influence the media has.
UCLA School of Social Sciences. "Hollywood Diversity Report 2019." February 21, 2019. https://socialsciences.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/UCLA-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2019-2-21-2019.pdf.
Smith, Stacey L., et al. "Inequality in 1,200 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBTQ & Disability from 2007 to 2018." USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, 2019. assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/aii-inequality-report-2019-09-03.pdf.
Lauzen, Martha. “Research.” Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, June 17, 2016. womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/research/.
Navarro, José Gabriel. “Female Sexualization in Film by Age 2018.” Statista, August 12, 2021. www.statista.com/statistics/641313/film-female-sexualization/.
Heumann, Judith. “Roadmap for Inclusion: Changing the Face of Disability in the Media.” Ford Foundation, 2019. www.fordfoundation.org/media/4276/judyheumann_report_2019_final.pdf.
Alter, Charlotte. “Women in Media: 8 Sad Truths from the Women's Media Center 2015 Report.” Time, 5 June 2015, time.com/3908138/women-in-media-sad-truths-report/.
Lawson, Kimberly. “Why Seeing Yourself Represented on Screen Is so Important.” VICE, February 20, 2018. www.vice.com/en/article/zmwq3x/why-diversity-on-screen-is-important-black-panther.
Wang Yuen, Nancy. “Why Is Equal Representation in Media Important?” Forbes Magazine, June 29, 2021. www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2019/05/22/why-is-equal-representation-in-media-important/?sh=615108342a84.
Cohn, D’Vera, and Andrea Caumont. “10 Demographic Trends That Are Shaping the U.S. and the World.” Pew Research Center, July 27, 2020. www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/31/10-demographic-trends-that-are-shaping-the-u-s-and-the-world/.
Adina Gerwin is 17 years old and lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. She is currently spending her junior year studying abroad in Hamburg, Germany.
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