For better or for worse, the media is a significant part of our lives.
Which is one of the reasons why the lack of representation for many groups (women, people of color, and LGBT+ groups) is such a big deal. Going by the New York Film Academy only 12.4% of characters in the top 500 grossing films from 2007-2012 were played by black actors, and 40% of the top 100 grossing films from 2012 showed black characters as less than 5 percent of the speaking cast (via). Women were only 30.8% of the speaking characters in 07-12, despite representing half of the U.S. population. And if that weren't enough of an issue, there's no guarantee that the roles out there are any good. You don't tend to get a lot of depth and character growth from roles like 'Thug #2' or 'Dead Hooker'.
Okay, so that's annoying. Why is it a problem though?
1. It can turn women into objects- literally.
Studies of brain scans have revealed that seeing pictures of women in bikinis activates the parts of men's brains that respond to tools- and elicits very little empathy. "This means that these men see women "as sexually inviting, but they are not thinking about their minds" (via). According to research done by the Geena Davis Institute female characters are four times more likely than male characters to be depicted sexually, and have unrealistic figures (via). What is that telling men about their female coworkers, partners, friends, and family?
"The men who scored higher as "hostile sexists"—those who view women as controlling and invaders of male space—didn't show brain activity that indicates they saw the women in bikinis as humans with thoughts and intentions."
So either our media is confirming those mens' viewpoints, or it's actually one of the sources. Either way, is that really something we want to say?
2. It shapes our beliefs.
I'd love to tell you that television hasn't shaped my politics, but it probably has. And I'm not just talking about the news. One poll indicated that shows with positive LGBT+ characters like Modern Family and Glee made them more likely to support same-sex marriage (via). Which might explain why so many homophobic special interest groups were opposed to them. According to Tracy Ewing, CSUN professor of child and adolescent development (via):
"Research shows that children’s media does help shape their beliefs and perceptions about what is “normal.” A more inclusive, normative and sensitive portrayal of gender and romantic minorities in children’s media will likely have a tremendous impact on future generations thinking, and hopefully their actions as well."
Wouldn't we rather teach our kids to respect their peers, including those that are different? And for the kids that are different themselves, shouldn't we let them know that it's okay, that there's nothing wrong with them? Especially if the environment they're growing up in isn't as accepting!
3. It influences our real-world actions.
Thoughts are something that only happen in our heads- they're not crimes and we are not the victims of them. However, the way we think shapes the way we behave. If you think you're under attack you act to defend yourself or get away. That's normal. But what if you're not under attack at all? Our media is a source of racial perceptions and misconceptions about crime (via).
"It characterizes black suspects as thugs and white suspects as victims, and is complicit in fostering a “crime script” that encourages blatantly biased policing tactics that target African Americans. There is a direct link between exposure to the “crime script” and fear and prejudice against African Americans."
But the lack of positive representation is as much a symptom of our problems as much as it is a cause. It's frightening to think about the powerful influence the media can have on the way we think and act. But we are powerful too. We don't have to accept the narrative that we're given. We can choose which ones to listen to and which ones to ignore. We can choose to speak up when we see hypocrisy or misinformation. And most importantly, we can listen to the people whose experiences are being misrepresented or outright ignored. They are the experts on their lives. They know when they're being mistreated. And if they are being silenced, it is our responsibility to turn the volume up and hear them.