Changing the narrative

Media representation beyond token characters and casual racism

Shafaq Nami, Science and Technology Editor

I have a go-to answer when someone asks how I speak English so well, despite it not being my mother tongue: “I consume a lot of Western media.” Despite the benefits of this habit, that short phrase also encompasses the constant struggle of disentangling my self-worth from the harmful messages I have absorbed from the screen.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in Pakistan largely surrounded by people who shared my culture and experiences. Because I could see myself reflected in those around me, I was mostly protected from the prejudices built into Western media.

For better or worse, popular media has shaped my view of the world. Media plays an important role in society, acting not only as a source of information about the world but also as a reflection of social norms and attitudes. On average, people around the world spend over 7.5 hours per day consuming media of some form, with American consumers tending to have a higher daily average than most.

However, the media we consume rarely reflects the diversity of its consumers. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, almost 40 per cent of the U.S. population was non-white, yet in 2017 people of colour only made up 19.8 per cent of lead film actors, as per the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report.

This disparity persists across multiple forms of media. A 2020 New York Times article revealed that only 11 per cent of books published in 2018 were written by people of colour. Similarly, a study conducted by Women in View that explored racial diversity in the Canadian film industry found that of all people given TV writing credits, only 6.3 per cent were Black, Indigenous, and women of colour.

These statistics paint a disturbing picture since so much of our worldview is shaped by the media, explained Marc Raboy, professor emeritus in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill.

“Most of the time, the only experience we have of the world, except for direct experience [...], comes from the media,” Raboy wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “So in the absence of alternatives, perception of others is largely mediated. That’s why it is so important to have a diversity of representations in the mediasphere.”

Systemic effects of misrepresentation

In the past, media failures have created moral panics ––public mass movements where small or isolated incidents are exaggerated as threats to society. These movements often scapegoat minorities, breeding an irrational fear within the eyes of the wider community. The Salem Witch Trials in the 1700s were a direct consequence of Puritans claiming that anyone who didn’t follow their lifestyle was practising witchcraft. Today, media outlets such as Fox News propagate a fear of immigrants by referring to undocumented immigrants with dehumanizing words such as “aliens” or “illegals.”

Immigrants aren’t the only target: Black men are notoriously overrepresented as perpetrators of crime in news, and even in movies and television. The racist history of depicting Black men and youth as dangerous and out of control still plays a role in false criminal allegations launched against them, and even their murders.

Moral panics can also arise when tragic events are over exaggerated or mischaracterized. In the aftermath of 9/11, the way Arabs and Muslims were portrayed in Western media led to an increase in hate crimes and violence over the next two decades. For example, terrorists on television tend to be depicted as Muslim or Arab rather than white, even though many instances of terrorism in the US these days are perpetrated by white neo-Nazis and political extremists. In light of these kinds of stereotypes, minorities are often forced to carry the burden of representing their community, and are granted no room for imperfections—things their white counterparts can easily get away with.

Ingi El Shahid, U2 Bioengineering, knows this burden well, explaining that she feels the need to always appear friendly and eager to integrate into Quebecois culture.

“I just inherently accept that I always have to be very very nice [...] so that I’m never in a position where someone can attack me,” El Shahid said in an interview with the Tribune. “Even at work, for example, if there are people coming at my cash [register] and they are very white Quebecois people—I have to make sure that I seem very much like I’m an immigrant but I grew up here in Quebec, and I know how to speak French, and I know how to speak your French.”

Even in roles where Muslims are not portrayed as terrorists, their religion is still often misrepresented as backward or oppressive. Take Elite, for example, where the Muslim main character taking off her hijab is depicted as an act of empowerment: The show sends the harmful message that one’s identity is only acceptable when one doesn’t openly associate with it. These depictions have real-world consequences: They can lead people to think that all hijab-wearing women are oppressed and thus need to be “saved.” They also provide a framework for discriminatory policies, such as Quebec’s Bill 21 and France’s recent ban on the hijab—all policies based on longstanding prejudices against those who are “Othered” in society. Even in Canada, hijab-wearing Muslim women are at risk of harassment, death threats, and violence.

Individual effects of misrepresentation

However, the effects of misrepresentation or stereotyping are not always easy to isolate; sometimes it can result in identity crises, negative body image, and low self-esteem instead.

In a world preoccupied with images, we are constantly looking for external positive representations of ourselves, and this is especially true with regards to media. When we don’t immediately find them, we perceive ourselves as the Other. This is especially true for women, considering female characters are consistently defined by their appearances. Even worse, Western beauty standards typically tend to favour Eurocentric features such as fair skin, straight hair, small noses, pink lips, and blue or green eyes.

These standards can alienate women who don’t conform to them––particularly women of colour, whose natural hair type, skin colour, and features often differ from these European ideals. When every onscreen love interest is depicted with Eurocentric features, one can begin to feel pressure to change their features to receive love and acceptance.

For some people of colour, the divide between real life and the screen can manifest as wanting to be “white.” For example, some people get nose jobs to achieve a more “Western” look, or use white washing creams to lighten their skin. In Korea and Japan, many women seek out double eyelid surgeries rather than embrace their natural monolids.

El Shahid notes that even in her country of origin, Egypt, beauty standards in the media are highly influenced by the West. “Beautiful” actresses usually look more European than Egyptian.

“It is highly, highly influenced by whatever is going on here,” El Shahid said. “Nobody wears their hair curly, everyone needs their hair to be straight or done similar to how it is shown in Hollywood. The actresses who are considered the prettiest are not the ones with the most Egyptian features.”

This dynamic makes it all the more frustrating when white people adopt and capitalize off of the same hairstyles, features, and fashion that BIPOC have been ostracized and punished for. An example of this is the fox-eye trend, in which non-Asians use makeup, tape, and even surgeries to attempt to obtain an almond-shaped eye shape.

Of course, these low self-esteem issues and negative body images are not limited to women. Racialized men are rarely cast on screen as love interests or male leads, relegated instead to minor roles, side characters, comic relief, or villains. Lighter-skinned and mixed-race men are sometimes deemed more acceptable leading men, highlighting Hollywood’s Eurocentric view of diversity.

These representations not only impact how people think about themselves and others, but how they act and exist in the world.

“One of the problems with stereotypical representations is that they not only limit how we think about others, but also how we think about ourselves, what possibilities we can imagine for who we might become,” Bronwen Low, an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education, wrote in an email to the Tribune.

Even worse, lack of representation can affect career aspirations. This may be one reason for reduced racial diversity in certain career fields, such as science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM).

Studies show that media––especially TV shows and films––can play an important role in shaping career aspirations for youth. However, BIPOC individuals are rarely portrayed as professionals, especially in STEMM fields. Instead, scientists in the media are often only shown as stoic white men, explained Jessica Ford, a biology PhD candidate and chair of STEMM Diversity @ McGill, a student-driven initiative of the Redpath Museum which spotlights underrepresented researchers.

“Girls and BIPOC youth have a disproportionately higher chance of giving up on their science aspirations compared to their white male peers, even before the age of 10,” Ford wrote in an email to the Tribune. “This is not only because of how people are portrayed in media, but who is portrayed in media. Children especially have a difficult time visualizing themselves in a role if they never see themselves represented in that role.”

Fortunately, this state of affairs might be changing for the better. Recently, more diverse superheroes have been added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe such as Miles Morales, Ms. Marvel, Shang-Chi and Ajak, allowing more BIPOC kids to visualize themselves as heroes and protagonists.

Misrepresentation, or no representation?

If misrepresentation is bad, then no representation can be even worse. Especially in rural communities, a lack of exposure to diverse cultures can lead to the erasure of certain voices.

This is especially true for some groups, such as Indigenous communities. The 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report showed that Indigenous representation in film is stagnant at 0.6 per cent. Unfortunately, this is also true behind the screen; very few Indigenous people were employed as writers and directors. According to statistics published by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the number of children’s books portraying an Indigenous character actually decreased between 2002 and 2020.

This is a shame, since a lack of exposure to the realities of history breeds ignorance. It’s easy to refute blame for stealing someone’s land if you don’t even know whose land you’re on. Even if people are aware of past injustices, persistent media exclusion means they may remain unversed in the full extent of the current crises many Indigenous communities still face, including poverty, homelessness, and malnutrition.

“Media consumption does not take place in a vacuum, but in a social environment,” Raboy wrote. “In today’s mediated world, existence itself is validated by representation.”

Social media: A double-edged sword

In recent years, media consumption has shifted from traditional media such as TV to social media. On the surface, social media seems promising, as the creative power that was limited to only a few in traditional media is now more widely accessible.

But social media can be just as dangerous. Much like traditional media, it retains the power to silence particular voices, as evidenced by Facebook, Twitter and Instagram’s shadowban on Palestinian content in May of 2021. Even the algorithms these conglomerates use can have hidden bias. For instance, racialized creators, specifically Black creators, continuously find their content policed more by TikTok’s algorithm as compared to white creators.

On the other hand, social media has also allowed a lot of otherwise underrepresented voices to take control of their narrative. For instance, exposure to the Black Lives Matter movement was greatly amplified by social media in 2020, during a time where gathering in person was made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The advantage of social media on an individual level is that it gives people greater freedom to seek out others who have the same lived experiences as themselves. In fact, being intentional with the media one consumes can reverse some of the harmful stereotypes that one has internalized from traditional media. Stephanie Kirichu, U3 Engineering, has discovered many Black content creators and media featuring Black characters through TikTok.

“Since I started being more intentional, I stopped minimizing my experience as a Black woman,” Kirichu wrote in an email to the Tribune. “When I was younger, I used to be so conscious of having my natural hair out and always had it straightened or in braids. However, I now feel very confident and comfortable wearing my natural hair since it's my hair and part of my identity.”

Going forward

Though there has been an increase in diversity on screen in recent years, at the same time, many of these characters seem to be little more than a symbolic effort to appear “woke.” For some of these characters, their race is their only defining character trait. Most of the lead roles played by BIPOC tend to be in race-centric projects that typically receive lower investment both in terms of production and promotion, and focus on the suffering of racialized people. White saviour projects such as The Help and Green Book appear to be anti-racist, but further perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

One way to avoid this tokenism would be to increase representation off-screen––behind the camera and in the writer’s room. This includes amplifying more diverse voices and allowing BIPOC creators to share their stories.

These sorts of hiring practices should extend to newsrooms and media outlets as well. Low and her colleagues recently published an op-ed following the poor coverage of the tragic murder of Jannai Dopwell-Bailey in media. In it, they recommend hiring reporters that have experiences with different communities in the city and encouraging collaboration with the communities being written about.

While proper representation still has a long way to go, there is some hope. In recent years, shows such as Reservation Dogs, Skam, and Never Have I Ever have shattered stereotypes and offered three-dimensional representation of mis- and underrepresented groups.

“It is particularly difficult to reverse misconceptions when they tap into deep cultural stereotypes,” Low wrote. “And one positive representation probably won’t change perception—but a multiplicity of diverse and complex representations of certain cultures can challenge what [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie calls the ‘single story’ of other groups.”

Illustrations by Xiaotian Wang, Design Editor