Windows but no Mirrors: The importance of representation in the media





Joyce Yang, Georgetown Day '19



In a world so diverse, representation of minorities in media is very important, as it can shape the lives of all who watch.





It was the angriest I had ever seen my mother; her unprecedented rage made the times when I wouldn’t clean my room or when we’d be stuck in traffic on River Road seem like minor complaints. We had just walked out of watching Ex Machina, a science fiction film that was released in 2015 about a man who gets swept up in the desires of his firm’s CEO to test the capabilities of a robot that he had created. It had been hailed as revolutionary and thought-provoking by initial critics, but received a radically different response from my mother. The target of her criticisms was “Kyoko”, the Asian robot who was programmed without a voice or thoughts so as to be a better servant. She was hardly a central character, and most people who watched the movie probably don’t remember her being in the film at all. To my mom, however, she seemed to represent all that was wrong with our society. To her, Kyoko was just another character in the long slew of submissive, voiceless Asian women who were nothing but a means by which a white protagonist is able to save the day. I was in eighth grade at the time and wasn’t aware of the racial connotations of Kyoko. All I could think was how glad I was to finally see somebody that looked like me play such a big part in a movie.

The issue of representation is especially important given the increasing presence of TV shows and movies around us and how much the media we consume can affect our society. After all, stories inform both how we see and how we characterize those around us and especially how we see ourselves. UCLA’s most recent annual diversity report showed that, while minorities make up an ever-increasing portion of the population, the percentage of minorities cast in leading roles has remained largely stagnant. Similarly, in 2015, another UCLA study reported that Asian Americans made up 3-4% of roles in broadcast and cable shows. Another study found that, of the top 100 films of that 2016, not a single one had an Asian American lead. While we have made huge improvements in the past few years, with help from movements like #Oscarssowhite and a new surge of awareness, we must also realize that representation is only the first step.


The few times I did see an Asian-American girl on TV or in movies, she’d almost always be the main character’s friend who might have, at most, one line in the entirety of her screen time and whose character remained largely undeveloped or, much more often, portrayed an opinionless husk to fill out the diversity quota. For people who are never represented as the person who saves the day, it underscores your worth as a person when you constantly see those to whom you most relate as simply side characters in someone else’s story.


Furthermore, it is important that roles given to minorities go beyond the racist caricatures that white directors constantly fall back on. Something that goes past the vindictive black woman or muslims who are always portrayed as terrorists and frames people of color as people with nuances and depth. Seeing people who look like me always portrayed as quiet, and many times completely voiceless, as in the cases of “Katana” in Suicide Squad (2016) or “Lilly Okanakurama” in Pitch Perfect (2012), deeply affected me. Growing up, I always felt pressure to demonstrate somehow that I was different from those characters and therefore not perpetuating those stereotypes. Once a family friend told me that I should speak up unless I wanted to be perpetuating the stereotypes that people already had about people who looked like me, comparing me to Lilly, the girl whose entire role in Pitch Perfect centers around the recurring joke that nobody can hear her. The issue with that is that nobody should have to be pressured constantly to think about things like that. People of color should not have to perpetually consider their actions with the fear of being reduced to the stereotypical one-dimensional figures they are often portrayed as. They should have the power to be themselves, whether or not certain aspects of that identity reflects the stereotypes forced upon them by society. Thus, while it is on Hollywood to make dramatic changes to its castings and roles, we must also understand that it’s our own responsibility to filter the messages that media so often reinforces, and to understand that there’s more to everyone than what we are taught to believe.