I have always loved movies and going to the cinema – the escapism it provides is thrilling and sometimes therapeutic. But sometimes, while it is nice to live in someone else’s reality for two hours, it doesn’t hurt to have yours represented on screen every once in a while. Now, I’m not talking about making fantasy or sci-fi films more realistic, I’m talking about basic human stories that enable us to connect to the characters we see on screen.
When people often talk about representation and diversity in film the conversation almost always leads to the industry’s struggle with equality, whether it is women struggling to get paid fairly or people of colour fighting to be represented authentically.
It is shocking to me that we still need to address these issues in this day and age, but let me tell you why representation in the media is important. The term ‘symbolic annihilation’ refers to the idea that if you don’t see yourself represented in the media, you, and others, think you’re somehow not a valuable member of society.
Sounds awfully depressing, right? But unfortunately that is a reality that we face, even in 2017. I know throwing facts and big fancy words around is essentially useless. Right about now is probably when you’re heading for the ‘exit’ button, so let me get a little personal to put all this malarkey into context.
I have very, very rarely seen myself represented on screen. I know it’s a lot to ask from Hollywood – after all I am a woman, part Asian and disabled. As proud as I am of my cross-stitch of identities, it can sometimes be tested when the media is telling you ‘sorry, you’re not important’.
Rewind to 2006 – High School Musical had just been released and the world (okay, just me) lost their minds. I watched the film at least three times a day on the DVR, and had every lyric and dance move ingrained permanently into my brain. But it wasn’t just the catchy songs and the ‘we’re all in this together’ rhetoric that made the movie so special to me, but rather it was who they decided to cast as the female lead.
Like many 10 year olds at the time, I was obsessed with kid’s TV shows from the likes of Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, and it’s probably fair to say that I spent way more time watching TV than on my homework. Most of the media I consumed in my childhood featured predominantly white characters and, from my memory, very few Asian characters. If there were any, they were usually reduced to a stereotype, like the nerdy best friend or the antagonist with extreme martial arts skills.
Growing up I never saw anything wrong with that. I guess it just became the norm for me to see mostly white characters on my TV screen and I just dealt with it. But that mentality right there is what’s damaging – the media I consumed informed me of what society viewed as ‘normal’, and so that’s what I grew up to learn – that people like me are, and forever will be, a minority in society.
Then along came High School Musical and Vanessa Hudgens.
You may, or may not, know that Vanessa is half Filipino, half American. To some, this piece of information seems irrelevant, or would go completely over their heads. But to me it meant a lot, because for the first time on TV there was someone I could identify with.
Okay yes, it was a long stretch – I am neither Filipino or American – but at least there was finally a Eurasian girl like me on the telly. It just goes to show that I grasped at the smallest nods to my identity, purely because there was nothing else to grasp at.
Of course, when I was 10 I had no idea what social justice was or the importance of representation, I just knew that it was a big deal to have a part Asian actress on my TV who was the female lead. The point of my little anecdote is to show how rare it was to see myself represented on screen and how that feeling of inclusion, even for one tiny moment, still stays with me to this day.
So, can you imagine if every kid got the chance to feel like they could see themselves on screen? Like I mentioned before, the media we consume informs us of what society sees as ‘normal’. When we are not represented, it is telling us that we don’t matter, that we are invisible. Representation is important in building our self-esteem, and creating a sense of belonging in the world.
Beyond that, more on screen representation will allow children to grow up accepting that the society they live in is culturally rich and diverse. In a time where Trump and Brexit are more concerned about building borders instead of opening them, this is super duper important.
While it has been incredible to see so many influential people in the entertainment industry speaking out about Hollywood’s diversity problem (who remembers #OscarsSoWhite at last year’s Academy Awards?), it would be amazing for me to see the same kind of fierce campaigning for disability representation.
As someone who is hard of hearing I had become resigned a long time ago to the fact that I’ll rarely see my disability represented on screen. In fact, I can count the number of deaf/HoH characters that I’ve seen on one hand. Barely.
Okay, so maybe I’m not looking hard enough or watching enough TV or films – I’m not saying that I’ve seen everything. But the point is, in general, we need more disability representation. And no, it does not count if a disabled character is portrayed as pathetic and inferior to abled people, or a disability is only used for the tragedy element. It certainly doesn’t count if a disabled character is ‘cured’ and therefore life is worth living again (seriously, those are the worst).
I want real representation of disabilities, where it is shown how people still live their daily lives like everyone else in society, instead of being marginalised time and time again. I guess more than anything I just crave inclusivity the way it is being fought so hard by women, people of colour, LGBTQ groups, and so on.
Right now I kind of feel like I am stuck at the back of a hundred thousand person rally, jumping up and down with a pathetic little banner saying ‘but what about me?’
Don’t get me wrong, the last few years have shown that representation and diversity in films definitely work – from Moonlight’s Best Picture win at this year’s Oscars (despite, you know, what happened), to Wonder Woman breaking box office records for a female director. Progression is happening, but that doesn’t mean we can dust our hands and say our job here is done.
You may be reading this and thinking, ‘then why the hell are you whining on a blog instead of doing something?’ I may just be jumping on the bandwagon here by talking about these issues – but that’s the point.
The more people talk about something, the more difficult it is for that issue to be ignored. It may take months, years, decades even. Look how long it took for them to finally have a female doctor on Doctor Who! No matter how long it takes, people won’t give up – history has taught us that.