Representation: seeing more people like me

By Evelyn Gonzalez ‘18
Feminism Columnist

When I was seven, the first Cheetah Girls movie was released and, like most other seven-year-olds, I was excited by the prospect of a singing girl group (boy bands were just not my thing back then). As an adolescent girl, I was drawn in by the promise of friendship and flashy dance numbers, but besides these obviously necessary aspects of a hit motion picture, there was something about the movie that really clicked for me. It was not until recently that I realized what exactly made this movie so memorable and important — not only for myself, but for so many of its viewers. It was the first time I remember seeing someone like me in mainstream media.
Representation in all forms is essential in helping to create a society that accurately portrays the world we live in. As Marian Wright Edelman states, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” The media continually bombards us with certain repetitive images that somehow are supposed to represent our life and, however subtly, influence how we view the world. However, more often than not, the media does not equally distribute screen time or word counts for all varieties of people. It is empowering to be recognized — not only that, but deemed significant enough to be shown that who we, regardless of race, matters. We do not have to go through life feeling like abnormalities, because proper representation allows us to move away from the white state that makes up the majority of the media. Seeing people who represent us in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation and even values becomes a powerful source of validation. It helps to affirm our own identities and makes it possible for us to regard other people like ourselves with a sense of unity. It provides us the opportunity to see that there are people who are in situations just like ours, who can become our role models and who can show us that our dreams are not far-fetched but can become a reality.
Representation is important but, like with most other things in media, it should be taken with a pinch of salt. As consumers of media, we should be conscious about understanding whose narratives are being told and by whom. We must make certain that representation is being done in a positive and constructive way. It is vital that we avoid media that includes pseudo forms of representation. Orange is the New Black was such a success in part because we got to explore these racially diverse women’s inner lives in a way that did not exploit them. Do not confuse shows whose only goal is to try to fill a certain quota with shows that genuinely want to explore true diversity.  More often than not, what happens in these situations is that archetypes are created: the gay best friends are displayed like trophies, blacks are placed among a white cast to show “diversity,” and the foreign actors’ language barriers become a comedic source of entertainment. These portrayals perpetuate negative typecasts and force people to become mere stereotypes of themselves. The only way to know if representation is genuine is if it looks at you and says, “I know you exist. I know you are important, too.”