What is the power of portrayal? Why is it important that we see ourselves in the pictures, the fiction, and the media that surround us?
Because people define themselves in reaction to, and in relation to, what they perceive around them. All of us are suggestible, to one degree or another. We react to peer pressure, and to social norms.
The messages we send
All creative people should consider the issue of representation. Our creative products, be they songs, visuals, stories, or other things, send messages. I’ve considered aspects of these in two recent posts, Who gets represented, and Owning our “own voices.”
Unfortunately, for many years the only messages our dominant media have been sending about diverse groups are tropes and stereotypes.
While all too many of the reasons for these arise from overt racism, I’m convinced that a lot of them come from a profound lack of awareness by creatives or gatekeepers, and falling back on unthinking clichés. I blogged about this a while back, too.
What kind of clichés am I talking about?
I mean the stock characters that always seem to come with an ethnic tag. The Muslim terrorist. For a long time (at least since 9/11) there’s hardly been any other kind in the US media. The undocumented Mexican. How about the inscrutable Asian? Or the hostile Indian (Native American). The list is seemingly endless, and it skews sharply negative.
Thank goodness, we’re becoming more aware that these are bad. No, I’m not just being “politically correct.” That’s a term invented by easily-frightened people who are afraid of losing their privilege, or at least their perceived “right” not to care how others feel. In an interconnected society like ours, lack of empathy is an insidious social poison.
Negative stereotypes and stock characters are bad because we tend to believe what we see. Even if we are confronted in our daily lives with examples to the contrary, repetition of a negative trope/message can interfere with our perceptions. And believing harmful things about others in our society weakens society as a whole.
The power of portrayal
It’s not “harmless,” just because it’s fiction. On the contrary, we craft fiction for a powerful emotional impact. Negative messages are actually more harmful when when clothed in popular fiction, because of their intensity and reach.
The power of portrayal lies in its pervasive, persuasive impact. Children are more susceptible to harm from negative portrayals, because they are less sophisticated and more impressionable. But negative depictions harm all of us, no matter who we are or what groups we belong to. They tear at the fabric of society, and can devastate self-image.
Bottom line to creative people in all media: educate yourself, so you’re not caught unaware. Understand that you are more powerful than you may think. Respect the power of portrayals in your work.
Many thanks to The Huffington Post, which published the features that provided two of these posts. They are “18 Times Black Actors Nailed Why We Need Representation in Film,” and its sidebar slide show (scroll to the bottom), “16 Times Latinos Were Brutally Honest about Hollywood’s Lack of Diversity.” The quote-image from Sarah Kate Ellis is courtesy of GLAAD.