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Representation Matters

Representation and social transformation

The Artdog Quotes of the Week

How does representation play a role in social transformation? Last week’s Monday post explored stereotypes and the power of portrayal. Now let’s tackle social transformation.

Make no mistake. Society is always transforming. Social change happens, whether we want it to or not. And individually we can’t control how it changes. 

This quote from Ellen DeGeneres says, "Whenever people act like gay image in the media will influence kids to be gay, I want to remind them that gay children grew up with only straight people on television."
No, the creators of content can’t change basic facts of human existence. But we can affect how people think about those facts, for well or ill. (This quote-image featuring Ellen DeGeneres is courtesy of FCKH8 on Twitter).

One person’s efforts rarely provide a huge pivot point, unless that one person speaks for thousands, and society was ripe for the change. Case in point: #MeTooThat one was way overdue!

What kind of future do you want?

We can’t control the changes. But we can affect how things change. 

What kind of future do you want? As creative people, we make art that comments on how things are and how things could be. If you think a more broadly representative world would be more fair and interesting, reflect that in your art.

Subverting the stereotypes

If you think harmful stereotypes should be questioned, treat them like the clichés they are. Turn them inside out. Subvert them. Transform them into something fresh and unexpected and better

This quote from Rosie Perez reads, "I started calling people on their stuff. I'd say, 'listen, things have to change. How come I keep getting 50 million offers to play the crack ho?' And I challenged them on it, and initially, oh my God, the negative response was horrific."
It can take guts to “call people on their stuff” and challenge stereotypes. But artistic integrity demands it. (This quote-image from Rosie Perez is courtesy of The Huffington Post).

That’s just basic sound practice–but you’re also making a statement by the way you make the transformation. 

Please note that this approach requires awareness. Creative people fall into tropesclichés and stereotyped thinking when they don’t recognize them for what they are. We all have unconscious biases. But we owe it to ourselves, our work, and our fans to learn about them and challenge them.

Representation and social transformation

Wider and more diverse representation is essential to the social transformations that I would love to see come about. I have my own ways to portray that, particularly in the stories I write. 

This quote from Gina Rodriguez says, "I became an actor to change the way I grew up. The way I grew up, I never saw myself on the screen. I have two older sisters. One's an investment banker. The other one is a doctor, and I never saw us being played as investment bankers. And I realized how limiting that was for me. I would look at the screen and think, 'Well, there's no way I can do it, because I'm not there.'"
Artists need to seize the power of portrayal. (This quote-image from Gina Rodriguez is courtesy of The Huffington Post).

There are as many possible approaches as there are artists. Some, such as those in the Solarpunk movement, seek to portray the benefits of positive future change. 

Writers, artists, filmmakers and others with a more dystopic bent often dramatize how badly things can go wrong. Perhaps as a cautionary tale. Or because they’re pessimists. Or because conflict is inherent in a dystopic plotline.

Everyone takes an individual path, because each of us has our own unique voice. We must let the world hear our visions, presented from our own perspectives, in our own voices.

What values do you seek to embrace? What negative outcomes do you hope we avoid? 

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to  FCKH8 on Twitter and The Huffington Post for the quote-images in this post.

Representation Matters

The power of portrayal

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

This quote from Salma Hayek says, "It's hard. They go by stereotypes. sometimes it's hard to put me in a box. I am so many things . . . [but] in their head, I'm not quite the typical Latin woman, in many ways, or the typical Arab woman, or the typical American woman, so it's hard for them to pin me."
This quote-image from Salma Hayek is courtesy of The Huffington Post.

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

This quote from Nate Parker says, "So few [roles for black men have] integrity. As a black man, you leave auditions not hoping you get the job but wondering how you explain it to your family if you do."
Many thanks to The Huffington Post for this quote-image from Nate Parker.

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?

In this quote, Rita Moreno says, "I made movies for a long time when I was young and I always had to have an accent. But that wasn't the worst problem. If I played a Latina, I always had to be too sexy and too easy. I hated that."
Rita Moreno has been dealing with negative stereotypes for decades. It’s not a new problem. (Quote-image courtesy of The Huffington Post).

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.

This quote from Octavia Spencer says, "Little kids need to be able to turn on the TV and see real-world representations of themselves. Who cares if the lead is an Asian male? If this is the best actor for that role, why does the role have to be indicative of a person's ethnicity?"
Many thanks to The Huffington Post for this quote-image from Octavia Spencer.

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.

In her quote, Sarah Kate Ellis says, "When the most repeated ending for a queer woman is violent death, producers must do better to question the reason for a character's demise and what they are really communicating to the audience."
Many thanks to GLAAD, for this quote-image from Sarah Kate Ellis.

IMAGE CREDITS: 

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.

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