Lights, Camera, Empathy? By Harper Joseph
Updated: May 7
As a child, I was captivated by the animated series Totally Spies. This series depicts three assertive teenage spies with assertive personalities, impressive combat skills, improbable crime-fighting abilities and fabulous wardrobes. I longed for admission into the World Organization of Human Protection (WOOP); the spy organization for which these teen spies were agents. These young girls solved crimes every day and were well respected and confident. Among the three protagonists, I resonated most with Alex, the only non-white character. Although Alex’s precise racial or ethnic identity was not explicitly disclosed, she presented as a brown-skinned girl, much like myself.
Our media has a huge influence on our modern society. Research indicates that positive representation in the media can have a significant impact on an individual's self-esteem and mental health. Positive representation allows individuals from marginalized communities to see themselves depicted in an authentic light which can lead to feelings of belonging and self-acceptance. Conversely, negative representation perpetuates stereotypes and harmful bias.
The media that we consume from Tik Tok to Fox News has a profound impact on our perceptions of ourselves, others and the world around us; thus, influencing our attitudes, beliefs, and values. Unfortunately, not all representations are created equal. Negative representations within the media can be equally or even more harmful than no representation at all; reinforcing damaging stereotypes of marginalized groups.
Certainly, during the so-called golden age of Hollywood, the depictions of non-white groups within movies demonstrate this very point. When Gone With the Wind was released in 1939, the cartoonish caricatures of the African American enslaved people, particularly the women characters, were painful to watch. These enslaved characters were more concerned about the white characters' comfort than their own enslavement and expressed their sympathies for the Confederate cause. Audiences loved the film so much that it garnered several Academy Awards, particularly for the lead black character played by Hattie McDaniel who expressed during her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards that she was a “ credit to her race”. The Charlie Chan movies of the 1930s and 1940s were a series of insulting films that portrayed Asian Americans in offensive stereotypes with mostly white actors playing the title character. Charlie speaks English in an exaggerated accent while quoting faux-Confucian proverbs. During the 20th century, Americans’ obsession with terrorism flourished and moviegoers were treated to a surge in movies that portray people from the Middle Eastern and Arab countries as terrorists. One of the worst offenders of this trend is the 1994 movie, True Lies. In this film, the Palestinian characters were depicted as violent, crazed, strangely incompetent criminals who were eventually defeated by the white hero. In modern films and television, there is no shortage of movies demonstrating black stereotypes; drug dealers, pimps, con artists, and violent characters are common and often amass tremendous accolades and awards. Movies like Training Day (for which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award), the Wire, (multiple Emmy award winner) and Precious ( for which Monique won an Oscar) are examples.
Positive representation does not entail creating a “ perfect character;” devoid of flaws or issues. (An example of this is the magical negro trope which as described by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher, and recontextualized by Cerise Glenn and Landra Cunningham, two notable professors and authors, is “‘the noble, good-hearted Black man or woman’ whose good sense pulls the White character through a crisis.”). The magical negro’s only purpose is to serve/help the white protagonist. Juxtapose the magical negro trope with a more realistic view of non-white characters. The new Netflix show Beef features two individuals embroiled in an ongoing feud following a road rage incident. The show creates three-dimensional characters who just happen to be Asian- Americans.
The proof is in the pudding: studies show the benefits of representation in the media. A survey by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that Girls and Women who saw more female characters in media were more likely to believe that they could achieve anything they wanted in life. A study published in the Journal of Social Issues found that exposure to positive media portrayals of Black people led to a decrease in implicit racial bias among White participants. Research by the American Psychological Association has shown that positive media representation of people with disabilities can improve attitudes toward disability and increase support for policies that benefit people with disabilities and a survey by the Asian American Advertising Federation found that 76% of Asian Americans believe that positive representation in media helps promote understanding and acceptance of their community.
These studies demonstrate positive representation is imperative for building a more equitable and inclusive society. It is incumbent upon us to demand accurate and authentic representation of marginalized communities in all forms of media to dismantle harmful stereotypes and biases and promote empathy among all individuals.