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Why Media Representation Matters: As Told By A Straight White Man

By Petr Knava | Think Pieces | January 12, 2017 |

By Petr Knava | Think Pieces | January 12, 2017 |

See that picture up there? That’s Jason Segel and Paul Rudd in a still from the 2009 comedy, I Love You, Man.

It’s a goddamn funny movie.

It’s also a pretty damn white movie. A pretty white, straight, cis, middle class type of movie.

And I don’t know if you’ve noticed: there’s a lot of those about.

And there is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with that. But in a closed, finite media ecosystem, it is significant.

Why am I bringing this up now?

Because Diego Luna.

Now I know that sometimes ‘because Diego Luna’ can be enough of an answer to any question in and of itself, at least according to some of my illustrious colleagues. But that isn’t the extent of it here. No, instead my focus is a Tweet that Luna posted not long ago which made its way around the internet. The Tweet was about media representation, and it got me thinking. For those of you who haven’t seen it, here it is again:

Media representation. That idea of seeing people that look like you—that are like you—in the stories you consume, whether fiction or non-fiction, behind the camera or in front, is a hot topic of discussion these days. Has been for some time, really. It’s been covered eloquently by a wide variety of voices. Voices who are actually on the butt end of certain forms of structural privilege, and can thus speak to it directly. There’s a particularly good piece by Eric Anthony Grollman, in which he sums up an aspect of representation with aplomb:

[…]seeing oneself reflected in the media is crucial, particularly in the face of prejudice, discrimination, and the constant barrage of invalidating comments and actions. In fact, there was a recent study featured in the media this summer that finds evidence of a self-esteem boosting effect of television for white boys, but self-esteem damaging effects for white girls, black girls, and black boys. One primary reason? White boys see lots of white boys and men in the shows they watch. And, not just that, but they regularly see these characters and actors in positive, powerful, and central roles. This is less so the case for other kids.

Though less frequent for members of minority groups, to see a face or body that looks like your own is powerful in its effect to simply validate you as a worthy human being. […] I am not ashamed to admit that I get this feeling in terms of race and ethnicity in the media, but also sexuality. To not only see LGBT people on my television screen — again, I emphasize positive portrayals — but to see them loved by others, or in love, is sometimes emotionally overwhelming because these images are new to me. I am disappointed, however, that I have to feel such joy just to see someone who looks like me — a joy whites, men, heterosexuals, and other privileged groups do not experience because their representation is the norm and, as a result, their presence is treated as the default.

For quite some time now these have seemed to be pretty clear, common sense ideas. And with people expressing them in such candid, touching, well thought out ways, it has felt as if a straight, white, cis man such as myself elbowing his way into the conversation might be unnecessary at best, harmful at worst.

Shit, what personal insight could I add to the subject? What examples could I bring up of not seeing myself represented—or even worse, ridiculed or repressed—in the media I consume? Essentially, none. And even if there were some examples that I could think, current power structures being what they are in the world mean that ‘I’ hold all the cards anyway. Mock a white man if you wish, but if you don’t have world-spanning systems of oppression and privilege behind that mockery it will remain fundamentally toothless. So I have not elbowed. My empathy, preferable though it may be to its opposite, could risk coming across as cold and clinical, akin to analytical reasoning from a distance. I have chosen instead to mostly hold my tongue. And here it should be repeated—lest reactionaries react as they often do—that this is not due to an externally imposed restriction, or a internalised, mouth-stilling terror. It is not born out of a fear of being shouted down; it comes from a desire of giving others the room to shout.

Rather than pretend to understand what it’s like to be on the opposite end of the hierarchy of privilege, I thought it’d more interesting to approach the question of ‘Why does media representation matter?’ from a different angle. It is the same angle used by those in the examples given above: personal experience. It could even be called a selfish one if we were playing with semantics. But let’s roll with it and see where we land.

So, as a straight, white, cis male, why should media representation matter to me?

Fucking boredom, man!

I mean, yeah, yeah, empathy and justice and egalitarianism and all that wishy washy leftist nonsense, but—fuck, how many times can I watch a movie or read a book about people who look and act just like me; who the world treats in fundamentally the same ways as it treats me; whose experiences—minor fluctuations on a relatively small spectrum and slight variances in flavour of commonalities aside—will basically be identical to mine? How many fucking times can I do that before my brain turns to mush and starts slopping out of my ears, dripping onto the couch as I sit in a living room whose walls shrink in the same way as my conceptual horizons?

Ideas and perspectives work much the same way as genes: spread that shit apart, and watch the healthy creations that bloom. Narrow the pool, and the opposite occurs.

Just as the erosion of the patriarchy and traditional gender roles liberates men as well as women, so too does the opening up of the mirror that is the media to other perspectives benefit everyone. I have spent my entire life surrounded by stories about people I could immediately and viscerally relate to, because they were populated by characters, by heroes, that looked like me. The sheer volume and variety of these stories meant that my youthful imagination could take me to a limitless number of places. I could become anyone, said the stories, and I—deep down inside—would believe it. Like it or not, when the brain is still developing, simple stimuli like similarity and familiarity are the ones that we respond to. If you grow up seeing representations of yourself achieve things, ambition and possibility become hardwired in your psyche, instead of self-doubt and fear. Yes, there are vast and deep material structures in place that limit social mobility, but the control of representation remains a very powerful weapon in the arsenal of systemic oppression.

Put it this way: As a straight, white, cis dude, it’ll always be my choice if I want to watch I Love You, Man for the 98th time on the next drunk Saturday night. Those movies are not going anywhere. But with a greater degree of media representation out there I’ll also have the choice of experiencing things from worlds I might never have otherwise even glimpsed, and suddenly not only is my evening brightened and my mind enriched, but the sum of human experience, multiplying exponentially as it does when shared, shoots through the roof.

And if that’s not win-win I don’t know what the hell is.

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.

Header Image Source: DreamWorks Pictures