DIVERSE STORIES ARE BETTER STORIES
According to the US Census, about 40 percent of the country is composed of people of color—in Hollywood’s world, however, only a quarter of all characters are non-white, and something isn’t adding up.
“We live in this community where popular media is catered to white, cisgender, straight, and able-bodied people, especially men,” Joey Freeman, a CU Denver English major, said. “Positively representing minorities in media acknowledges that they do exist and they are important. It allows them to look up to someone just like them and show them that it’s okay to be who they are.”
Unfortunately, many minority groups are given hardly any material to love and identify with. According to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), less than five percent of characters on TV in 2016 were identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community, which is the highest that rate has ever been. The list of media representation gets more depressing as it goes on. A report from The Media, Diversity, & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that, in 2015, less than two and a half percent of characters in film had a disability. The same study showed that only 28 percent of characters were non-white, and barely 33 percent of characters were women.
In case it wasn’t obvious enough, here it is spelled out: women make up half the world’s population, but are only represented as a third of the world’s population in TV and movies.
Minority characters in TV and movies are also negatively stigmatized, abused, and killed on TV shows and movies for what people have started to call the “trauma porn” genre. The minority characters are typically built up to be very genuine, kind, and well-mannered characters in order to get the audience to grow attached to them, after which they are beaten down to their last grain of sanity or physical strength, and usually killed. One trend within the trauma porn genre is called the “bury your gays” trope, in which gay characters are killed off for shock value.
This past October, a new sports anime about figure skating—Yuri!!! On Ice—premiered and, as its opening song implies, ‘made history’ by having an openly gay and interracial relationship between two main characters on Japanese television.
A lot of shows—sports animes in particular—are guilty of queerbaiting viewers by writing characters to appear stereotypically queer without following through in the show. Yuri!!! On Ice, however, stunned the audience by doing the opposite; there was very little queer coding aside from the romantic interactions between the two main characters, and by making the focus of the show the skaters’ careers, it proved that gay people don’t need to be hair-flipping, scarf-wearing, and flamboyant to be gay.
The main characters’ relationship wasn’t the only feature of interest that had fans hooked on the show. Both men, Viktor Nikiforov and Yuuri Katsuki, suffered from mental illnesses that were directly addressed throughout the course of the show. Viktor had depression and Yuuri had severe anxiety and panic attacks.
Many mentally ill queer fans have latched onto these characters like a lifeline. Their narrative is far different than the many others spun out for queer characters on TV. The show doesn’t focus on the trials and tribulations of being a queer person; it’s about figure skating and love of all different kinds, and one of those kinds just happens to be between two men. There are no painful coming out stories, no family disownment, and absolutely no gay people are killed. The characters are relatable to queer people without making the story about how horribly and painful it is to be a queer person.
Another trope is called “disposable women,” in which female characters are killed off to motivate the male lead’s plot and character development.
A list of minority character deaths which occurred for no significant reason includes: Poussey Washington (Orange is the New Black), a black lesbian; Lexa (The 100), a lesbian; Queen Ygraine (Merlin); Mary Winchester (Supernatural); Abbie Mills (Sleepy Hollow), a black woman; Larry Blaisdell (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), a gay man; Michael Corrigan (House of Cards), a black gay man; and about a thousand more.
These characters can further the plot and the diversity of the show without being killed off for shock value. Poussey Washington’s death aired in the midst of the growing Black Lives Matter movement and was supposedly meant to show solidarity. However, rather than having the show’s characters host a rally or the show creators coming together to give a message of gratitude for those in need, they killed yet another black person. The major problem with this kind of representation is that it tells the people who identify with these characters that they are expendable if it benefits someone else, and real life tells them this enough already.
“When roles are given to people in media that aren’t accurate representations or aren’t representation at all, it leaves an entire perspective out,” Beck Mayhew, an MSU Denver student, said. “We already live in a society where rights aren’t given to real people in those marginalized communities. When inaccurate narratives are shown to the majority group, it makes them think that a more diverse population doesn’t exist and doesn’t deserve rights or recognition. Putting focus and value on marginalized communities gives them more power, which is the reason that a lot of people don’t do it.”
However, creating diverse stories has caused a problem when it comes to casting actors to fill those roles. Doctor Strange, a new Marvel movie, recently came out and met strong audience backlash when it was discovered that the Tibetan characters were cast as white and other non-Asian actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, the two leads.
This act of whitewashing is nowhere near an isolated event in Hollywood, and it occurs in other formats as well; there is a growing trend of casting cisgender actors to play transgender roles and having straight actors play queer characters, and the worst part is that the actors are applauded for their bravery in taking on such “controversial” jobs. Offenders include Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club), Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games), and dozens more.
“People shouldn’t be able to proclaim that stories include a transgender narrative unless there’s a transgender actor filling that role,” Mayhew said. “The same goes for narratives that are meant for people of color, or disabled people. Getting proper representation is a big step toward getting positive representation.”
Society’s lacking representation of minority groups is what makes shows like Yuri!!! On Ice such a fantastic reprieve. The creator, Kubo Mitsurou, tweeted a few weeks before the show’s finale, “No matter what everyone in the real world thinks of this work, the world within it will remain a place where there will be no discrimination for what you love. I will protect that world, no matter what it takes, even if it’s the last thing I do.”
She stood astoundingly true to her word to the last episode. The show was, at its core, happy, and clearly intended to make the LGBTQ+ community feel welcome.
“Seeing yourself in media is so important for validating your identity and coming to love and accept yourself,” Mayhew said. Having positive representations of marginalized groups is about more than proving to majority groups that minorities exist outside of their stereotypes. There’s more to representation than sticking a few people of color, queer people, and women in the backgrounds of movies and television shows. Allowing young people to grow up and be inspired by fictional characters that look like them and feel like them gives those kids the ability to think, “If they can be successful, strong, and happy, then I can, too.”