Last year, I did a final project on the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. I strayed a bit from the assignment, though, and ended up focusing on the history of LGBTQ+ issues in visual media. The history I learned fascinated me, and I found myself wanting to dig deeper. So this paper was an opportunity for me to learn more about the progress we’ve made in representing marginalized and stigmatized populations, and how far we still need to go.
This paper explores the impact that positive media representation has on the self-esteem and public image of people belonging to the Disabled and LGBTQ+ communities. Research was gathered from various behavioral studies, news articles, trend reports, and firsthand accounts of the issues discussed. The gathered sources provide relevant information about the effects of young people seeing characters in TV and movies that reflect their traits. They also provide statistical data regarding various topics such as diversity of gender identities, sexualities, and disability statuses in various areas of media production. From the information gathered, the conclusion was made that diversity in media is very important for the self-esteem of young people, as well as presenting a more accurate and less biased view of the world. In other words, it is important for people to see both characters similar to themselves and characters very different than themselves.
Keywords: diversity in media, disability in media, media representation, LGBT in media, why representation matters 3
Why Positive Representation of Disabled and LGBTQ+ People In Media Matters
For centuries, people who are different have been excluded. People who don’t look like most everyone else, or don’t believe the same things, or who go beyond social norms to pursue happiness. These people have often been outcasts, devalued and attacked by the local government, and have had to form strong internal connections in order to survive. But even then, their well-being was often dictated by the whims of those in power. People who ostracized them, who – in truth – probably didn’t know very much about them at all. Think of how European colonization forced arbitrary, harmful borders on African nations that had millennia of history. Overall, people are hurt by ignorance. The public having an inaccurate or incomplete knowledge of a population, organization, or culture causes harm to the members of that population, organization, or culture. This has been the case for millennia.
In more recent years, the advancement of technology has allowed knowledge to spread faster and farther than ever before. But though means of spreading information have improved, the people providing the information have changed very little. In visual media such as cartoons, TV series, and movies, minorities are often represented negatively or inaccurately, leading to people who have little exposure to these groups having a skewed perception of them. In particular, the Disabled community suffers from blatant misrepresentation and faulty information about various disorders being presented by popular media. They and the LGBTQ+ community are often demonized by media that hundreds of millions of people consume around the world. This is a serious problem that breeds seemingly endless hate and ignorance toward the people who belong to these groups.
How Media Is Doing Today
Over the past decade or so, there has been a decided increase in positive LGBTQ+ and Disabled representation in media. Many studios and producers have been carefully phasing in characters with autism, lesbian and bisexual characters, deaf or blind characters, characters with low 4 mobility or mental illnesses. Some of these characters help educate viewers, and some are harmful in the way they are written. For instance, a trans woman character who is portrayed as perverted and pushy only strengthens existing negative stereotypes about trans women and is therefore detrimental to progress. Positive representation of LGBTQ+ and Disabled people in media can be anything from simply portraying these people as human to actively having the character go about dismantling harmful systems. What all representation has to have in order to be considered positive, though, is simple: it must be accurate, and it must be honest. Accuracy means script writers doing research and submitting their work for review. Honesty means that the piece of media doesn’t try to trick viewers into seeing a character any certain way. It also means that Disabled characters are played by Disabled actors and LGBTQ+ characters are played by LGBTQ+ actors. In 2016, only 5% of Disabled characters were played by Disabled actors (Wagmeister, 2016).
Note: I use the word “queer” in this essay as a matter of convenience. The term is used as a slur in certain areas and should ALWAYS be used with caution and sensitivity, especially by those who are not part of the LGBTQ+ community.
The phenomenon of misrepresentation may seem like a trivial one on the surface, but with further research, it is found to be a serious issue. To use a different example, think of how white actors used blackface for over a hundred years in minstrel shows and how it distorted the white community’s perception of Black people. Misrepresentation can be used almost as a form of propaganda – the group portraying these characters can say anything they want about the group they’re representing and the audience will likely believe it. Though around 25% of American adults have disabilities according to the CDC (2018), only 3.5% of characters on American TV series had disabilities in 2020 (Deerwater). In addition to being insufficient, much of the representation that exists perpetuates harmful ideas about the people being represented. Raina Deerwater and Megan 5 Townsend – with the Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, an organization that has been fighting for fair representation of LGBTQ+ and other minority groups since 1985 – found that harmful tropes about bisexual+ characters (characters attracted to two or more genders) include “depicting bisexual+ characters as inherently untrustworthy, adulterous, scheming, obsessive, or as having selfdestructive behaviors,” as well as treating bisexual+ relationships as “transactional” and even removing mentions of bi+ identities in their entirety (2020). Representations of Disabled people are significantly worse, likely due to the much longer history of stigma against Disabled people. The wiki TV Tropes, which is dedicated to accurately documenting recurring plot elements in visual media, notes that there is a special breed of “Hollywood autism” which almost exclusively portrays people with autism as “a white, cisgender [someone whose gender matches their birth-assigned sex], heterosexual male” and if the character is an adult, “he’s most likely to be the Idiot Savant [socially awkward but brilliant in a certain field], a creep, or simply a Manchild/Kiddie Kid [incongruently immature]” (Hollywood Autism, 2021). This type of representation is generally unhelpful, since it inaccurately presents aspects of autism and does not display the massive diversity among people with autism. Hundreds of harmful tropes persist because of stigma, tradition, and an unwillingness to risk angering homophobic and ableist audiences.
How Representation Can Help Queer and Disabled People
“’If you see people who look like you and act like you and speak like you and come from the same place you come from … it serves as an inspiration,’” said one teen, quoted by Rawan Elbaba in an article for PBS (2019). The article explores how seeing characters representing a minority that you belong to increases self-esteem. Similarly, being underrepresented leads to lower self-esteem. “’It just makes you feel like, ‘Why don’t I see anybody like me?’ [It] … brings your self-esteem down,’” reported a high schooler in California. A study conducted by researchers with the University of Michigan found that young white boys’ self-esteem was improved when watching popular media, but young girls and people of color were observed to have a lowered self-esteem (Martins, 2011, pp. 338 – 357). This is because of a phenomenon known as symbolic annihilation, “which is the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant,” according to Nicole Martins, one of the study’s authors (Boboltz, 2017). Though this study focuses specifically on race and gender representation, the same principles are true for any marginalized group. The principle of symbolic annihilation applies to children with disabilities and children that are coming to realize that their gender or sexualities aren’t what’s considered “normal”. The conclusion that Martins and Harrison came to in their study proves an important point: that when children see characters sharing traits with them, their self-esteem is improved. This is especially true and especially important for traits that are often criticized or frowned upon by the children’s peers. Media needs to show that being different is not a bad thing.
Windows and Mirrors
When referring to children’s books and media, the terms “window” and “mirror” are often used (Diversity, 2021). A piece of media that is a “window” shows viewers points of view they may be unfamiliar with, such as people from other countries or with different religions. A “mirror” shows viewers characters or perspectives that they themselves identify with, such as people with ADHD seeing characters with ADHD or pansexual people seeing pansexual characters. What each child’s window and mirror media is depends on the child’s background and identity, of course. A young Pakistani girl may see a movie about a white male soccer player and think of it as a window, whereas a white boy would see it as a mirror. Mirror media helps children’s self-esteem by showing them that there are others like them who live peacefully in the world. Window media shows people outside those groups a small part of a new perspective. It helps build empathy, understanding, and a more holistic and accurate view of the diversity of the world. It helps to lessen prejudices formed about groups that children may have no real-life contact with. However, stereotypes in media can – intentionally or unintentionally – create even worse prejudices. Think of how people with Tourette’s syndrome are often portrayed as swearing loudly at inappropriate moments. This is an inaccurate representation of how Tourette’s works and can cause people who don’t know better to be wary or nervous around people who they know have Tourette’s. Similarly, people living with HIV and AIDS are stereotyped and hushed up in media, with only three characters living with HIV/AIDS in the 2020 TV season (Deerwater, 2020) and even the mention of the virus “still treated as taboo,” according to TV Tropes (The disease, 2021). Both windows and mirrors are vital for children to have a healthy view of themselves and the world. Prejudice stems from ignorance, so destroying ignorance leads to lessened prejudices. A Huffington Post article by Boboltz and Yam (2017) found that on-screen stereotypes greatly affect how people see certain groups. “…‘Latinos are violent,’ or ‘Asians are invisible,’ or ‘blacks are this’ or ‘women are that,’…” are all formed by the common portrayals of these groups, and they are all harmful. So it stands to reason that a positive – or at least accurate – portrayal of any given group would help create a more positive or accurate perception of those who belong to the group.
Representation in the Art, Representation in the Artists
Many people have done studies on how seeing oneself represented in popular media improves self-image, but there is still one major problem: those who make the rules are in the small group that always, always sees themselves on screen. It may be hard for white men to realize that there’s a problem with lack of representation, because they have never experienced it. Sandberg with The Hollywood Reporter found that only 32% of Hollywood executives were women and only 8% represented minorities (2020). This being the case, even if every executive in Hollywood made a piece of media that provided a window into their lives, there would still be very little variety represented on screen. That is not to say that all white men have the same life experience, but the small slice of the world that can be seen through any one group’s eyes is severely limited. Moreover, lingering remnants of the Motion Picture Production code – also known as the Hays code, put into effect in 1930 – still cast long shadows over modern media. The Hays code strongly encouraged filmmakers to avoid portraying LGBTQ+ people as happy or good. This led to a long series of harmful 8 tropes about queer people, and many well-known villains deliberately being given traits associated with queerness in order to cast queer people in a negative light. Look at Disney’s The Little Mermaid. The villain Ursula’s visual design was heavily based off of the drag queen Divine (Dart, 2017). This and countless other instances of what is known as queercoding subtly create the perception that LGBTQ+ people have a natural tendency towards vice, unhappiness, and evil.
Hope for the Future
Now, though, one can see how media is beginning to heal. Popular children’s animated series are beginning to have explicit, positive representation of Disabled and queer people. Series like Avatar: The Last Airbender (Nickelodeon), Adventure Time (Cartoon Network), She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix), The Dragon Prince (Netflix), and Steven Universe (Cartoon Network) all contain one or more main characters with disabilities and/or non-straight sexualities. Though these shows are all targeted towards children under 12, an entire generation of queer and Disabled people have clung on to these new characters as lifelines of hope. When a character in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was revealed to have two fathers, the entire LGBTQ+ community was overjoyed and immediately began excitedly discussing the characters and their implications to the show’s meta-narrative. When Steven Universe used multiple queer relationships to explore complex interpersonal dynamics instead of showing simple one-dimensional romances, the community praised the creators of the show for going beyond the baseline definition of positive representation. When a deaf, female general in The Dragon Prince formed a romantic relationship with a woman, people from every part of the Disabled and queer communities were cheering her on and showering the show’s creators with love. All this to say, stories matter to people. They matter a lot. The human race has told stories since they learned to communicate, and it’s often a civilization’s myths and legends that get remembered through the ages. Stories are how people see the world beyond themselves. So it’s important that they see the world as it is. And while viewers have a responsibility to think critically about what they watch, the creators have a greater responsibility. The exclusion and misrepresentation of whole populations of people only upholds and strengthens the stigmas and biases that society has toward oppressed people. Disabled people make up 20% of the population. Yet they are rarely mentioned in media. Queer people have existed just as long as cisgender and heterosexual people. Yet they are stereotyped and stigmatized in the stories people write. People of color, people with different religious beliefs, anyone who isn’t seen as “normal” is hidden and hushed up. It does make a difference. Children grow up thinking that they aren’t right. They think that they are abnormal, or broken, or unlovable. And while there are many reasons why this happens, the effects can be lessened by showing children people like them who aren’t broken. Rick Riordan, the prolific author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, among many others, specifically wrote the main characters with ADHD and dyslexia, because his son had both of those conditions. He wrote heroic characters with disabilities because “’learning differences don’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. In fact, it is a mark of being very special indeed’” (Bell, 2019). Media is improving, but there’s still a long way to go. It’s long past time that the world saw just how incredible the world is. Not the narrow, hyper-focused world that is currently shown, but the whole, wide, vibrant, beautiful variety of human life that exists just behind the screen.
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The disease that shall not be named. (2021, March 14). TV Tropes. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheDiseaseThatShallNotBeNamed
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