Media Representations: What Are They and Why Do They Matter?

Sep 29, 2017

I grew up in Mexico City, Mexico. When I was younger, I would watch telenovelas with my friend Fernanda after school. We would both sit on her white, fur rug, our backpacks flung across the room.

For an hour every day, I saw all the women I could be: a ranchera keeping my land safe from a dastardly uncle, a time traveler, a queen. All the possibilities were in front of me.

 


I moved back to the United States in middle school. I watched television, but it lacked the color and excitement of the telenovelas I was used to in Mexico. The only Latinas that showed up in the shows I watched were gardeners or maids. I felt invisible and lost. It wasn’t until recently when I saw shows like “One Day at a Time” and “Jane the Virgin” that I felt like that kid watching telenovelas again.

A young Elena Rivera in Mexico City holding a "dream house" toy.

Media representations are when people see themselves reflected in the things they watch, read, listen to and engage with every day. This is the experience I missed when I moved from Mexico to the United States. It’s also something Keah Brown, a writer from New York, experienced as a child watching "Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella" with Brandy and Whitney Houston.

“It meant a lot to me see black women being treated like princesses and being desirable and worthwhile enough to fall in love,” said Brown. “And I think that's very important but at the same time we have a long way to go. I don't know any proper representation of disabled black women. I haven't seen that yet.”

Media representations are the main focus of Lisa Behm-Morowitz’s research at the University of Missouri. She is an associate professor of communication and is involved in the Media and Diversity Center on campus.

“(At the Media and Diversity Center), we’re interested in studying the ways that mediated portrayals may influence people’s perceptions of certain social groups,” said Behm-Morowitz.

Behm-Morowitz said seeing certain groups in media help people form their thoughts and ideas about those groups.

“If you think about it, you have limited contact with diverse groups in maybe your daily activities. And a lot of our contact, if you want to call it that, comes from media representations,” said Behm-Morowitz.

The researchers at the Media and Diversity Center help people with media literacy, to be more critical consumers of the things they watch. Behm-Morowitz said it’s important to seek out characters and stories that aren’t easy or stereotypical.

“An example of this might be ABC’s show Blackish, where I think there is a fairly nuanced portrayal of different types of issues--social issues, economic issues--that black Americans might experience,” said Behm-Morowitz.

Network executives and film producers are understanding the need for a more diverse set of characters, she said, but there’s still a long way to go.

In the meantime, people are creating their own media to see themselves represented. That’s what inspired RJ Lackie, a writer and web series creator from Toronto.

“I can't say I've saw any, really, depictions of gay characters that felt like real representation,” Lackie said. “It may not have even been until 2014 when HBO's "Looking" came out that I really saw a character that really resonated with that part of my identity and made me feel seen.”

He said this lack of representation made him dedicated to writing gay characters into his work.

“It's one of the reasons why as a screenwriter I want to make stories that have specifically gay main characters because we deserve to be at the center of things once and awhile,” Lackie said. “All marginalized people do.”

This week's show was produced by Erin McKinstry. Music for this week's episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions (Tuck and Point, available under CC BY-NC 4.0).