An online definition describes representation as:
The action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone or the state of being represented. The description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way or as being of a certain nature.
Ok cool. Big whoop. Well, let’s examine the first part of that definition, “the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone”. Doesn’t seem too bad, right? Why are people always harping about this? Imagine, for a second that you have an overbearing mom who must speak for you at all times. Someone asks you if you’d like another slice of cake and your mother chimes in, “No, she doesn’t really like cake. And she’s watching her figure. You know how girls are about their bodies.”. WAIT, WHAT?! NOOOO!!! That’s not how you feel, AT ALL!
Now on to the second part of the definition, “the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way or as being of a certain nature.”. This time let’s use an example that pertains a little more to race. Someone offers you a taco with guacamole, you politely decline because you are allergic and they respond, “What? You can't be allergic to guacamole, you’re Mexican!” Or, you’re at a party and someone looks to you and asks you to demonstrate the latest dance craze, but when you tell them you don’t know it and you’re not a very good dancer they say, “But, you’re Black.”.
These my friends are what we call stereotypes. And they are why representation matters! Stereotypes are perpetuated through media.
We often get information and form our opinions based on things that we see on television, in movies, and in other media. When we see the same sort of things represented over and over, we start to believe that to be the only way things can be. It’s not to say that people do not exist who do indeed fit the stereotype. Yes, a lot of Mexican people DO like guacamole, and a lot of Black people CAN dance. However, the truth is, real people are so much more diverse than a couple of stereotypes and portrayls seen on the screen. A person is not any less of something, simply because they can’t check off all of the stereotype boxes on your survey.
Today I saw a video featuring actors Kerry Washington and Aziz Ansari. In the video they were discussing diversity in Hollywood and how minorities (people of color, women, LGBT, etc) are often pigeon-holed into certain ideals. Aziz summed it up when he said “...you end up with other people’s perceptions of what certain people are like. “.
Kerry Washington, who is a great actress and has held the lead role on one of television's most successful series, for several seasons, has found herself on the losing end as well. She was recast in two different pilot series because she was not “hood” (a.k.a. Black) enough. Of course, not everyone sees the point or even believes that this is a valid example of racism and misrepresentation. If you look at the comments the video received on Variety’s Facebook page, you will see that people felt Kerry was crying wolf and being a spoiled actor.
But is she just reading too much into it? Maybe. But chances are, no. I personally have experienced this, and know a lot of other actors who have as well. I’ve been told I wasn’t “Black” enough for a role, asked if I could be more “urban” and also told that I couldn’t play a Latina, because no one would believe it. :: insert infinite side eye::
It’s a common phenomenon. People basically being told they are not Black enough, Asian enough, Latino enough, gay enough. Even when they in fact, are literally members of those groups.
This is why proper representation matters. Because, we are told that Americans won’t believe that people are actually, WHAT THEY ARE!
Check out the video below and the article in Variety.