While we recognize the limitations of any singular blog post’s ability to answer big questions like the ones we’re asking, our intention is not to tell you everything there is to know about this issue, but rather to open up a space for conversation, reflection, curiosity, and a consideration of all the other questions this one question sets in motion.
How do we see ourselves represented in the media?
by: Maddie Stewart
Identity is defined as “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” Many things go into the making of a person’s identity, including their gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, political orientation, religious beliefs, age, physical/personality attributes, etc.
Although each of these aspects certainly matter in determining individual identity, it is almost impossible to accurately understand someone’s feelings of self worth and their experience of being in the world based solely on these attributes. This tick-box list of identity categories can lead to us seeing each other as caricatures, rather than as unique individuals with nuanced ways of identifying and relating to the world around us. There is also a risk that in prioritizing group identity as the most important feature(s) of a person, we begin to lose the ability to judge people first and foremost as individuals, based on their deeds and actions, not based on the deeds of their parents or where those parents were born, their zip code, skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. This is the principle of individual liberty, upon which the concept and functioning of liberal democracy relies. We are each complex creatures, shaped by a lifetime of experiences that give each individual a depth to who they are that may not easily meet the eye. At American Canary, we think that this complexity of individual personhood should also be factored into how we think about representation in the media.
With the rise of social media, it has arguably become easier to connect with others and to find groups of people that share a similar “identity” to you. People look for their own attributes in others throughout the media. We tend to gravitate towards those that are like ourselves but on a more complex level than “she is a white person that also went to college”. I gravitate towards people and characters that resemble who I am as a person in society, and I often identify with people in the media that don’t relate to me on my deepest level, but that may relate to my family life or age. I try to find these common traits and use them to make a connection between myself and these people or characters. But in mainstream media people are still presented using stereotypes that can lack the complexity that goes into forming one’s identity.
When thinking about my personal experience being represented in the media, numerous characteristics come to mind. I constantly see people that look like me in the media, from skin color to education level. I am fortunate enough to be a part of a class and race that is heavily represented in a relatively positive light; however there are other aspects of myself that I see underrepresented. The underrepresented aspect of my identity that comes to mind is the representation of mental health in the media.
I feel like mental health isn’t as stigmatized in the media as it once was, but when it’s talked about, it’s done in a more superficial way. And although positive, it doesn’t go into the realities of dealing with a mental health disorder that could potentially help people relate to one another on a deeper level. I don’t see posts about how your vision goes dark and your hands cramp up when you have a panic attack. Or how you can have a million thoughts racing through your mind even though it just looks like you’re staring off into space. Media doesn’t show my mental health reality or that of someone with Major Depressive Disorder. How some days it can feel nearly impossible to speak to another person or get out of bed in the morning, where is that character amongst the millions depicted?
Media helps me pretend. As a media professional, I know it can potentially cause more harm than good. But as a 22 year old, I can understand the appeal of pretending to have a perfect life. I thrive off of the gratification of likes and comments when in reality, I have no idea what I’m doing with my life. It helps keep up the mask that I’ve tried so hard to create and escape the reality of the current struggles I’m facing.
We hide a lot of ourselves online, and often the parts that we do share are those that neatly fit into group identity categories (i.e. “as a cis, white, female..”) that can be somewhat generic and unrevealing of our inner selves; which is part of why it can be hard to identify with others in the media on a deeper level. In order for me to be completely real on social media, I’d have to give in to the vulnerability that I’ve tried for years to hide. I’ve always tried to be genuine about my mental health, but I manage to do so in a light-hearted and funny way. I’ve always struggled to be vulnerable with others. I’d rather be perceived a certain way, as talkative, bubbly, and fun. I’ve tried hard to make that my personality, especially in the media, and to hide what happens when I’m alone. I wish I could say that I’m strong enough to accept that part of myself and be more open about it because maybe it would help others, but I fear that maybe it would just change the way people see me instead.
By digging deeper into one’s own self and being honest about what parts of ourselves we look for in the representations we see online, or the parts of ourselves we feel we have to hide online, we could connect around the complexity and imperfection of being human. For some people, the part of themselves at the forefront of how they are able to show up in the world is the mental health battle they are fighting that day. For others, it will likely be something entirely different. We shouldn’t presume to know what representation in the media looks or feels like for each individual person based on what parts of them we can most easily identify. Adding this layer of depth to what representation in the media looks like might allow for the creation of an even more inclusive media landscape, one in which each person’s individuality, vulnerability, and complexity is celebrated, not filtered out.
actions to take
Seek out diverse media.
Question the nature of representation of others.
Share your experience with us!
Connect with an AC member for a one on one chat.
questions to consider
What parts of your identity are well represented, underrepresented or misrepresented?
How does it impact you when you see media that misrepresents one of your identity groups?
What type of stereotypes show up in the media you consume?
What ways do you diversify your media consumption?
The Importance of Representation in Media
Racial Identity and Media Orientation: Exploring the Nature of Constraint – Jessica L. Davis, Oscar H. Gandy, 1999
Minorities and representation in TV and film – statistics & facts
More Evidence TV Doesn’t Reflect Real Life Diversity