Why does it matter?
Let’s let psychologists and sociologists answer this one.
The media has an incredible opportunity to shape the course of human psychology. By portraying characters from a wide range experiences—be that about gender, ethnicity, physicality, or age—as unique characters, rather than a representation of the entire community from which that character arises, it is possible to shift our unconscious pull to fit people who come from dissimilar backgrounds into narrow categories.
Seeing “others” portrayed with the full range of human experience makes it difficult to separate people into “me” and “not me.” The more writers, directors, and producers create characters from a variety of backgrounds and represent their experiences as the norm, the more these characters are given voice in major motion pictures, the more we will identify as "the other" as "us."
Since the 1960s, research has found expressions of unequal power in media that, according to Michael Morgan, can be “very dangerous” and “very damaging” to people watching.
“I think the moral argument is self-evident. Stories matter,” Morgan, former professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of dozens of reports on media effects, told HuffPost.
“Stories affect how we live our lives, how we see other people, how we think about ourselves.”
“When you don’t see people like yourself,” Morgan echoed, “the message is: You’re invisible. The message is: You don’t count. And the message is: ‘There’s something wrong with me.’”
“Over and over and over, week after week, month after month, year after year, it sends a very clear message, not only to members of those groups, but to members of other groups, as well,” he said.
“Entertainment provides the seeds under which these things make sense to people, because they’ve seen a thousand images of ‘Latinos are violent,’ or ‘Asians are invisible,’ or ‘blacks are this’ or ‘women are that,’ so it is so easy to exploit,” Morgan said, “because it’s a knee-jerk reaction. It’s this, ‘Oh yes, yes, of course. I know that.’”
In a 1976 paper titled “Living with Television,” researchers George Gerbner and Larry Gross coined the term with a chilling line: “Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.”
“There’s this body of research and a term 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.”
Dana Mastro states, “Although diversity in casting finally seems to be on the radar for the broadcast networks this year, the idea that this marks the start of an enduring shift in the quantity and quality of portrayals for all racial and ethnic groups is probably still a bit optimistic.” Her content analysis of the 2013-2014 primetime season found that only 2.9% of the primetime TV population was Latino.
Mastro said that how groups are represented in the media plays a critical role in matters “ranging from the construction and maintenance of racial/ethnic cognitions to policy decision making.” The importance of media comes from the intersection of two trends, Mastro noted: On the one hand, the continuing self-segregation of our schools, neighborhoods and lifestyles and, on the other, our deep immersion in media, particularly though not entirely in television. The result, she said, is that “much of our interaction with other groups comes vicariously, substituting for the lack of direct experience.”
Peter A Leavitt and colleagues show how the virtual absence of Native Americans in the media undermines their self-understanding by homogenizing Native American identity, creating narrow and limited “identity prototypes.” On the rare occasions they are depicted, Native Americans tend to be placed in an historical context—think Pocahontas—or shown as poor, uneducated and prone to addictions. With few positive images to counteract these stereotypes, Native Americans may come to identify with the negative images “simply because one representation is better than no representation.”
Michelle Ortiz and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz show that watching English-language television tends to increase Latinos’ estimation of the amount of prejudice and discrimination they face. Latinos who primarily watch Spanish-language programming tend to believe there is less discrimination than those who watch English television. There is one caveat: Latinos who believe Anglophone depictions of Latinos are accurate tend not to be as vexed by those depictions as those who do not.
Toni Schmader and her colleagues found that stereotypes not only affect the majority, but induce negative feelings among the targeted minority. In two experiments, they found that stereotypical depictions of Mexican Americans made Mexican Americans feel a mixture of shame, guilt, anger, and general self-consciousness. “If a brief, five-minute exposure to a negative caricature is enough to shape attitudes of Mexican Americans toward their own group, imagine what a lifetime of exposure to such stereotypes can do,” said volume co-editor Mastro.
Research shows that prejudice arises out of our discomfort with ambiguity. When we come upon a new situation, we are driven to make sense of it quickly and efficiently. This means we rely on our previous experiences, along with broad social categories to make snap decisions when encountering people who are different from us. Often, these judgements are happening outside of our conscious awareness.
In the media, white individuals have represented the “default” human experience.
Caucasian characters display a wide range of emotional, intellectual, psychological and sexual experiences. Meanwhile, non-white individuals have often been relegated to narrow categories—allowed to reflect only a small window of the human experience. When people of color are on the screen at all, they play the best friend, the whacky gas station attendant, the violent gangster or the exotic foreigner. They are defined not by their humanity, but by a set of stereotypical behaviors.
Each year, researchers at the University of Southern California publish a report which examines the portrayals of race and gender in film and film production. From 2007-2014, 75% of the characters portrayed were white. Because of our unconscious inclination to categorize others, when anyone sets out to tell the stories of non-white characters, there is a pull to label a unique character’s experience as the “ethnic” experience, as opposed to simply “Marc’s experience” or “Maya’s experience.”
Carlos Cortes, a historian who wrote the book The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach About Diversity, offered an important example in a 1987 article of what happens when it’s lacking: During an episode of the game show The $25,000 Pyramid, he wrote, two contestants linked the word “gangs” with East LA. Why? Because of the way mass media operates. When the only portrayals audiences see of minority characters are negative—in this case, he was talking about Latino gangs in East LA that were featured prominently by news media—those portrayals transcend to public image, he noted.
“First, whether intentionally or unintentionally, both the news and the entertainment media 'teach' the public about minorities, other ethnic groups and societal groups, such as women, gays, and the elderly,” Cortes wrote. “Second, this mass media curriculum has a particularly powerful educational impact on people who have little or no direct contact with members of the groups being treated. Minorities realize—supported by research—that the media influence not only how others view them, but even how they view themselves.”
Sadly, little has changed since the 80s. A 2011 study conducted by The Opportunity Agenda found that black males in media are usually portrayed negatively, limited to a handful of “positive” stereotypes, painted as flat characters, or missing altogether. (Last year’s USC Annenberg report, for example, found that a quarter of the 900 movies analyzed didn’t have even one speaking or named black character.) Audiences—especially those with little exposure to those outside of their community—typically equate these limited, and harsh, media representations with the real world. That, in turn, can lead to “less attention from doctors to harsher sentencing by judges, lower likelihood of being hired for a job or admitted to school, lower odds of getting loans, and a higher likelihood of being shot by police,” the authors write.
The report also found that black males themselves were impacted by these media portrayals: “Negative media stereotypes (thugs, criminals, fools, and the disadvantaged) are demoralizing and reduce self-esteem and expectations,” they write, adding that they can also create stress and “drain cognitive resources in some contexts.”