Over the last few years, a large push has been made in the media towards increasing “representation.” It’s led to a fixation — maybe even obsession — with race and color.
As a minority woman, I’m here to say that you’ll be happier and more fulfilled if you aren’t consumed by thinking about your race or color or how many characters in media resemble you.
Growing up, I was one of two Mexican kids in my elementary Catholic school, located in the midwestern United States, and most of my friends were white. While that’s distressing enough for some school boards to limit the school choice of parents, in favor of ethnic diversity, it didn’t bother me. I looked a bit different from other kids at school, but at the end of the day, everyone looks different from each other. (It’d actually be uncanny for everyone to look the same.) I felt representation from characters who didn’t necessarily look like me, but had the same interests and fears, and I felt inspiration from those who had good character, abilities, and talents that I wanted to exemplify and have for myself.
It unsettles me to see the hyper-fixation on race and color, as if that’s a requirement in order to feel a connection to someone or something. You’re better able to enjoy things and draw inspiration if you remove such a fixation from your life.
Good Stories and Characters Transcend Race and Time
When I was a little girl (and still now) my favorite Disney Princess movie was Mulan. The scene where Mulan takes her father’s sword to cut off her hair still brings a tear to my eye, and when I first saw it as a child, it inspired me enough to cut off my own hair (those were my first, and worst, bangs in my life).
It didn’t bother me that my favorite princess didn’t look like me. And frankly, it doesn’t bother me now that there isn’t a Latina princess yet. What matters more to me is having a good story that inspires not just me, to be a better version of myself, but also the children in my life and eventually my own. What good is a character if they’re written with no flaws, just because they’re black, Asian, or Latino? There’s nothing to learn from a character like that, and how interesting are they to actually watch?
What good is a character if they’re written with no flaws, just because they’re black, Asian, or Latino?
The push in media for increased representation has led to a hyper-fixation on race. For some individuals, if the character isn’t black, or if there aren’t any black people in a story, it’s automatically a very bad thing.
Stories centered around white characters — such as the recent Greta Gerwig adaptation of Little Women — have been attacked precisely for being centered around white characters or middle-class (a.k.a. “privileged”) characters. One review from the National Review claims that the film “romanticizes white privilege” and that “casual racism is merely the start of its problems.” The Mary Sue asks why the remake needs to be as white as the original.
In the example of Little Women, the story focuses on a white American family. Not particularly wealthy, but doing well enough for themselves. The story follows four sisters coming of age. The sphere of characters is incredibly small and limited to the family, the love interests of the sisters, and their close family friend Laurie. This is arguably the best way to keep the focus on each sister’s individual story and experience. If there were many more characters, the focus wouldn’t be so much on the four sisters. The film evokes a sense of closeness. When watching it, I fell in love with the characters and felt very attached to each of their stories. It’s hard to get that same feeling when many other characters are added to the story.
To portray the past with diversity that we expect to see in the modern-day is painting history in a diluted fashion.
With the story being set during the American Civil War, the family being white affects the experience they would live through. If they were black, their experience would be very different from the one they were originally written to have, and if they were black and in the South, it would need to be a different story. To simply swap race in this instance would be to minimize the experience that black Americans lived through in the past. I’m of the opinion that race swapping for the sake of appeasing a certain racial group is patronizing, and if it were to have happened in this case, it definitely would have been.
No matter what, I think Little Women speaks to the experience of being in a family, and this transcends time and race (this could be a reason why it’s had five adaptations in the last century). To make race, or more importantly a “lack of representation,” the focus in this story would be to try to shove it into a box that it was never made for.
There are real-life stories focused on the black experience during the Civil War, and they are some of the most heroic in American history. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth are just a few names. To try and force diversity in all other stories around this time, just for the sake of appeasing modern-day diversity requirements, is to remove the struggle that was present in the past. Tubman, Douglass, and Truth risked their lives for the abolitionist cause. To portray the past with diversity that we expect to see in the modern-day is painting history in a diluted fashion.
Just Because Someone Vaguely Looks Like You, Doesn’t Mean They Represent You
One issue with representation is that it goes one way, with some people in a demographic group feeling represented, but not everyone. American rapper Cardi B is one good example. She is definitely Latina, but according to her, also West Indian. Latinos are not a monolith nor a hive-mind, so to take Cardi B and say she should represent me as well is just wrong. She and I both know Spanish, but Dominican Spanish is a different flavor from Mexican Spanish, and Mexican Spanish is not the same across the entire country. Even in the looks department, she doesn’t look like me at all. To claim there’s representation with the presence of one Latina rapper is just incorrect.
Even among Dominicans, there’s not 100% representation with Cardi B being famous and in the limelight. The additional issue that comes with this is that the media props her up as diverse or representative of Latino culture, and because of that others may believe that she represents all of it.
I have felt more represented by people who look nothing like me.
Truthfully, I have felt more represented by people who look nothing like me. When the animated series Bojack Horseman came out, I related a lot to the anthropomorphic cat character, Princess Carolyn, despite me being neither pink, nor a cat. As a kid watching Disney’s Atlantis: Lost Empire, I liked Audrey Ramirez, but I didn’t relate to her very much. I was pretty girly back then, and she’s very much not.
The focus and push for diversity have made it so that the media focuses more on color and race, rather than someone’s character or personality. Since I was a kid, I loved superheroes. Wonder Woman, Batman, Supergirl, and Flash were my favorites. Even when I was a preteen there were still good stories and lessons to impart to young girls. During one particular storyline, Supergirl doesn’t stand for abuse from former love-interest Power Boy (he beat her in a fit of jealousy), and she pummels him to the ground. Meanwhile, there has been such a push for representation that such stories or morals aren’t highlighted anymore.
Instead, we’ve gotten Marvel’s New Warriors, which are intended to not just be diverse, but also relatable to youth in this new age. Instead, it comes off as cringey and unrelatable, with characters named “Snowflake” and “Safespace.” The spirit of heroes was to inspire us normal people to be better. Instead, this makes me sad and worried that we’re regressing and valuing more so the things we can’t control about ourselves.
Obsession with Race Breeds Racism
When cultural problems boil down to race, the individuals who are of the “disadvantaged” race will have nothing but the world to blame, and the individuals of the “advantaged” race are the root of the problem, despite neither group having any say in how they were born.
When these differences are heightened, resentment grows on both sides. The “disadvantaged” side grows resentful because of the harm the other side and their ancestors (who are no longer alive) caused. The “advantaged” side grows resentful because they’re continuously blamed for things that they didn’t do and additionally called Nazis, bigots, or racists, on the basis of appearance or where they come from. When this harmful distinction is perpetuated by the media, the resentment grows, and people divide among themselves.
Everyone who isn’t in their group is against them.
When people divide themselves into groups, they get most accustomed to seeing people that resemble them physically, and worse, they get used to the same kinds of thought. This is known as an echo chamber, and it’s dangerous for people to be in one. All they’ll ever hear is their own thoughts and opinions, and they’ll never be challenged. They’ll get so used to hearing affirmations that what they’re doing is good, that they’re in the right, and it’s everyone else who’s wrong, and they’ll never grow as people. They’ll continue to vilify and demonize their opposition. The opposition will also continue to grow. Everyone who isn’t in their group is against them.
Prior to any fixation on race, I felt represented in media with characters that I could relate to, on a personal level, transcending race and color. I don’t need to see someone who looks just like me to feel represented, and I think I’m happier for it. I’m not focusing on comparing my appearance with that of a character, and I’m not taking it personally if there’s little to no alignment. That’s not to say I’m not happy to see films like Disney’s Coco, since that showcases my culture beautifully and brings back memories of my own family.
The push towards diversity in the media was good at first. For instance, many cities like Los Angeles have a large population of nonwhite individuals (in their case, Latinos), so it’d be reasonable to have more Latino cast members in a show or movie centered around L.A. However, it’s exacerbated the division in the country. Instead of making a character to fit the “diverse” stereotype, we need to go back to making good and well-written characters that may happen to be of a different ethnicity or sexuality. In the meantime, the media is far from being real life. It’s important to go out, meet new friends, and find ways to improve yourself and your well-being. All those things are far more important than finding representation in some movie or show.