Representation Matters: A Personal Reflection on the Increasing Diversity in Film and Television
The dam has finally broken.
After decades of being dominated by White men, film and television producers have finally realized that women and people of color can also be in the lead roles of box office successes. This realization has come on the heels of remarkable blockbusters led by diverse casts including such films as The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and Wonder Woman. Despite the now overwhelming evidence that women and people of color can carry films, there remains a small yet vocal segment of our population who simply cannot accept the fact that people who don't share their same melatonin levels can somehow capture the attention and adoration of worldwide audiences. Somehow, these keyboard warriors, who believe in superhuman heroes and galaxies far, far away, simply cannot wrap their heads around a hero who is neither White nor male.
The latest example of this progression and subsequent incessant whining comes today after it was announced that BBC staple Doctor Who would have the first female doctor in the show's history, set to be played by Broadchurch's Jodie Whittaker. Despite seeing more and more supporting roles for women such as Karen Gillan, Alex Kingston, and most recently Pearl Mackie, the long-standing British series had yet to employ a female lead. Even with the show's history and increasingly diverse cast of characters, it still seemed unlikely that the Doctor, who has the ability to regenerate himself into a new human body, would somehow morph into that of a human female. As of late Saturday evening, odds were in favor of Kris Marshall, star of My Family, to replace departing actor Peter Capaldi. In fact, Whittaker wasn't even the most likely female candidate as that honor went to Phoebe Waller-Bridge best known from the British comedy series Fleabag. Yet, it was Whittaker who ultimately got the nod to be named the thirteenth title character in the long-running British sci-fi series.
And it means a whole lot to a whole lot of people.
Because media representation matters, particularly for our children. As someone who grew up White, straight, and male, I personally never had to worry about film and television heroes matching my complexion. From Zack Morris and Corey Matthews on television to Maverick, Marty McFly, Indiana Jones, and Luke Skywalker on the silver screen, there were plenty of actors that I could grow up to emulate. This is part of White privilege; believing you can do or be something because others who look like you have had success in doing so. I wouldn't have grown up wanting to one day be on The Real World if I hadn't had already seen multiple White, straight men already on the show. When you see people who look like you on television, you subconsciously believe that one day you can join them up on that screen. After all, they did it, so why can't you?
And so it wasn't until my fourth year as a classroom teacher that I began to consider my role in presenting this kind of representation to my students. Having been immersed in an ESL graduate program, I was becoming aware of the difficulties and challenges English language learners face on a daily basis. Not only is the language foreign to them but so too is the culture. Even something as "American" as baseball can be confusing and bewildering to someone who has never seen or played the sport. Sure, I could use a sentence on baseball to explain parts of a sentence. But if I expected my students to understand the cultural component of the sentence, that was something else entirely. Once this revelation dawned upon me, I began to rewrite my lessons to include more culturally-appropriate material.
In doing this, I would provide diverse visuals for my Spanish-language students. As a culture, we don't realize how something as simple as a Google search can discourage an entire segment of our population who are unable to see themselves in the view of the world being presented. For example, when providing visuals for vocabulary terms for my students, I would literally type phrases like "Indian programmer", "Asian pilot", "South American doctor" and "female lawyer" into Google to use when I presented these new terms. Although I didn't think it would have an obvious impact, I distinctly remember one day when one of my mixed-race students expressed gratitude that the images "looked like people she knew." For this student to say that confirmed what I had suspected: children are extremely impressionable when it comes to the images they see or, more specifically, don't see.
This is why announcements like today's matter. They matter because a generation of young girls will be able to grow up believing that one day, they too, can be The Doctor. Because, now, for the first time, young girls will see a strong, powerful female taking the lead in this intergalactic saga. Sure, it might not mean a lot to you or me. But to a generation of young girls, it means the world. And as this video shows below, that world is an exciting one to be a part of.
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