Yes, Virginia, Representation Does Matter
On September 21, 2015, television history was made when Viola Davis, the star of ABC’s Primetime Drama How to Get Away With Murder won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, marking the first time since the birth of the award that a black woman (or woman of color period) has won in that category. In her phenomenal acceptance speech, Davis quoted Harriet Tubman and then said “And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
Now, as a black feminist, I could not have been more ecstatic to hear her say these words, especially given how she was once called “not traditionally attractive” by an acclaimed newspaper due to her dark skin, kinky hair, and broad nose. And although her speech was widely received by almost everyone with a functioning understanding of intersectional feminism, a soap star took to Twitter to spout off about how “All women are equally restricted in Hollywood.” An “All Lives Matter” for the Hollywood set, essentially. Twitter (rightfully) told her that how and why she was objectively incorrect, but that just reminded me of the ongoing discussion about representation in the media.
I grew up in an area that was 2% black and attended a high school that was roughly 80% white and had a grand total of 9 out of 300 students in my graduating class identify as black. Growing up meant that my pubescent years were spent looking at ads, movies, television shows, book covers, runway shows, and music videos that were incredibly white while going to schools that were also overwhelmingly white.
The thing with representation is that you don’t realize its importance until you don’t see yourself represented, but imagine growing up and being subliminally told through a barrage of whitewashed images that you are inherently undesirable. Seeing ads with the generic words “beautiful,” “smart,” and “strong” and only seeing white girls sends the message that it doesn’t matter how thin you get, what schools you go to, how many straightening perms you get, or how hard you study. If you cannot pass for white, you will never achieve greatness. This is in line with representation on shows and in movies; if you are only portrayed as a violent thug, a ugly caricature of a welfare recipient, a promiscuous being with a hot temper, an asexual overachiever, or a sexualized and infantilizing schoolgirl, you being told that those are the only things people believe about you and who you can be.
Yes, Hollywood is ridiculously sexist; the facts that in 2014 only 19% of women in films were over the apparently decrepit age of 40, only 15.8% of directors, producers, and writers were female, and only 11% of 700 films had gender‐balanced casts. If you’re a woman in Hollywood, regardless of being in front of or behind the camera, the only word that applies to you is “too”: too fat, too old, too demanding, too woman. But, to those who share the same “all women have it equally bad” belief as the aforementioned soap star, all women are certainly not on the same playing field.
Of the top 500 films of all time, women of color were the primary protagonists in only 6 movies, with five animated films (Pocahontas, The Princess and the Frog, Spirited Away, Lilo and Stitch, and Mulan) and only one live action (Sister Act) . When the show Scandal premiered in 2012 on ABC, it was the first time since 1974 that a black woman was a lead in a dramatic series and in 2014. Only 4.6% (15) of the top 100 2014 movies had Latino characters with speaking roles (and in 30.6% of all movies, a Latina woman was “dressed in sexy attire”) and only 5.3% (15) of movies had Asian characters with speaking roles. This year’s new ABC show (are you starting to see a pattern with ABC?) Fresh Off the Boat was the first time since Margaret Cho’s show All-American Girl ended in 1991 that had an Asian character as the lead, making it the only second in television history to do so. And finally, of the 4,160 speaking characters in the top 100 films of 2014, there were four to nine LGBQ women (no transgender people, period). And while these numbers are appalling, what would be even more interesting to see how many of these characters are fully fleshed out rather than the typical racial stereotype that Hollywood likes to lazily embrace.
There is no reason that in the year 2015 we should be having TV “firsts” anymore. This pilot season and it’s plethora of incredibly diverse casts are a sign that Hollywood finally realizes that people of color are viewers to. That’s a great start towards improvement. But the fact that the American Ferrera was the first Latina to win an Emmy in 2007 or the fact that the last Asian Oscar winner was in 1983 shows that there’s a lot of work to be done. While representation seems like it’s a trivial thing in the grand scheme of social justice issues, to write it off as being a non-problem ignores how these habitual and deeply ingrained stereotypes perpetuated in the media about people of color have very real and negative impacts on our lives, from anytime that a white woman falsely accuses a black man of robbing her to when a 14 year old Muslim boy is arrested for bringing a clock to school.
“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are not there,” Davis said as she closed out her speech. And until these roles start becoming more prevalent and nuanced, we will only continue to be surprised whenever we hear about how long it’s been since a person of color has won an award.
Olivia is a senior at Duke University who watches too much television and enjoys yelling about feminism, education policy, and food.