There is something important about seeing yourself represented in the media. For all the talk about television and movies being escapism, they are still rooted in reality. In order for audiences to embrace the story, they need to identify with the characters, their experiences and the way in which they navigate their fictional lives. Our media represents the best of our collective stories. Our ideal lives are displayed to us, and with them, a sense that our dreams are shared and remain within reach – if not for us, at least for someone. And if for someone, then yes, maybe for us.
A little over a week ago, I wrote about my struggle with my cultural identity. The piece was as much an examination of my own story as it was a social commentary. One response from a reader has dominated my reflection on that article:
“I like that she raises issues we don’t generally talk about out aloud. I don’t like that White African women are excluded. Maybe she talks about Black issues because she is and isn’t aware that White women also face them and maybe we need to begin talking to each other to bring about more meaningful relationships and understanding.”
I write in the only voice that I know and without meaning to, I limit the conversation.
There is something important about seeing yourself in the media. Television, movies, magazines, books, articles, posters, advertisments – they are supposed to be a hall-of-mirrors look at our own lives; an escapist view of the lives we wish we had. The reader heard an echo of her story in mine, faint and unacknowledged. Unintentionally, I became the antagonist in a diegesis I live daily.
My story is not told on television. It is not told in many books or magazines. I don’t see people that look like me on the screens that surround me every day. Television doesn’t write well rounded parts for curvy women, for black women, for intelligent women, for young women. When people find out that I am a doctor, they tell me I remind them of Miranda Bailey, the incredible character on Grey’s Anatomy. Miranda is a formidable woman, and I don’t mind the comparison. It’s just that whether we acknowledge it or not, there isn’t any other character on television that I would remind them of. Who else looks like me on television? Who else looks like me in a movie? If I wasn’t Miranda – who would I be?
Recently, there was an online protest to a mixed race family being represented on a cereal advertisment in the United States. What shocked me wasn’t so much that there were racists on the internet (!) but that it took this long for the fictional world to acknowledge that mixed race families exist.
I live in Australia, a country that is becoming more and more multicultural every year. The faces that look back at me in the real world are more diverse now than they were when I moved here ten years ago, yet the faces that represent this society on our screens remain fairly monochromatic.
There has been a political discussion in the Australian news this year that has focused on immigration and more specifically, immigrants. The tone of that conversation has been explicitly exclusive – it has almost seemed as if reporters and journalists assume that immigrants in Australia cannot read and are not exposed to the fear-mongering and outright racism they are peddling. If it wasn’t so important a conversation, if there weren’t policy repercussions, it would almost be funny. Almost.
The media can sometimes feel as though it is rendering entire parts of society invisible. LGBT people, Asians, Indigenous people, Africans, Jews, Disabled people, immigrants, overweight people, short people, older people, poor people – a huge majority of society is being ignored and, by implication, we are seemingly less meaningful to society. If the media drives the national conversation, nobody is talking about us, nobody is listening to us, nobody cares what (or that) we think. And everybody wants us to buy what they’re selling.
It frustrates me that my story isn’t told. The human narrative is so much more engaging and nuanced when we embrace the span of society – the spectrum of experiences, of race, of history, of economics and education and of opinion. Our media needs to look more like us. It needs to speak to all of us, speak for all of us.
I want to apologise to my reader for not validating her experiences. It is unlikely the first, nor the last time, but it is my intention to think more broadly, to ask more questions and to be more inclusive in my writing and in my experience of life.