Refutation of Representation
What is representation?
I’ve recently heard a lot about representation and why it matters to some people. Representation in this context refers to “how media texts deal with and present gender, age, ethnicity, national and regional identity, social issues and events to an audience,” per one source.
According to a separate source, underrepresented groups in Western media “include women, people of color, LBGTQA+ people, people with a range of body shapes and types, people of non-Christian religions, and differently-abled people.”
Why is representation said to matter?
With some idea as to what representation is, I now turn to why it is said to matter. One source upfront declares, “The world is extremely diverse which is why representation is so important,” while adding, “Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.”
It would appear that to some people a lack of representation is a form of “symbolic annihilation.” Expanding upon this eradication proposal, one source maintains that “poor media treatment can contribute to social disempowerment” and that “symbolic absence in the media can erase groups and individuals from public consciousness.”
Taking a less intense stance, another source describes the importance of representation as the “comfort of finding a character you relate to. The pride of seeing your beliefs, culture, and traditions embraced on the big screens. The joy of seeing a hero that looks just like you.”
Addressing underrepresentation in the media
When reviewing academic material pertaining to diversity, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility (DEIA)—as it pertains to representation in the media—I most often encounter 2015 and 2020 studies to which many major studios cite when changing how characters are represented for the public.
These academic explorations may arguably be responsible for the DEIA shift in character portrayal many have observed within the past five years or so. During my education to become a social worker I was taught about the importance of changing society in this regard.
Changes such as replacing scientific, medical, and leadership positions with non-white, non-male characters is an example I’ve observed over the years. As well, presenting white male characters as less intelligent or competent appears to be a trend.
For some, underrepresentation in the media may be altered by promoting DEIA initiatives. One source cites a postmodern reason about why such representation matters, stating that “today’s mass media challenges traditional definitions of gender and is rather a force for social change.”
A separate source states, “People of color have yet to reach proportional representation within the film industry, but there have been gains in specific areas, including film leads and overall cast diversity.”
In this context, it remains unclear as to what “proportional representation” ought to reflect—society or parity within each project. At any rate, for a significant number of people, DEIA matters and has been actively addressed accordingly.
I would like to steel man the argument of representation using myself as an example. This technique involves concisely synthesizing information and repeating it to the degree that someone who maintains a pro-representation stance would say, “That’s correct. You got it.”
I may say that growing up as a biracial person and not seeing people similar to my racial or ethnic composition was discouraging, because without media portrayals of people with whom I could relate, it was as though I didn’t exist within society—thus devaluing my worth within my own mind and within the public consciousness.
Refutation of media representation
While I understand the argument for DEIA representation in media (i.e., film, TV, stories, etc.), I reject the proposal. The logic underlying my stance is simple. The pro-representation position is:
Premise 1: All underrepresented people must be represented or else it is as though these identities do not exist.
Premise 2: John Doe is a member of an unrepresented group and there aren’t depictions of his race in a particular film.
Conclusion: Therefore, it is as though John Doe does not exist.
This is unsound logic based on a false premise—premise 1, in this case. When working with clients I encourage them to consider how rigid prescriptions which generally manifest in the form of should, must, or ought-type statements may lead to self-disturbance.
Using an inflexible demand such as, “All underrepresented people must be represented,” and coupling it with the extreme declaration, “[O]r else it is as though these identities do not exist,” is simply untrue.
Is it literally the case that John Doe will wither away if his race isn’t depicted in a film? Of course not. This is why “symbolic annihilation” is a concept, because no literal eradication of John’s race will occur if he’s unrepresented, though some people suggest it’s virtually possible.
In this regard, the proposal is that while John will continue existing in objective reality, he may in essence be unnoticed—and therefore unappreciated or unvalued—by others. Now we’re into the substance of the argument.
The inferred claim is that John must be noticed, appreciated, and valued. What makes this a true statement other than the notion that John and those who share his values say it ought to be so?
Suppose that Jane Doe, of the same race though of a different mindset than John, believes otherwise. Perhaps Jane doesn’t watch a film and self-centeredly think, “Hey, why am I not represented here?”
Jane doesn’t maintain that others must change their behavior to appease her. She’s not the sort of person to visit Japan and complain because there are so few people of her race, ethnicity, or nationality represented in public or through Japanese media.
If Jane were to disturb herself with a rigid and extreme attitude, unreasonably demanding that others should pacify her, what makes her argument something a person with an opposing view would want to adopt? Are those who disagree with her evil or horrible people?
Is John’s level of self-acceptance so fragile that he must see a version of himself in a film in order to have worth? If so, perhaps there’s a deeper issue upon which John could work, because society simply will not placate to John’s ever-shifting demands in the future. Nor should they.
If John lives alone, he’s represented every time he passes a mirror. This is a relatively simple resolution to a narcissistic demand for representation.
If John lives in a home with extended family members it will be unlikely that all of his self-focused demands will be met even though residents within the house look like him. In this case, matters for satisfying an incessant desire to be noticed become more complex.
Fed up with not having attention he demands within his own house of differing perspectives, suppose John visits his next door neighbors. Would it be reasonable for John to demand representation within someone else’s home?
Would it be appropriate for John to whine about what he perceives as inadequate representation within his neighborhood or even the town in which he lives? Why must others accommodate John’s egocentric demands for representation?
Unable to satisfy his stipulation for conceited reflection, John opts for escapism by journeying to a local movie theater. There, John discovers that he’s not represented in a film. Ought John to be mirrored on a macro level when he couldn’t achieve representation on a mezzo or micro level?
With the exception of living alone, it is unlikely that John will be pleased through egotistical insistence for representation. Likewise, it seems irrational to require that others satisfy John’s commands regarding this matter. Consider the following:
Option 1: Healthy or helpful: While John may prefer to see himself in a film; though he may like to be represented; and as he may enjoy having his wishes fulfilled, in reality John isn’t invisible or nonexistent when his desires don’t come to fruition.
Option 2: Unhealthy or unhelpful: It is when stating to himself, “I should see myself in other characters;” “I must be seen by others;” and, “I ought to be represented,” that John ends up disturbing himself into an uncomfortable disposition.
With option 1, John is able to carry on about his day without fear of being erased, anger at underrepresentation, sorrow over unfulfilled vanity, or disgust associated with an irrational belief related to recognition.
With option 2, John experiences unpleasant emotions (i.e., sheer terror associated with the belief of annihilation), uncomfortable bodily sensations (e.g., nausea), and he irrationally behaves in an unhealthy manner (e.g., cries uncontrollably and taking to Twitter to demand “justice”).
Therefore, I reject the proposal of media representation based on identity. I conclude that it is illogical, irrational, unhealthy, and unhelpful to self-absorbedly demand to see oneself represented in film and other such mediums.
I have made a rational case against representation in the context to media. Still, I remain aware that perhaps many people will disagree with my conclusion.
An example of someone who disagrees was recently observed on a social media platform. The video of consideration features a number of non-white children excitedly responding to the trailer of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, featuring black representation of Ariel.
The social media video also highlights a presumably white man who responds, “If you watch that video and you still don’t get it; then you’re a white supremacist piece of shit. You ain’t shit and ain’t never gonna’ be shit.”
The appeal to emotion—manipulatively using emotion in place of reason and logic—may sway a person to one side of an argument. However, I’m uncertain as to how useful this practice is.
I disagree that I should be heard, I must be seen, or that I ought to ‘feel’ welcome. Then again, what do I know? Apparently, I ain’t shit and ain’t never gonna’ be shit.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—using Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) demonstrated in this post—I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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