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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
Review: “The Watchers”
Published June 13, 2024

Editorial: The need for meaningful diversity in media

Inclusion of diverse characters in media is increasing, but the accurate and meaningful portrayal of minorities is not.
Editorial%3A+The+need+for+meaningful+diversity+in+media
Image by Sarah Mai

In January of this year, I opened my phone to see the news that “Our Flag Means Death” would not be receiving another season. As the show is very dear to my heart and my family, this news was devastating. There was so much comfort and meaningful representation to find in the show, from its multiple interracial queer couples, powerful women, true body positivity, and characters with disabilities who had real goals and personalities. “Our Flag Means Death” was a breath of fresh air from all the tokenized and stereotyped “inclusion” we see in most cinema and television.

The pattern of shows with meaningful, genuine representation getting canceled after a season or two is not new. While the inclusion of diverse characters and narratives in media is rising, it’s clear this increase is just so production companies can say “Look, I have a black neurodiverse lesbian!” who appears in a single scene in one episode, “We love diversity!”

This is tokenism, and we need to demand for more.

The Bechdel Test has become the bare minimum standard for representation of women in media, and still so many shows and movies fail. Researchers Fogel and Criscione found that movie trailers appearing to fail the Bechdel Test will sway women away from seeing it in theaters. Additionally, research published in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies has shown many people will intentionally avoid consuming media where racial and ethnic minorities are misrepresented. It’s clear the demand for representation is there but is ignored by big production agencies and writers. 

If a show or film does pass the Bechdel Test, is that enough? Short answer: no.

Proposals for new Bechdel Tests by women who work in media production call out how the bare minimum requirements of the traditional Bechdel Test aren’t enough. Specifically, they highlight how meaningful inclusion of non-white female characters, especially as leads, is rare. Still, their proposals don’t address other issues of representation, including LGBTQ+ characters, characters with disabilities, and characters with larger bodies.

The little representation that exists for these populations is dominated by harmful stereotypes. Gay men deserve to be more than a white female lead’s best friend, fat characters deserve to be more than comedic relief and characters with disabilities deserve to be more than just a “miracle” story.  

What we see on the screen affects how we view and treat people in reality. A recent literature review identified overarching trends of stereotypes and negative portrayals of minority groups supporting and strengthening biases against them. That is, when minority groups are misrepresented and stereotyped in media, this representation does more harm than good. 

When shows include Latina women but their characters are sexualized and riddled, for example, with other negative stereotypes, the inclusion of these characters only enforces bias.

In 2021, Sia’s movie “Music’s” horrible representation of autism only amplified harmful stereotypes about individuals with ASD. Inclusion is not enough—diversity needs to be intentional and meaningful. 

Lack of meaningful representation can be particularly harmful to youth. The overwhelming majority of actors cast in television and movies are thin, and the few actors with larger bodies are frequently typed as the ‘comedic relief’ character. Their personalities are reduced to their weight, not who they are as people.

Author Aubrey Gordon describes how this portrayal of thin bodies as the standard leads many people, particularly young girls, to develop eating disorders and have low self-esteem and self-worth. These negative effects extend to all aspects of one’s identity. When you grow up only seeing people who are not like you be the lead, strong, valuable, loved, or beautiful characters, you start to feel like you can’t be. 

While a lack of inclusive and accurate representation can fuel negative stereotypes and biases, meaningful inclusion of diverse characters works to dismantle these biases. From a psychological and social-cognitive perspective, this makes sense. We learn through observation and exposure — the more we see minority groups portrayed as complex, valuable and human, the more we will believe so in real life. 

When we reward production companies for doing the bare minimum, we reinforce that they can get away with the bare minimum. We need to demand for more. When watching TV or a movie, think about the narratives you are consuming.

Are there diverse characters? Are the portrayals of them accurate and meaningful?

If the answer is no, it is time to evaluate the standards we let media pass by. It’s imperative that we seek out and support the few companies, shows and movies that are doing representation correctly. It’s equally as important that we demand others to do the same.

Annabel Bruton is a student at the College of Liberal Arts studying Psychology, Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature, and Educational Psychology.

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  • Molly
    May 3, 2024 at 6:03 pm

    Thank you for sharing this piece! Our Flag Means Death is such a good example of authentic, meaningful representation, and I still can’t believe it was so callously canceled. We deserve media with fully realized characters that have their own stories and experiences. Our Flag was so refreshing because it was a genre show — a pirate comedy — where many characters happened to also be queer. We need more of this.

  • K
    May 3, 2024 at 6:25 am

    Thank you for this

  • Skr
    May 3, 2024 at 6:09 am

    This is such a great piece! It’s really thoughtful and feels so accurate. I remember growing up with no real representation on TV and seeing things like Our Flag Means Death as an adult has been so healing – stories about people like me, who are having fun and falling in love and living full lives. Losing representation in media is so sad, both on a personal level of losing shows that I love and enjoy, but also to think that we might be going back to a media landscape like we had 20 years ago where so few people could see themselves in the stories that got made.

  • Bea
    May 3, 2024 at 5:30 am

    Love this article!

  • Evan
    May 2, 2024 at 9:08 pm

    This is article is really cool!!!