The representation of minorities in mainstream media, or rather lack thereof, has been an issue for years. It’s only in the past decade and a half where things have really began changing, with the birth of shows like Glee, and movies like Brokeback Mountain. This past year alone, strides have been made, as people of colour (POC) make up 44% of the characters on broadcast television, a four percent increase from the year before. LGBTQ characters make up 8.8%, which does not feel like very much but is according to GLAAD a “record high”. All in all, it’s looking optimistic that representation will continue to increase in the future. But does that mean anything if the representation isn’t good? And what about intersectional identities? As a gay Arab from a Muslim background, am I supposed to accept that in my whole life I’ve only ever seen two gay Muslim characters on mainstream TV?*
Image: Moonlight (2017) by Barry Jenkins, photo credit Alex R. Hibbert, Allociné.fr
Intersectionality is the idea that you can’t separate the different facets of someone’s identity when considering their standing in society because they’re intrinsically linked. A straight, white woman will have a higher social standing than a bisexual, brown woman, for example. This is key to think about when talking about representation because, statistically LGBTQ people of colour are the most under-represented group in mainstream media. An average of 52% of LGBTQ characters are white, meaning that less than half of the 75 LGBTQ characters on TV last year are meant to represent all non-white LGBTQ people. That’s just over 4% of all characters on TV to represent LGBTQ people of colour, which is an appallingly low number.
There are many layers to this issue, one of which being that the general attitude of mainstream media is seemingly that it’s okay to be a minority, as long as you fit specific criteria. The face of mainstream LGBTQ representation tends to be white, cisgender gay men, as shown by the popularity of 2017’s "Call Me By Your Name", or the internet’s overnight obsession with the Norwegian show "Skam". Both concern two young, attractive, white men developing a relationship, which can’t be ignored when considering why media like these gain so much attention, when others don’t. Contrastingly, Barry Jenkins’ "Moonlight" (2017), whilst being critically acclaimed and even winning an Oscar, is pointedly ignored even within the community; in fact, when you dive deep into the internet like I do, you realise that the only people who really talk about "Moonlight" are LGBT people of colour, namely black people. The defence of this that I see the most is: “well of course, people of colour can identify with the characters so obviously they’ll talk about it more.” But that in itself is a flaw in the system- people of colour usually have to ‘identify’ with white protagonists for their whole lives, if they want to feel like a protagonist at least, and not a (usually one dimensional) side-character. The expectation that people of colour can and should identify with white characters, but the reverse isn’t true, is a result of the bigoted idea that white is the default, the standard.
This is touched upon in the LGBT coming-of-age rom-com "Love, Simon" (2018), where the white titular character questions why ‘straight’ and ‘white’ are seen as the default, when in reality there should be no default. Spoilers ahead for this movie, but it was quite ground-breaking because it’s revealed that the love interest who Simon was pining over for the entire movie was his black classmate (played by queer black actor Keiynan Lonsdale). Hopefully this helps pave the way for more inclusive films in the future, but even this can be read cynically- would the film have been as popular if Simon was also a man of colour? I hate to say it, but probably not.
So what would happen if a big Hollywood blockbuster was actually representative of the world’s population, you ask? If a majority of the main cast was made up of POC, one character was gay, and one even had a disability? Well, we don’t have to think in hypotheticals, because in 2017 the Power Rangers reboot was released. Bet you never thought you’d read an article about diversity and expect Power Rangersto be mentioned, but here we are. I remember watching that film and finding it quite refreshing, because four out of the five main Power Rangers weren’t white! And over the course of the film you find out that Trini, who is Latina, likes girls! And that the Blue Ranger, who’s black, has autism! I left that cinema actually shocked that I had just watched a movie that included such a diverse group of people; actual diversity, not calling itself ‘diverse’ because it has a white woman and a white gay man in the cast. But as I’ve established throughout this article, diversity is only allowed with specific criteria; you can’t be Latina and gay, you can’t be black and have autism, and you definitely can’t have a cast that is almost completely of colour. So what happened? Simply put, it tanked. It didn’t get the recognition it deserved, especially within the LGBTQ community, and that’s because people don’t consider intersectionality nearly enough. Here’s a movie with perhaps the most realistic diversity in characters I have ever seen, and where was the rallying cry to support this movie so that more of its kind can be made? The movie just wasn’t talked about in the community, and that comes down to white (LGBTQ) people not being able to ‘relate’ to characters of colour, when the reverse has had to be true since the dawn of television and film. Some people will say “it’s not like the Power Rangers movie was Oscar-worthy, more people would have supported and talked about it if it was". But as you’ll recall I’ve already proved that this isn’t about acclaim, or a movie being ‘good’, otherwise "Moonlight" would get the same, if not more recognition as "Call Me By Your Name".
What started out with a simple, “Huh, some minorities are less represented than others in the media, I wonder why,” has ended here, with the awareness that this is clearly a deep-rooted issue within minority communities with the consideration of intersectionality. White audiences have never had to assimilate and ‘make do’ with identifying with someone who wasn’t like them, which is why they find it hard to see themselves in characters of colour, despite their shared queerness. When we talk about representation, it’s easy to get complacent once our own group is visible, but until everyone is represented, we can’t really call it diversity.
*Adena Al-Amin from The Bold Type, who is a lesbian, and Omar Shanaa from Élite, who is gay.