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Opinion – media still has a problem with authentic representation

Modern media is struggling to properly represent the LGBTQ+ and LatinX communities in both film and television. In an increasingly diverse society, how is the genuine portrayal of important groups still causing problems for pop culture?

The UK has steadily become more diverse over the last few decades, with less of us identifying as ‘White British’ than ever before. As a result, the media and popular culture has had to take steps to become more inclusive and well represented – a trend that extends across western pop culture.

In 2017, for example, Netflix released One Day at a Time, a reimagining of a TV classic that saw a Latin family take centre stage. Black Panther, released in 2018, was made by a Black director and starred a mostly African American cast. It was the second highest grossing film of the year.

Ali Stoker, a wheelchair bound actress, won a Tony award and performed at the ceremony as the character Ado Annie, a normally able-bodied character, from the musical Oklahoma! in 2019.

Transgender representation in popular media has also grown over the past few years thanks to shows such as Shameless and Orange Is the New Black.

While all of this is encouraging progress, is every stride being made authentic and well intentioned?

You may have seen the recent controversy surrounding misrepresentation of the Afro-Latinx community in the new film, In The Heights.

Much excitement surrounded the release of this musical drama which tells the story of a vibrant, tight knit community in Washington Heights, New York. Lin Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton recognition, penned the music and lyrics for the stage version and produced the screen adaptation.

Debate on how certain aspects of the LatinX community are depicted within the film has been steadily bubbling since its release. Critics have remarked that under representation of the Afro-Latinx community in the film shows that colourism remains still a problem within the industry.

Miranda took to Twitter to release a statement explaining how he had initially started writing In the Heights ‘because he didn’t feel seen.’ He then went on to apologise to the Afro-Latinx community for failing to adequately represent them in a film that is supposedly celebrating the diversity of Washington Heights.

This begs a larger question of the arts industry as a whole. Even when it makes an active effort to be inclusive, why does it continue to fall short and misrepresent those it aims to champion?

Nielsen’s ‘Being Seen on Screen: Diverse Representation & Inclusion on TV’ showed that the media industry is making progress with inclusivity, reporting 92% of the top 300 programmes had some presence of diversity (women, people of colour or LGBTQ+).

This effort is not enough, however as presence on screen does not necessarily equal representation for the viewer.

While outwardly these figures may appear to tell the tale of increased visibility, Stacie de Armas, senior vice president of diverse consumer insights at Nielsen, magnified the difference between presence and representation.

Speaking to NBC, she says that ‘when you look across the TV landscape, the LGBTQ population looks well represented. But when we look deeper, and at intersectional groups, it’s clear there is a need for greater diversity in LGBTQ representation’.

‘White LGBTQ people are most represented on screen, while female LGBTQ people of colour and Latinx LGBTQ people are below parity compared to their population estimates’.

The New York Times reported in January of 2021 that across prime-time television there has actually been a decrease in LGBTQ+ representation for the first time in five years.

The article refers to a report by Glaad titled ‘Where We Are on TV,’ which breaks down how LGBTQ+ characters are affected across primetime, cable, and streaming services. All three outlets show a downturn in representation.

Across Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix the report details that ‘there are 95 regular LGBTQ characters on original scripted series, a decrease from last year, as well as 46 LGBTQ recurring characters. This brings the total to 141 LGBTQ characters.’ You can view archives of this report back until the 2005-2006 season.

With Gen Z more engaged with media platforms than generations prior, it is vital that they feel represented, whether it be race, gender, or sexuality.

It is time to retire LGBTQ+ tropes in Hollywood. No longer is it appropriate to have a ‘queer best friend’ for comic relief.

Whether it be George serenading Julia Roberts in My Best Friends Weddings or Elliott Goss in Search Party’s, it’s no longer enough for LGBTQ+ characters to fall into this cliché character trope.

Just being on the screen doesn’t go as far as needed. Gen Z are looking to the characters in their favourite shows and films for relatability and identity, to feel accepted and actively included in popular culture.

While we may not yet have found the perfect balance, times are progressing.

Despite representation not being the same as presence, it is a possible sign that we are headed towards equal presence in media. As our nation continues to become more diverse so too will the people creating, writing, directing, and casting media.

We must remain positive that diversity in media will continue to reflect the changing creative landscape of modern pop culture.