This post is featured in the CAPC Magazine, September 2015: A Unified Kingdom issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and receive a host of other benefits, too.

[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 14 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “A Unified Kingdom.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]

Film and television have great power. A good story can introduce you to people you would not otherwise meet and change the way you think about yourself and others. With that power comes the ability to change the world.

But there’s a catch. Film and television rarely show those people we would not otherwise meet. They don’t typically challenge us to think differently about the people around us. The characters seen onscreen are overwhelmingly homogenous, and the diversity of the world is ignored.

Homogeneity in the media is not harmless. There are consequences.

In the end, this hurts everyone, not just those of an underrepresented group.

Both minorities and media organizations have long been aware of how little representation most minority groups receive, but not much has changed over the years. This leaves ethnic and racial minorities, the disabled, and many more out of the spotlight and out of the picture.

According to research by sociologist Maryann Erigha, minority characters are vastly underrepresented in film and television. Even when they are shown onscreen, they are often relegated to secondary and stereotypical parts. Asian characters are set up as martial arts experts or victims. African-American characters are connected with the inner city. Even women, who can hardly be considered a minority in society, are rarely portrayed against stereotype.

Some minority groups face even more invisibility than others, such as the disabled and indigenous peoples. This affects everyone who watches films and TV shows, as most people have no other connection to these groups and base their knowledge of them on this media alone. However, the more profound effects are on the underrepresented people themselves.

A study by Lingling Zhang and Beth Haller showed that the more disabled people viewed media characterizing the disabled negatively, such as the stereotype of the ill victim, the more negatively they felt about their disability. Positive media characterizations of the disabled had the opposite effect. So little media show the disabled positively that the participants felt more positive and confident about their disability even if the positive portrayal was not considered realistic. By not showing disabled characters or not showing them out of stereotype, film and television creators are actually hurting the people they leave out.

For example, media representation of the hearing impaired is seen clearly through research by Katherine Foss. In most cases on television, hearing loss is presented simply as something to be fixed within the confines of one episode, perpetuating an idea that hearing loss is easily fixed and is something that must be fixed to have a normal life. When deaf characters are shown, the portrayals are largely inaccurate. A deaf character on CSI showed deafness as socially isolating and displayed none of the widely used accommodations for deafness. This portrayal of deafness as silent, lonely suffering received so many complaints that the writers chose to not make the hearing loss permanent as they planned. Most other deaf characters with permanent hearing loss are completely “fixed” with the addition of a hearing aid soon after the hearing loss appears. There have fortunately been a small number of positive and accurate portrayals of hearing loss, but this is not enough to counteract the overwhelming stigma and misinformation presented overall.

This stigma on the disabled also reaches to medical conditions. Anthropologist Joan Ablon researched how exposure to the single media image of neurofibromatosis—Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man—affected people who had the condition. Despite the fact that Merrick had a different condition entirely, most people only know the medical condition through association with the Elephant Man. In media and in society, Joseph Merrick represents hideousness and social isolation. With no other role models, people affected with neurofibromatosis (NF1) fear they will be considered ugly and shunned. Even when they understand their own dissimilarity from Merrick, often the only way those with NF1 can explain their condition to others is through the single media image, the Elephant Man, which carries a great stigma with it. Media has the power to normalize conditions like this, but the opportunity is ignored.

Indigenous peoples, such as Native Americans, are also consistently underrepresented and misrepresented. Psychologist Peter Leavitt and others studied media representations of Native Americans and found that portrayals typically showed them in the past, as historic peoples that cowboys of the Old West would have encountered. The few contemporary Native American representations negatively stereotyped them as poor and uneducated. In this study, Native American students exposed to prominent media representations experienced negative feelings of identity, belonging, and future prospects. Native Americans are unlikely to encounter a great number of Native American role models in society in many cases, and thus media portrayals become important in identity. Invisibility in the media sends a message that they are invisible, abnormal, and do not belong.

Homogeneity in the media is not harmless. There are consequences.

This is something that should concern us, as Christians and as humans. These people are equal to anyone else, loved and valued by God, and by ignoring them, we hurt them and make them feel inferior. We also hurt ourselves. How are we to understand people different from us if we are content to watch the same recycled characters, never to have our worldview challenged? How are we ever to show the love of God to them if we do not understand them?

God created a diverse and complex world for a reason, and it was not so we could ignore it.

These media representations create negative stereotypes that can condition viewers to see an entire group a certain way. They can also condition people within that group to begin to see themselves that way. The average person is unlikely to encounter anything to counteract that stereotype. How many disabled or Native American people does the average person usually come across? How many of those people does the average person get to know well enough to understand how they see the world and the similarities they actually share?

The fact remains that these people do exist and they are all around us. We may not notice them, we may avoid them because we do not know how to act, but they are around us.

However, if we were not so used to seeing these people as the “other,” as something different from us, we could begin to see them as God sees them: as individuals, as complex people, as people who are well worth our time and love and understanding.

The question remains, why do we have this problem and how can it be improved upon?

Erigha found the same groups that were underrepresented onscreen were underrepresented behind the scenes, and the involvement of marginalized groups behind the scenes led to more onscreen diversity. The first problem that needs to be addressed is the underrepresentation of women, ethnic and racial minorities, and the disabled in the production of film and television. As more people with varying perspectives are involved in the production process, these perspectives can show through onscreen in a far more complex manner than they would by someone guessing at the thoughts and feelings of a dissimilar character. Unfortunately, the two factors are interconnected. The misrepresentation of marginalized groups also makes employment in the industry difficult for the members of those groups.

On a positive note, recent changes in the way film and television are being produced are showing signs of breaking the cycle. Media in the digital and online domains, where content can be created and distributed in a less controlled manner, allow for more involvement of marginalized people and give them the opportunity to challenge the stereotypes.

If we encourage breaking the stereotypes, if we seek out complex and relatable characters of all types from all backgrounds, we will find there is a change in how we see people.

Disabled people are not something to simply be fixed or be hopeless. People with apparent medical conditions are not hideous. Native Americans are not invisible remnants of long-gone times. On a conscious level, most people know these things, but we hardly think of them because no one challenges us to think about it.

When the world is becoming increasingly smaller and more connected, there is no excuse to keep showing the same perspective. We need to expand our understanding beyond of our own corner of the world, our own neighborhood of the city, our own group of friends.

God created a diverse and complex world for a reason, and it was not so we could ignore it. We will never fully understand God’s creation until we understand the people around us, with all of their similarities and differences, strengths and faults, successes and struggles.

Media can help us do that, if it is done right. Media can allow all people to meet those who are different, get to know them intimately, and develop their own ideas about the world. If film and television challenged us to think about diverse people and places, no matter what situation a person is in socially, financially, or otherwise, they would have a chance to understand other people, the world, and God’s work better.

The time has come for media to stop functioning in a bubble of sameness and instead to explore the world. And the time has come for us to see people as God sees them. Those goals can go hand in hand.

The time has come to change the world.

Illustration courtesy of Cameron Morgan. Check out his portfolio at Krop Portfolio.


Ablon, Joan

1995 The Elephant Man as Self and Other: The Psycho-Social Costs of a Misdiagnosis. Social Science and Medicine 40(11):1481-1489. doi: 10.1016/0277-9536(94)00356-X

Erigha, Maryann

2015 Race, Gender, and Hollywood: Representation in Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change. Sociology Compass 9(1):78-89. doi: 10.1111/soc4.12237

Foss, Katherine A.

2014 (De)stigmatizing the Silent Epidemic: Representations of Hearing Loss in Entertainment Television. Health Communication 29(9):888-900. doi: 10.1080/10410236.2013.814079

Leavitt, Peter A., Rebecca Covarrubias, Yvonne A. Perez, and Stephanie A. Fryberg

2015 “Frozen in Time”: The Impact of Native American Media Representations on Identity and Self-Understanding. Journal of Social Issues 71(1):39-53. doi: 10.1111/josi.12095

Zhang, Lingling and Beth Haller

2013 Consuming Image: How Mass Media Impact the Identity of People with Disabilities. Communication Quarterly 61(3):319-334. doi: 10.1080/01463373.2013.776988


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