Growing up, I loved to sing and dance. I spent hours alone in my room writing choreography to musical and movie soundtracks. I still know most of the words to Cats(don’t judge, it was the first Broadway musical I saw).
Puberty hit and so did a love/hate relationship with food and the mirror. While I still danced and sang, I began to realize that I wouldn’t have a future in the performing arts.
Although just on plus-size for my height, I didn’t look like anyone else my age, especially on TV or in the movies. The only plus-size woman I remember seeing on the screen growing up was Roseanne, not exactly a role model.
Is lack of representation the reason I didn’t become a star of stage and screen? Yes and no. If I’d believed that there was a place for a larger girl (or even someone larger than a size 2) on Broadway or in Hollywood, maybe I would have taken steps to make it happen. However, if I’d wanted it badly enough, nothing should have stood in my way.
Multiple studies show how representation in media affects self-esteem, self-perception, and (perhaps most importantly) our perception of “other.”
When characters of color are shown as stupid, lazy, or “thugs,” it doesn’t only impact how people of color view themselves, it creates, emphasizes, or validates the way white people view people of color.
I’m sure the same holds true for everyone who doesn’t fit the mold of “normal.” Even roles for white men tend to fall into a few set categories: Athlete, brain, comic, bum, flaming gay, or gay-who-presents-as-straight. Any male character who appears to be aware of how his actions affect others is accused of being “sensitive” as if it’s a bad thing.
What are we teaching our children?
I’ve gotten some questions about my use of the Bechdel-Wallace test in determining the quality of a kids show. “But the show represents girls well; does forcing a conversation between girls really matter?”
Women and girls talk to each other every day, about inane and important things. Is it so difficult to have the male character with one line be a female character with one line?
Bechdel-Wallace doesn’t require the conversations to be substantial in topic or duration; it only asks that they not be about men.
I am by no means advocating that we eschew any show, movie, or play that doesn’t represent every race, ability, gender, body type, or religion. But I do believe that as members of a plural society, we should be aware of who is present, how the characters are developed, and what that means for our children.
I teach my kids to look first for a kind heart; to value empathy, integrity, and a willingness to learn or grow. We celebrate diversity and admire beauty in other cultures. I want them to be content when they look in the mirror. I want them to pursue their dreams.