What is Representation and Why Does it Matter?

With films like Girls Trip, Straight Outta Compton, and Black Panther, you’ll have seen loads of social media swirling about representation. But what is it?

It might seem like it’s a big fuss over nothing. Why does it matter that these films have black lead actors? Who cares if they are produced and directed by people of colour? Surely it doesn’t matter. There’s no difference. Things are fine as they are. But the reality is, it does matter. And it doesn’t just matter in the US. It’s time that the arts and the media were reflective of the entire human experience. Check out Viola Davis (hero) speaking about this here, or below.

Representation is about our media being reflective of the society that we actually live in. It’s about breaking away from lazy tropes and stereotypes. The black ghetto thug, the perpetually downtrodden and ignorant Latinx domestic worker, the gay best friend. And showing complex characters that are reflective of society as a whole. It’s purpose is to create real, and relatable characters. Ones who can be a source of education and inspiration for the viewer.

Growing up people of colour (POC) were an extreme rarity on Irish TV. Even now the lack of diversity is starkly obvious. There has always been slightly more on UK stations but again usually only one or two dotted around mainstream stations. Travels across Europe showed that there was very little diversity there either. Or that POCs were only there to reinforce outdated stereotypes. But even this tiny minority isn’t OK for some. When Barbara Blake Hannah was hired in 1968, the show she was working with was inundated with people ringing in to complain about her appointment. So much so that Thames-TV terminated her contract after nine months. Here in Ireland it was 2017 before RTÉ news hired their first person of African-Irish heritage, news presenter Zainab Boladale.

Imagine growing up in a world where virtually nobody around you is the same colour as you. Where nobody has the same hair texture as you. And I don’t mean that you grew up being only person with a different hair colour. I mean having to have family send hair products to you from London because there’s no shop in your county that sells them.  In fact, you’re so different to your peers that strangers comment on your physical appearance on a regular basis. And often not in a positive way. When you turn on the TV or open the newspapers you don’t see anyone who is the same colour as you. Or if you do, it’s in a heightened negative state. That’s the background that I’ve grown up with, and those older than me faced even worse. But things are changing – albeit slowly.

With the influence of US media it’s becoming increasingly common to see a wider range of backgrounds on TV. Shows like Insecure and films like Moonlight were praised for their use of lighting that flattered darker skin tones. We were shown complex black characters that weren’t merely victims or thugs. In One Day At A Time, we see a dynamic Cuban family. Again they aren’t victims, or impoverished, or uneducated. They are a modern family. And the show is pushing boundaries, both in its portrayal of race relations, diversity, immigration, but also with it’s strong LGBT messageWith Black Panther, we’re seeing a film totally break the mold. In terms of representation, it’s smashed it. It’s a hugely significant step.

I chatted with Wuraola Majekodunmi Nigerian-Irish presenter of Seinnliosta an tSathairn on  Raidió na Life to get her take on it. The importance of films like this on a European audience wasn’t lost her either. “The fact that there’s a film out there with a mostly black cast gives me so much joy and confidence. I’m so used to seeing white faces on the big screen when I go to the cinema, and barely ever see people who look like me in the main roles. So Black Panther coming out in mainstream cinemas around the world, particularly in Europe, is an amazing feeling for me personally. Finally we (POC) get the representation we’ve been waiting for. There’s such a lack of representation of POC in Europe in the media, therefore Black Panther coming out gives me quite a bit of empowerment. It tells me yes, people who look like me are just as worthy to be on that screen. I felt similarly when ‘Straight Outta Compton’ came out”.

Last year I took part in a video series called “Yes, I’m Irish“. Before I did the video, I was apprehensive. I consulted friends over whether it was a good idea to speak up or not. But I realised that by not speaking up I would be closing a gap that had been opened for more diverse backgrounds. If we want to encourage our society to be truly accepting of others and embrace people from all backgrounds then we need to allow people to be seen and heard. Representation is just about giving people a voice. Allowing people from all backgrounds to see themselves reflected in the media we consume. And to do so in a way that is the truth.

Author’s note: This piece was written before the release of Black Panther into Irish cinemas, and while I still feel the film is part of a wider turning point having seen the film I’m conflicted. In terms of diversity, and gender norms it’s great. But ultimately, it fails. There is no need for Everett K. Ross to be white – in fact, if that character had been African-American it would have sent a much stronger message. Instead the movie relies heavily on the trope that the default for accomplished “good” American is white, while the default for “poor” American (surrounded by a landscape of death and gun violence) is black. Martin Freeman’s role in this movie is to serve as a reminder that while people of colour can get so far, they still must rely on white people to save them.

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Aine Mulloy

Co-founder at GirlCrew
Co-Founder of GirlCrew. Loves brands, media, books, and music. Can generally be found reading in quiet spaces, or in over-crowded music joints.

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