by Zainab Khan
Your thoughts, ideas, and opinions have largely been manipulated by the media you consume. Filmmakers make purposeful decisions in how they portray minorities, and these decisions highly influence the way we feel about culture and identity. The way filmmakers represent minorities in their media has a large impact on how people view unfamiliar cultures and the way members of minority groups feel about their own identities.
When minority groups are represented in a way that feeds into cultural stereotypes, it negatively impacts the way audiences view cultures they’ve only experienced through a screen. There are so many cultures in the world, that it is impossible for people to personally experience and interact with every single one. That’s where media and popular culture come in to fill the gaps left by a lack of experience. According to Nancy Wang Yuen, sociologist, and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, “Audiences substitute stereotypes they see on screen for reality when they have not had any direct interactions with particular racial groups.” Consequently, when minorities are portrayed inaccurately, society’s perception of them is skewed. An illustration of this phenomenon is the film “Hala.” The movie centers around its titular character, Hala, a Pakistani-American Muslim teen who ends up falling for a white boy. The filmmaker frames Islam as restrictive to women, the scene where Hala’s father slaps her across the face for interacting with a white boy being a clear indicator of these views. The closing shot of the movie is Hala taking off her hijab, effectively setting herself free in the filmmaker’s eyes. The issue with this portrayal of the religion is that it falls back onto the stereotype that in Islam, women are seen as second to men, with the hijab being used as a tool to oppress them. This is lazy storytelling and means audience members who don’t have any other experience with Islam are lead to believe that Islam as a religion is inherently bad. Content like “Hala” furthers the misguided idea that women need to be saved from Islam. As a Pakistani-American Muslim teen, watching “Hala” unsettled me, leaving me uncomfortable with my own identity and feeling disrespected. If I hadn’t had the experience with Islam that I do, the violent and restrictive description of it in “Hala” would’ve painted my perception of the religion in a negative light, as well.
When filmmakers choose to focus their media on underrepresented cultures, portraying them accurately and respectfully, it helps members of these minority groups feel more secure in their identities. “Black Panther,” released in 2018 was a cultural phenomenon, breaking boundaries in Hollywood with its portrayal of African culture. Ryan Coogler, the director, took care of every aspect of the production to ensure he did justice to the culture he was portraying. He took aspects of a range of African cultures to build the fictional nation of Wakanda. From costume design to the use of the Xhosa dialect, this was a production where every person involved respected the culture they were portraying. This was especially evident as the movie went on to win Oscars for both costume and production design, being the first Marvel movies to do so. As a result, this movie was immensely important to the black community. The three-dimensional portrayal of the characters allowed them to be relatable. It can be difficult to relate to a character who looks like you when they’re used as a crutch to the main character or a plot device. Black Panther steers clear of this, by making every character their own original person without falling back on the stereotypical black characters often are seen as. The incredibly positive response this film garnered by black fans of all ages who were moved by seeing people they could identify with on the big screen shows that filmmakers have a large influence on a person’s sense of identity. Black Panther was the first time young black people saw themselves as royalty and superheroes, something White kids have had the pleasure of enjoying for years. Seeing photos of smiling black children dressed up as the characters from this movie was moving because they finally had options that looked like them. For the first time black kids could walk into a store and come out with a superhero costume belonging to a character that looked like them. The positive response to “Black Panther” can be backed up by the psychological term “symbolic annihilation” which is the thought process that if a person doesn’t see people who they can visibly identify within popular culture then they must be unimportant to society (Sarah Boboltz, Kimberly Yam).When people are unsure about their identities, the choices filmmakers make when creating media about people who look like them can change their feelings about themselves. The positive representation of their culture can go a long way in helping people find their place in the world.
On the other side of this issue is the argument that no real change comes from a filmmaker’s choices about on-screen representation because the media doesn’t have enough of an impact on society to make any real change. Representation is so rare that the bare minimum is celebrated. One can look to the few seconds of lesbian representation in the latest Star Wars movie or the unnamed gay character in “Avengers Endgame” to see representation that Disney was applauded for, but had no true impact. A man saying “he” instead of “she” while talking about his partner didn’t seem to have any clear impact. While it is true that Disney has a track record of doing the bare minimum and advertising it as revolutionary, they aren’t the only studio making movies and sometimes these shreds of representation can lead to something more. Notably, “Love Simon” was a movie from a smaller studio, but it made waves in the gay community for being a teen romantic comedy with a gay main character. The movie even helped one of the lead actors to come out as gay himself. Seeing his own character come out and be accepted made him feel more comfortable with his identity as a gay man. This is a clear case of filmmakers’ decisions being important for members of marginalized communities to have a more secure sense of identity. Looking at larger studios, the shred of representation in “Avengers, Endgame” has lead to Marvel Studios introducing their first gay character in the upcoming “Eternals” film (Nick Romano) and as a studio that’s recently been putting out movies that break the billion-dollar mark this representation will reach large amounts of people. If a kid who’s afraid to come out sees a mainstream superhero who’s out and proud, it’ll help them feel more secure in their identity, and if a movie or a TV show makes even one person feel better about themself then the filmmaker has influenced their sense of identity and made an impact on the world.
Whether you realize it or not, the choices filmmakers make affect your thoughts, ideas, and opinions. How filmmakers choose to portray minorities in the work has a major impact on people’s perceptions of unfamiliar cultures and how a person feels about their own identity. As a society, we need to encourage positive representations of everyone in media, so that one day everyone has a “Black Panther” or “Love, Simon” of their own.
a message from the author:
Zainab Khan - member of Abu Dhabi, UAE team + Executive Leadership Member
"I joined the executive leadership team because I’m incredibly passionate about social justice and change and I feel that this is a place where like -minded young people can come together to make a difference. I’ve always made it a point to elevate the voices of those who may go unheard and I want to continue this with the AHEO."