Representation in Media Matters

One of the great gifts of our faith is that we don’t have to speculate about what God thinks of us. We can go straight to the Scriptures and hear the truths about our identity directly! Within those sacred words, we find that, in the beginning, God looks to the created world and says it is good. But when looking upon the world after the day of the creation of man, made in the very image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), God says that it is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). This subtle difference is significant because it demonstrates the unique and elevated place of woman and man in the eyes of God. The prophets also have magnificent declarations about how God sees us. Isaiah tells us that God says, “I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). If that weren’t enough, we hear the words of God to Jeremiah, which are echoed to each and every one of us:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you” (Jeremiah 1:5).

In the Psalms, our true identity as people who God made, people who belong to God (Psalm 100:3) is further affirmed. I can only imagine David’s great joy when he proclaimed the truth about who he is with these words: “I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works!” (Psalm 139:14). In the New Testament, these truths are echoed by Paul who tells we individually make up a necessary and unique part of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:27), and John who reminds us that God’s very love for us has made us children of God (1 John 3:13).

If ever there is a doubt about our goodness, the Word of God is present to reassure us that each of us matters, that we are loved, that we have been deemed undeniably and irrevocably important by God, the Creator of all things visible and invisible — the verses above are just a few examples of this. Our ethnic identity, the culture or background we come from and/or are a part of, are incredibly meaningful aspects of our good and God-given identity. That is what makes it all the more difficult when that truth isn’t proclaimed in the media that we consume on any given day.

Why does media matter?

If I already have access to the Word of God, which boldly proclaims this truth about who I am, why do I need media to do it too? Media is more than just something we mindlessly take in. It is part of a larger story, a story we tell ourselves. These stories have a tremendous impact on who we are. I think of how inspired I feel every time I hear Coach Taylor’s impassioned speech in the pilot of “Friday Night Lights.” Or how I literally cried my way through the heart-warming story of “Coco” and felt like I truly loved Miguel and his family. Every time I cry, laugh, or otherwise deeply feel the story being told through film or television, I am tuned into the immense power they have to draw me out of my world and into the world of so many others, both like and unlike me. The stories told in the context of media remind me that I am part of a bigger “we.”

This is why it can be particularly hurtful when those stories fail to actually represent the goodness of which we are made. The unfortunate truth is that, for as long as television and film has been around, it has failed to represent the experience of people of color well, let alone in any way that echoes the truth about who we are as daughters and sons of God.

What has media said I am?

According to a USC study titled “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment,” television and film have failed to accurately represent women and non-white racial groups, which is why so many people have taken up the fight around #representationmatters. This presents a unique opportunity for us Catholics to recognize that this resistance can open the door for media to acknowledge our diverse experiences in a way that respects our inherent dignity and value. Granted, media fails to do this in many ways — not just in its inability to depict racial and ethnic diversity well — but the pang of misrepresentation has been felt for far too long in ethnic communities.

The media we consume becomes part of a collective narrative, our shared memory, as a society and as a culture. So when little girls like me only saw Latinas in roles like the oversexualized best friend or the cleaning lady, it had a great impact on how we saw ourselves and how others saw us. And that’s just my personal experience; it doesn’t account for the countless other boys and girls — whether Native American, Black, Asian, or otherwise — who have seen and still see people who look like them in very narrow and limited roles and storylines.

The stories we tell and the stories we hear carry significant weight in our lives, one heavier than we can really imagine. Television and film have too often painted us as caricatures, as stereotypes, as one-dimensional people when there is so much more to us. And that hurts — not just because it would hurt anyone in that circumstance, but because it does not acknowledge the truth about who we are. When Christ looks upon us, He sees every part of who we are. Not only does He see it, but He delights in it — this includes our ethnicity, race, and culture. That diversity is part of His Kingdom. When the media fails to display diversity in such a light, it’s more than just a problem with media. It actually skews our own perception of Heaven, and it makes us forget the diversity that we will get to rejoice in eternally.

What can media say about who I am?

We understand that #representationmatters because, when done well, our experiences are depicted as the complex, whole, deep and meaningful truths about humanity as a whole — no matter if it is through a leading or supportive role, or as a writer or producer. When diverse groups are represented both behind and in front of the camera, the stories contextualized through media become an expression of the good that is found in each human person who has been crafted uniquely, wonderfully, and fearfully by the Creator.

We have seen this in recent years, with the rise of diverse cast and crew on projects like “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Jane the Virgin,” “When They See Us,” “Always Be My Maybe,” “One Day at a Time,” “Late Night,” “On My Block,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse,” and “Black Panther.” And thankfully, it looks like more projects like this are on the way thanks to the success of so many of these and others before them. We crave stories that depict us in layered and complex ways because they are more authentically human in that way. Hearing these stories is crucial to affirming the reality of every person’s dignity as God’s creation and to seeing ourselves as God sees us. It is helpful in the daily fight to recall that we matter, that we contribute something to those around us. It echoes the fact that the world needs our insight, our perspective, our very being, in order to reflect the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

It is not always easy to remember that my ethnic identity is a gift — and the way it beautifully complements my being a beloved daughter of a Creator who loves me deeply and unconditionally and relentlessly and uniquely. Of course, representation in media alone won’t solve this problem — spoiler alert: only He can — but it sure is a step in the right direction.