Media Representation

Idris-Elba-wears-Viking-h-006It is often said that persons of colour are heavily underrepresented in mainstream media.

I am not convinced that this is entirely accurate.

Merely asking that question will be enough to get me thought of as a racist etc just as doubting the dominant narratives about sexism or any other issue. Understand that it is not that I have a racist point of view or that I wish to maintain the status quo but rather that I am just interested in what is true, what the actual state of affairs is and why things might be the way they are.

I set about trying to find out if this was true first.

I chose African Americans to be my case study. They’re a minority but large enough (12.6%) that it would prevent any wild swings from even one person of that category appearing and also because their racial identity is relatively unambiguous.

If all other factors in society were entirely even, if opportunity were the same, we would expect to see something like 12.6% representation of African Americans across all media. If we differ significantly from 12.6% then we can say that something is going on to distort that representation – though we can’t necessarily say what.

I decided to investigate across several forms of media:

  • Musical albums.
  • Musical singles.
  • Literature.
  • Cinema.
  • Television.

I chose to investigate the top ten, most popular instances of each over the year 2013. In the case of albums and singles assessing by the artist (or the proportion of the group) that was African American. In literature I went by author. In cinema and television I went by significant cast (IMDB). I chose the top 10 because the most popular items are the most influential and the most reflective of the cultural zeitgeist.

I counted up the instances of African ancestry in each and worked it out as a percentage against the non-Africans.

  • Musical Albums:  30% representation.
  • Musical Singles: 20% representation.
  • Literature: 0% representation.
  • Cinema: 6.3% representation.
  • Television: 11.6% representation.

Is this perfect? No. You’d have to factor total money, screen time etc in, but I think this can give us a general, rule-of-thumb to look at. I don’t intend this to have been a scientific study, I just wanted to look for myself and get some sort of thumbnail view as to what the situation really was.

What we’re presented with is a fairly complicated picture where African Americans are over-represented in some areas and under-represented in others and these conform more than a little to stereotype. The only complete absence is in literature. Cinema is running at about 50% of where it should be and television is about on par.

Why might this be?

Racism? It might play a part, but clearly African American opportunities exist disproportionately in the music industry so it’s not hurting them there. Why in some of the other areas though? To get to racism we would have to eliminate all other potential factors. Those factors include:

  • Capitalist pursuit of the largest market (big enterprises are risk averse, whites as a demographic are larger and less likely to be in poverty).
  • Educational opportunities (often related to money, but not entirely)
  • Cultural and subcultural aspirations and choices.

You can’t come at these things with an expectation of racism or you’ll see what you’re looking for. Much like the gender pay gap you need accurate data that reflects the genuine situation and you need to look hard to eliminate those other factors.

What do you think? How does this reflect on whitewashing and making established characters more ethnic? In written media can only a writer of the ‘correct’ ethnicity write about someone of a particular culture or colour or not? Is it better to try and get it wrong or to avoid the whole problem anyway? Are these all Catch 22 situations?

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2 responses to “Media Representation

  1. I’m not sure where you got the figures for literature but certainly there are black authors out there, I know and interact with many of them so the number cannot be 0%. I will say that, like the feminists, black activists are not at all concerned in areas where they are ahead, only in areas where they are behind. I doubt you’ll ever find a black singer arguing for more white representation in the music industry, it’s like having a black athlete saying there are too many blacks in the NBA.

    There really is no reason to think that all races are going to be equally represented in all things, any more than we ought to expect both sexes to be equally represented in all things. People are interested in different things based on a whole host of factors. No one is keeping blacks out of these particular industries, they are self-selecting to either be involved or not be involved and then some people, like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, are whining that it can’t be the fault of blacks, it’s got to be the white man keeping them down.

    It’s all nonsense.

    • It was the top ten US sales. Yes there are plenty, but they’re not penetrating the popular zeitgeist.
      Of course, you’re, right, there’s no reason to think all races would be equally or even proportionally represented (look at the 100m sprint) but it’s hard to tell where differences might exist and to what extent, what’s social, what’s biological. The differences at a purely biological level between the ‘races’ are incredibly minor and insignificant.

      Most issues boil down to socioeconomics and past racism takes a long time to clear up.

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