by Marsha Rakestraw
A few years ago at our graduate student residency, one of the students led an activity in which small groups looked at the prevalence of men, women, and people of color as authors of articles in different sections of the newspaper, such as Style, Sports, Business, and Arts.
They found that men — especially white men — dominated in every category.
In 2017 the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media helped conduct a study looking at gender representation in commercials and discovered significant gender imbalances and stereotyping.
And the #OscarsSoWhite campaign that began in 2015 continues to highlight the lack of diverse roles in Hollywood.
As humans, we pay a lot of attention to what we see around us, as it’s important to us to feel like we belong.
But what happens when the messages being modeled are skewed and potentially harmful? When we don’t see others like ourselves portrayed in media?
We have two terrific lesson plans in our Resource Center related to exploring who is missing from mainstream media and the kinds of messages that conveys.
In Magazine Scheme, which is recommended for grades 7-12, students explore articles, images, and ads in magazines targeted to teen girls to explore messages about women and girls and the effect of those messages on young women and men. (The activity can also be modified to explore appropriate men’s magazines and messages about men and boys.)
Groups of students look at the occurrences of messages about girls being interested in dating, fashion, being pretty and popular, etc., versus messages about girls being smart, athletic, adventurous, outspoken, and engaged in careers such as scientists, politicians, and entrepreneurs. Students also look at who is prevalent (and who is missing) in the photos used for ads and articles in these magazines.
In this activity, which is recommended for grades 4-10, students assess examples of media (from catalogs, magazines, children’s books, etc.) to consider who is (and isn’t) represented and to explore the impact of lack of diversity in media and students’ own rich experiences with diversity.
As part of the activity, students are given slips of paper with statements from people revealing one of their characteristics. Students then look in the catalogs, magazines, and/or children’s books for a match to that characteristic and then discuss their discoveries. Here are some of the sample characteristics that could be used:
- I am missing a limb.
- I am a male who cares for children.
- I am a young female scientist.
- My parents are the same gender.
- I use American Sign Language.
- I live in a shelter.
- I am a girl who enjoys trucks and trains.
- I am vegan.
When we’re part of the privileged group, it’s easy to miss how little represented people with other characteristics might be.
And when we’re one of the “invisible,” it can be disheartening and frustrating to rarely see ourselves depicted, especially in a way that feels “normal” rather than tokenizing or exploitative.
Being invisible (and thus not getting your needs met) can cultivate a significant and long-lasting set of consequences.
And as a recent example of the power and importance of representation, check out this video from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, in which Black Panther fans film video messages sharing what the movie meant to them (and are surprised by BP star Chadwick Boseman):
Image via Ken Hawkins/Flickr.
Be sure to forward this to at least ONE person who would benefit from these resources.