A Boomer’s Guide to Representation in Media

Dear Sarah,

My father, a white middle aged man, is a producer for a TV network and he keeps complaining about how the industry is changing. He gripes that “everything is so PC” and that he can’t tell a joke without upsetting the “liberal snowflakes”.  These comments really hurt my feelings! Like most young people, I understand the importance of representation and diversity in the media. I have tried to explain this to my father, but he won’t listen to me! Even worse, he insists that classic racist stereotypes are good for ratings and that they make “old fashioned” viewers like him laugh.  How can I convince my dad that he needs to let go of his old fashioned ways?

-A Concerned Daughter

Ah, the classic excuse of “It’s not my fault, I was raised that way”.  I agree it can be difficult to see our parents and grandparents struggle to adapt to our ever changing world.  However, I don’t think they should get a free pass just because change is scary. You did a good thing by trying to start a dialog with your dad!  Working as a TV producer, he has the potential to change the whitewashed and stereotypical shows that dominate the industry. Here is a brief guide to what I think your dad needs to know.

  1. America is a melting pot of attitudes, cultures, races, and religions! Shouldn’t our media reflect this?  

For the most part, the story of the white nuclear family has been overplayed. We have seen it time and time again, and frankly it gets boring!  I think there are far more interesting and enriching experiences out there to be told. Don’t live in a diverse community? The great news is that (if done properly) TV and movies can introduce people to new cultures and lifestyles that they might be unaware of.  And I’m not just talking about educational shows that would be featured on the history channel or PBS. We need to feature real people and tell compelling stories while being careful not to generalize or use stereotypes. Our media needs to reflect the differences in gender, sexuality, family structure, race, religion, etc. that makes our country a beautifully diverse place.  

2. Diversity in media makes everyone feel welcome

If American media only portrays the archetypal apple pie eating, flag waving, christian American citizen, Americans who don’t fit that mold can feel othered and isolated.  Immigrants or those with different religions or cultural practices shouldn’t feel that they must choose between assimilation or alienation. Our media (TV or otherwise) should reflect many different experiences so that everyone feels represented in one way or another.  For example, a makeup ad in Seventeen Magazine that features a transgender woman could help 1000’s of Trans teens feel like there are others who are going though similar experiences. Keeping with this example, making LQBTQ individuals commonplace in the media will help expose them to people like your dad.  Eventually, things won’t seem so strange and your dad slowly begins to accept that not everyone is exactly like him. Perhaps, he will even be able to see that this is a good thing! 

3. Changes must be made, but they need to be made very carefully 

So far we’ve learned why it’s important to include a variety of experiences on TV and other media sources. But we must also discuss how we can implement these changes without reinforcing damaging stereotypes or creating new ones.  Although I’m sure your dad is great at his job, we are in desperate need of more diversity in our production, writing, and directing teams.  In order to tell compelling stories about diverse characters, those groups must be represented on the team creating the story! It seems like a simple idea, but it’s not often practiced. Additionally, it’s important that non-white (and non-binary) characters are featured as main characters with fully fleshed-out personalities. We can’t just cast a diverse character as the sidekick or best friend and call it inclusive.  Often when this happens, the character’s personality is solely based on a trope (things like the “ sassy black woman” or the “gay best friend”). Not only do these kinds of portrayals reinforce negative stereotypes, but they are also lazy ways of faking representation.

Armed with this information, I hope that your dad realizes just how important representation is in American media.  We spend countless hours of our lives watching TV, looking at ads, and reading books and magazines. What we see, hear, and read during those hours have very real impacts on the lives of adults and even bigger impacts on kids.  Hopefully, your dad (and others like him) will finally realize this. Good luck!