Representation has an incredible effect on the general populations. Media can take a story about a group of people facing different hardships and make a huge audience care about them. Books like “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson or movies like “Trevor” are proof of the power that media really has. Unfortunately, many prominent groups of people have little to no representation, especially in the more popular movies and tv shows. Some people would argue that that’s because audiences’ don’t want to see more diverse casts in what they’re watching, however studies have shown that there’s a correlation between more diversity and higher profits.
Despite the evidence that shows that diversity is good for sales, there’s still a stunning lack of diversity in TV and movies. This debate has gotten national attention for the second year in a row because of the Oscar nominations. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite went viral on twitter in 2015 when the nominations came out and there was a stunning lack the racial diversity. It went viral again in 2016 when for the second year in a row the Oscar nominations lacked diversity again. In 2016, all of the nominations for Best Actor/Actress in a Leading Role and Best Actor/Actress in a Supporting Role were white. The Mirror posted an article last year about the Oscar nominations which included this graphic showing the breakdown of racial diversity:
There are quite a few reasons people think that there’s such little diversity in nominations:
- A lot of the judges are white, so it makes sense that there wouldn’t be a ton of diversity in the nominees. I do think that the racial breakup of the judges is a cause of a lack of diversity, however I do not think it should be an excuse.
- Most movies aren’t very diverse, so the nominees are going to reflect that. While this is also mostly true, there were still many amazing movies staring people of color that were neglected. Just in 2016; Creed, Beasts of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton, and Concussion all featured excellent performances by people of color and none got a nomination.
- People don’t want to see movies with diverse casts. This one is more perpetuated by the production companies than by the general public and it’s already been addressed further up in this blog post.
A lot of the reasons that people give are very valid, however they ignore the problem with a lack of diversity. Children understand the world around them from their experiences, and media enforces them and provides a broader context for these experiences. When the only people you portray as being successful, happy, or even worthwhile only represent a small part of the population, children accept that as part of how they understand the world.
What I want to know is: if movies have this level of problem with diversity, how do books fair? I’m going to look at the race and the gender of both the author of the book and the main character(s) for the top 10 New York Times Best Sellers in the Young Adult category.
- If I Stay by Gale Forman: Gale Forman is a white woman who’s doing quite well on the charts with the #1 and #2 spots. If I Stay‘s main character Mia is also a white woman.
- Where She Went by Gale Forman: Where She Went is the sequel to If I Stay, but is told from Mia’s romantic interest’s point of view. Adam is white man.
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: John Green is a very popular YA author and has the next three spots in the NYT Bestseller list. John Green is a white male and the main character, Hazel Grace Lancaster, is a white female.
- Looking For Alaska by John Green: The main character, Pudge, is a white male. I’ve read this book before and there is a more diverse supporting cast. However, John Green’s books have garnered some amount of criticism, specifically this one and Paper Towns, about how he writes women.
- Paper Towns by John Green: Quentin and Margo are the two main characters and they are both white.
- Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: Rainbow Rowell is a white woman who wrote a love story between a white boy and girl. I’m beginning to see a pattern…
- Girl, Online by Zoe Sugg: Zoe Sugg is a white woman who wrote a love story between a white boy and girl.
- Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand: Laura Hillenbrand is a white woman, who, in a stunning turn of events, wrote a book about a white boy that isn’t also a love story! It focuses on Louie Zamperini’s life and specifically about what happened to him during World War Two.
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs: This book written by a white man is an adventure that follows the main character Jacob Portman, who is also a white man.
- We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: Cadence Easton, a white woman, is the main character of We Were Liars, which is written by a white woman.
I want to preface this with there is nothing wrong with reading books with white people or white authors. The problem is when there is so little representation of diversity that we begin to accept that’s how it’s always going to be. I’ve read quite a few of those books on that list and they’re good books. But there’s a problem when every main character in popular movies and popular literature is white.
There isn’t really any good way to fix this problem easily. There’s a negative feed back loop when it comes to lack of representation. Minorities aren’t represented in media, so they stop consuming it which leads to the people who create media to think that they aren’t a viable consumer base. That leads to those people making more media with a lack of representation which feeds the problem.
My solution? Here’s some book recommendations for young adults that has more diverse themes:
- “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie: This book is a coming of age story about Junior, a Native American who struggles growing up on a reservation. It shows from a Native American’s point of view the struggles of living on a ranch and how damaging stereotyping is.
- “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” by Ned Vizzini: This book follows Craig Gilner, who it’s a pretty stereotypical white guy I’ll admit, but it has one of the most realistic depictions of mental illness I’ve ever read.
- “Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins: The book isn’t as explicit about this, however there is textual evidence that Katniss and some of the other people from the poorer part of District 12 are likely Native American or at least have darker skin. The people from District 11 are African American. It should be noted that the movie has much less representation.
- “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by JK Rowling: This makes the list for a few reasons. A psychology study found that people who read Rowling’s series are actually more tolerant to minority populations. In addition, a recent theater production about the Harry Potter universe featured a black woman cast as Hermione. JK Rowling and fans defended it using canon, which only states that Hermione has incredibly curly hair.
It was hard for me to think of even these four book recommendations. If the books being read in schools or for pleasure by children have such little representation of the population as a whole, how can we expect every student to enjoy reading?