Walkouts + Wonder Woman: Research on Representation in Media

March 15, 2018

What do this week’s student walkouts have to do with superhero films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther?

By: Dr. Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, Researcher

Last year’s Wonder Woman broke at least a half-dozen records, as did February’s Black Panther. They’re not just great films. They’re also feeding a very real hunger on the part of audiences: We are tired of the same stories told by the same people. This public hunger, combined with social science research, shows the importance of representation in popular media – which can have powerful positive effects on both personal behavior and larger systems, ultimately leading to a more equitable society.

It’s not enough to see just any stories about people who look like ourselves. Unless we have a hand in shaping the stories, those characters too often reinforce the same tired narratives. RaceForward has demonstrated that only one-third of news coverage about race addresses structural factors; the underrepresentation of people of color in newsrooms may have something to do with it. In 2017, a Color of Change report showed that a lack of Black writers and showrunners contributes to continuing stereotypical portrayals of Black characters, particularly in crime shows. The Geena Davis Institute research tells us that films with women directors or writers have more female characters.

It’s true that visibility is not power – but it can be a stepping stone. A number of recent studies have shown that exposure to positive, counter-stereotypical narratives can decrease implicit bias against women, people of color, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups. Similarly, exposure to negative stereotypes about themselves impairs people’s performance on cognitive tasks like school tests.

Better media representation of marginalized groups has potential to effect change on institutions, not just individuals. Exposure to positive counter-stereotypes may make people with powerful identities (e.g. men or White people) more likely to acknowledge structural inequalities. Time and time again, the social sciences show us the links between interpersonal interactions and systems of structural inequality. For instance, women are much more likely to introduce male colleagues using professional titles than vice versa. These patterns contribute to perceptions that women are less experienced or authoritative than their male peers, and ultimately to discrepancies in salary.

This same argument holds true for youth: Being able to tell their own stories has tremendous power. In the week after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, high school students organized the March for Our Lives because they were tired of others speaking for them. In three days, they received almost $4 million in donations. And on March 14th, thousands of students around the United States walked out of schools to protest gun violence. Commenters on Twitter have pointed to series like Harry Potter and the Hunger Games – in which teenagers literally save the world from corrupt adult governments – as part of their inspiration.

It’s easy to think that traits like age, race, and gender can be addressed separately. But the relative success of these particular protests shows that they’re connected. The news media has treated the similarly youth-led Black Lives Matter movement very differently.

Even so, organizations that amplify youth voices in media have a real effect. I lead media research at a think tank, New Knowledge Organization Ltd., that partners with a number of these organizations to study and increase that impact. Here are two of the many organizations doing this important work:

Girl Scouts of Greater New York teamed up with Vidcode to create Breaking the Code, a program that exposes middle school girls to computer programming and filmmaking. Girls in the program work directly with role models who look like them. That’s because the instructors and administrators are all women. Many of them are women of color, mirroring the districts where these girls live and study. And the girls themselves use computer programming to make PSAs for their peers. Other students get to see these short videos, featuring students who look like them, and passing on messages that the girls themselves think are important. In the program’s first year, we found it raised girls’ confidence and therefore self-efficacy, which is critical to persistence in male-dominated careers.

PBS NewsHour’s Student Reporting Labs works with middle and high school students around the country to build the next generation of public media. Student journalists in the program produce, write, direct, and anchor stories that are aired on local news as well as nationally on the NewsHour. As researchers, we don’t just talk to student reporters – we also get their peers’ reactions to the stories they produce. These other students invariably think that adults should pay attention to teen-produced news. Teenagers have different opinions and concerns, they tell us, and adults aren’t always aware of them. Leaving teen voices out of newsrooms means that we’re getting an incomplete picture of such critical issues as school safety, race, immigration, and gender.

The disability rights movement first popularized the phrase “Nothing about us without us” in English. Since then, other marginalized groups have taken it up as a rallying cry. It’s not enough to have stories about the full breadth of humanity – we need the storytellers to represent all of us, too. The last few weeks have made it clear just how much, and why, it matters.