Marginalized communities seek representation of their intersectional identities on television screens

By: Mac Pham

November 18, 2023

Story highlights

  • “It’s not just adding identities. It’s more like trying to understand how different life experiences are,” Lourdes Cueva Chacon, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University says.
  • According to a 2022 Nielsen report of 2,000 participants with a disability, one-third of the participants felt disconnected because their identity was not represented in the media.
  • Intersectionality perceptions can stem from stereotypes and assumptions in television, film and media.

SAN DIEGO – Historically, there has been a lack of representation in the media for people who have intersecting identities such as ethnicity, sexuality, disability and amongst other identities. This has been found by various researchers over the years from organizations such as GLAAD, Nielsen, and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Just because intersectional identities are included in television, film and media; it does not equate to proper representations of marginalized communities.

Underrepresentation of intersectional identities in the media

The numbers of intersectional identities incorporated in media have significantly been underwhelming in comparison to the population of intersectional identities.

According to a study from TVLine, a source for media outlets, from 2015-2017, 18 percent of television characters were minorities and 11 percent were LBGTQ+ characters. For context, 23 percent of the United States population at the time of the study were people of color and 4.8 percent were people from the LGBTQ+ community.

Alanna Peebles, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University, has studied the impact that media representation has on marginalized communities as well as the overall audience.

“We know from a lot of the research that representation has effects on people,” Peebles said. “It has effects on people in terms of being able to see people like them on the screen and it has effects on people who are seeing very different people from them on the screen.”

In an article by Amelia Hansford, a reporter for PinkNews, an organization that advocates for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, provided a report from GLAAD, an organization that researched data regarding LBGTQ+ representation.

According to the GLAAD report, LBGTQ+ characters were incorporated into less than one-third of popular film companies productions from companies such as Lionsgate, Netflix and The Walt Disney Company. The study also showed that one in every two characters only had a cameo appearance.

The lack of LBGTQ+ characters can feel like the characters are just there to be included on television in the eyes of many LBGTQ+ members watching at home.

In a 2021 study (PDF) by Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Dr. Katherine Pieper, Marc Choueiti, Kevin Yao and Dana Dinh of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, focused on Asian American and Pacific Islander representation in film, they found that there is severe underrepresentation of these groups.

According to the study, they found that among a sample size of 1,300 movies from 2007 to 2019, only five percent included a character of Asian American or Pacific Island descent with at least one speaking line. Behind the scenes, less than four percent of movie directors were of Asian American or Pacific Island descent in the sample size.

For further context, the study identified that Asian Americans and Pacific Island make up for seven percent of the United States population.

With low numbers of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders involved in media in comparison of how much they make up the United States population, the study showed that they are given few opportunities to showcase their social identities on film.

Asian Americans’ struggle to find opportunities for representation

Recently, the School of Journalism and Media Studies at SDSU held its bi-annual Screening Circle event that covered unrepresented identities in the media.

The Screening Circle featured Fumi Abe, a Japanese-American stand-up comedian.

At the Screening Circle, Abe spoke about experiencing discrimination that he has faced during his career as a stand-up comedian. Discrimination is the poor behavior towards certain groups of people, particularly involving intersectional identities.

Abe explained that he had to overcome challenges of finding locations to perform, particularly in less populated cities. According to Abe, some companies were hesitant to book Abe for shows due to their concern believing that fewer people would attend a stand-up comedy performance if they saw that it was going to be performed by an Asian American.

Fumi Abe performing stand-up comedy at San Diego State University. Photo by Mac Pham.
Fumi Abe performing stand-up comedy at San Diego State University. Photo by Mac Pham.

Misrepresentation of intersectional identities in the media

Lourdes Cueva Chacon, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at SDSU, has researched and contextualized news coverage by journalists of marginalized communities.

Even when intersectional identities are included in media, sometimes these identities are stereotyped. Chacon states the importance of television producers eliminating stereotypes in the portrayal of intersectional identities.

“Just getting rid of stereotypes in what you are producing,” Cueva Chacon said. “Either a TV show, a comic or a film, or if it’s just your news reporting, making sure that you’re not generalizing.”

When media production accurately presents intersectionality, the audience becomes greatly aware to a broader perspective of an intersectional identity captured by a television show or a film.

“It’s not just adding identities,” Cueva Chacon said. “It’s more like trying to understand how different life experiences are.”

People of intersectional identities want to see their stories told in the media so that the audience as a whole can appreciate what their identity is truly like.

Interview on media representation with Dr. Cueva Chacon

In the 2021 study (PDF) by Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Dr. Katherine Pieper, Marc Choueiti, Kevin Yao and Dana Dinh, researchers of the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, of Asian American and Pacific Islander character portrayals across 100 films, they found that these groups were being misrepresented.

According to the study, one in every five characters were stereotyped as a “perpetual foreigner.” A stereotype is a belief that one characterizes to distinguish a group of people. Stereotypes can be unintended ways to generalize intersectional identities.

A “perpetual foreigner” meant that the character was drawn as if speaking English was not their first language. The study also showed that Asian American and Pacific Islander characters were given the “bad guy” role at the same rate as for “perpetual foreigner” roles.

In a similar study (PDF) by Ariana Case, Zoily Mercado and Karla Hernandez with assistance from Dr. Katherine Pieper, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, and Jacqueline Martinez, researchers of the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, they explored Hispanic and Latino representation in film. The study examined 28 movies that were composed of 128 Hispanic and Latino characters.

According to the findings of the qualitative study, Hispanic and Latino characters were perceived as “angry” or “temperamental” at a significantly higher rate (23.7%) in contrast to non-Hispanic and Latino characters (8.5%).

Among the same sample size, 56 characters had a role that involved a career. Among the 56 characters, only two held a noteworthy career, one of which was a pharmacist and the other worked for the government. The lack of noteworthy careers given can stereotype Hispanic and Latino people as groups not being able to land careers in the upper echelon.

According to Nielsen, a company that collects consumer media data, among 164,000 films and television shows collected by Nielsen, less than five percent involved relevant disability storylines appearing on screen.

According to the report, in a survey taken by participants with a disability, one-third of the participants with a disability felt disconnected because they was not included in media programming. The report also said that over 50 percent of the participants felt that their identities were misrepresented on screen.

A majority of the participants felt that their portrayal was inaccurate. They experienced difficulties in relating to characters with a disability due to the lack of storylines including disabilities.

Natali Gonzalez, the Arts and Culture editor for the Daily Aztec newspaper at SDSU, has covered stories surrounding representation in the media.

Gonzalez says the importance of covering intersectionality should not just be to check off a box. When television producers are genuinely making efforts to represent marginalized communities, they understand the significance of giving intersectional identities a chance to be properly represented.

“It’s not just having those people there to have them there,” Gonzalez said. “It’s about finding qualified people who might not have opportunities that other qualified people have.”

When marginalized communities are properly represented, the audience as a whole is also seeing a broader perspective. Gonzalez pointed out the positive results of the audience absorbing diverse stories in the media.

“I think it makes people understand others better,” Gonzalez said. “It also makes you more in touch with people that are different from you.”

Furthermore, there has been an increase of opportunities for marginalized communities to share their stories and experiences.

Netflix’s “Love on the Spectrum,” is a reality dating show that feature people with autism. Viewers of the show saw an up-close experience of the challenges that people with autism face on a regular basis.

People with autism were able to tell their stories and viewers learned about these stories that typically do not appear in the media.

Infographic by Mac Pham
Infographic by Mac Pham

Progression towards inclusion and representation

Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal, a psychology professor for the City University of New York, wrote an opinionated article on where he stands with the progress of media representation.

According to Nadal, representation is not the final destination, but only the beginning of achieving equity.

The goals of representation of marginalized communities will not be something that happens overnight, but getting conversations in the production room is a start.

Nadal also indirectly referred to media production to actively seek representation for marginalized communities.

Gonzalez gave her insight on the misconceptions of what it means to represent marginalized communities as opposed to including them.

“I think people mistaken the idea of inclusivity of, we’re just going to bring somebody in because of their sexuality, because of the color of their skin,” Gonzalez said. “We’re opening it up to find the best people regardless of who they are.”

Peebles advocates for minorities to have increased lead roles in order to take charge of how they are seen in the media.

“It’s having minorities be in the writing room to really influence where these stories are going to be headed,” Peebles said. “And it’s also having people who are portraying their own social identity on screen.”

CBS’ “Big Brother,” a reality game show, has historically included minorities in its casting. One minority contestant, Jag Bains, became the first Sikh contestant to be featured on the show’s most recent season.

The show allowed Bains to open up about his religious identity to the audience and express his frustration with how Sikh and similar religious to Sikh, are portrayed in mainstream media.

Bains also spoke about his experiences that when people see him, they first notice his turban before acknowledging him.

In contrast, many characters in film with a disability are being played by actors who do not have a disability.

According to a recent study by Nielsen, 95 percent of characters with a disability were played by actors who did not have a disability.

Having a person who has lived through a particular disability and involving that person to draw a life of that particular disability allows an accurate first-hand experience to portray on screen.

Cueva Chacon explained that inclusion of marginalized communities is only the bare minimum.

“To have proper representation as not just having a black body or a brown body or an Asian body in your TV show,” Cueva Chacon said. “It’s actually understanding the historical, social, historical context of that person’s community and incorporate all of that into the show.”

In 2020, CBS made a mandatory rule that moving forward, all of their reality television shows are required to have a cast that is at least 50 percent Black, Indigenous or people of color.

As progress of having diverse people on reality shows have been made, it has allowed people with intersectional identities to share their experiences to the audience.

Progression starts with conversations regarding the inclusion of intersectional identities and following it up with ideas on how to represent these identities on screen.

When media production allows marginalized groups to tell their stories for the audience to see a variety of perspectives, the media is making progress toward representing intersectional identities.