Representation in content

by Yas Asare-Anderson and Stephanie Mensah
Diverse Britain

Rightly or wrongly, TV and film have informed our understanding of the world, subtly shaping our assumptions and prejudices. To better reflect their audiences, characters must be multifaceted and demonstrate a number of intersectionalities.

In a year that has seen widespread Black Lives Matter protests and arguably an increased awareness of social prejudices, content creators and advertisers must work hard to be accurate and representative. Through our research, we have defined three key principles that content creators should consider.

 

1. Ensure you are well placed to create the stories you are telling

A key component of being a credible voice within this space comes from having a diverse and representative workforce, in two ways:

  • Behind the camera: it’s crucial that the creative team represents the group they are trying to depict – they’ll be able to pick up on and advise on the subtleties of cultural nuance which audiences will expect to be portrayed correctly. A brilliant example was in the BBC’s adaptation of Noughts and Crosses, where heavy microaggressions (subtle, indirect discrimination against a marginalised group) have been casually dropped into everyday conversations, just like in real life. This level of verisimilitude took consultation with someone with a lived experience to execute correctly.

 

  • In front of the camera: On-screen talent must represent the breadth of ethnicities and cultures that exist. It’s not enough to include one Black person in the shot to tick the ‘BAME’ box. Consumers spot tokenistic behaviour quickly, and it damages credibility.

“When you have an advert that has little, if any, ethnic diversity and shows a little snippet of a Black person, you know that was an afterthought. It says to me that deep down, they don’t care that much about being inclusive to Black and Asian people. It sometimes taints how I feel about the company to a degree.”

Male, Afro-Caribbean/Black British ethnicity, Manchester

Black woman looking up in the darkness

It does a disservice to the people it aims to represent by making them feel like they are a secondary consideration in this space

2. Depict characters with layers

The media has made attempts at introducing diversity in the last few years, but many seem to fall into the trap of presenting one-dimensional characters – the same gay couple getting married in an extravagant way or the Black best friend (with zero backstory of their own) of the white protagonist. Yes, there is a presence, but these serve to reinforce the idea that certain attributes, which may differ from our own, are simplistic – which is not a true reflection of reality.

It does a disservice to the people it aims to represent by making them feel like they are a secondary consideration in this space, as well as perpetuating monolithic stereotypes.

A strong narrative with emotionally complex characters that develop with the plot has the potential to increase engagement and the life of a piece of content beyond the medium it is experienced in. And importantly, brings equality to the screen.

So, let’s show the whole person, the whole character. It could be the everydayness of being in a same-gender partnership and the focus is on their children, rather than their sexuality, as we saw in an Argos advert earlier in the year. No matter the platform or genre, content needs to be engaging, well written and provide consistent stories that challenge genre tropes and expectations.

Lesbian BAME couple with son

3. Be aware of cultural nuance

As highlighted in the Ipsos MORI Thinks report Gen Z: Beyond Binary, whether your content will be distributed locally or globally, it’s essential to consider that different cultures and audiences within the same market may be sensitive to different topics and representations.

It is important to remember that within each culture there is a significant amount of nuance. For example, the ‘Black community’ do not all behave the same way, have the same views, interests, desires, beliefs and practices. This type of over simplification lacks depth, and at worst, can be perceived as ignorant. Other examples include the way food is prepared and eaten, family hierarchies, levels of strictness, and sexual orientation. These don’t always have to be manifested through the lead characters, but subtle references can go a long way to delight audiences while also educating and exposing newer audiences to cultural practices unfamiliar to them.

Cultural analysis with consumers can help discover and develop detail and nuance of character portrayals and authentic, culturally attuned behaviours that make a difference in relaying an accurate portrayal. HBO’s series Insecure is a brilliant example of a fresh, modern, layered and accurate portrayal of Black characters. The series tackles everything from race relations and the gender pay gap to the fetishisation of the Black body. The series has been successful in opening up Black, female-led stories to a much wider audience, with up to 61% of US viewers being non-Black. This demonstrates the power of representative content and the power it has to educate and inform.

By the nature of its work, the media industry has the ear of the nation, which is a very powerful place to be. It has the power and the responsibility to not perpetuate stereotypes but reflect the depth and multifaceted nature of real people.

Enthralling, emotive and timeless stories alongside thrilling entertainment is what makes content memorable, creates ‘talk-ability’ and ultimately keeps audiences coming back. It is essential that those stories are thought-provoking, knowledge enriching and move beyond stereotypes to truly represent society accurately. As we continue to live in such complex and fragmented times, it is clear the power of storytelling to inform, educate and unite audiences has never been more important.

The media industry has the power and the responsibility to not perpetuate stereotypes but reflect the depth and multifaceted nature of real people

Stephanie Mensah

Stephanie Mensah

Director

Yas Asare-Anderson

Yas Asare-Anderson

Director