Visibility and Empathy: How Media Representation Affects Our Interactions

By Alejandro Ortega


[dropcap]N[/dropcap]early three years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences faced criticism for failing to nominate actors of color for acting awards in the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Spike Lee and Will Smith were among the actors who boycotted the awards ceremony and pushed questions of media representation of minorities to the forefront of public conscience. Although the United States is projected to become a majority-minority country by 2045, media representation of racial and ethnic minorities continues to lag. A study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School found that only 28.3% of characters with dialogue in four hundred films released between September 2014 and August 2015 were non-white. In a time where cultural diversity is becoming more pronounced in the United States, media representation has become an essential tool in shaping intercultural understanding and critical empathy between ethnic groups.

    Recently, films that center around cultures of ethnic minorities have been heavily criticized for their use of stereotypes. Many criticized the 2016 animated film Moana for conglomerating distinct Polynesian cultures into an over-simplified portrayal to cater to Western audiences. Depictions of these cultures to promote tourism in the Pacific faced backlash. Disney’s decision to partner with Hawaiian airlines as part of the film’s marketing caused critics to further question Disney’s intentions behind centering the film around Polynesian culture. A survey conducted by YouGov, a data analytics firm, found that a majority of Latinx and black respondents expressed that they felt on-screen representations of the groups they belong to were inauthentic.

         Such inauthentic representations manifest as stereotypes and cliched storytelling. In reference to the Disney animated film Princess and the Frog, Alicia Schmidt Camacho, professor at Yale University’s Department of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, states that “at the end of the day there are some very tired tricks of storytelling… that interfere with the most promising parts of the story which is about the honor of hard work.”

      A lack of media representation can have detrimental psychosocial effects on how members of a given ethnic minority perceive themselves. George Gerbner, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term “symbolic annihilation” in 1976, which refers to the manner in which a failure to represent a group in mainstream media can lead to members of such a group not seeing themselves as holding importance in the social spaces which they occupy. A lack of media representation can  influence the way members of a given group perceive themselves: excluding these people from media representation can lead a given group to perceive themselves as having limited membership in society. These psychological and sociological phenomena pose an obstacle to intercultural understanding by affecting the concept of self held by members of such group. Further research has demonstrated similar psychological and social effects of a lack of media representation of minorities. In his study of the psychological impact of media representation on Native Americans, Peter A Leavitt of the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona found that “media invisibility” and the use of stereotypical representations of ethnic groups can lead to deindividuation—the phenomenon where members of a given social group lose their individual identity and adopt the collective identity assigned to that group.

     Despite media representation of minorities still lagging behind, significant strides have been made made over the past year. The Walt Disney Pictures animated film Coco, which featured an all-Latino cast of voice-over actors, centered around the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead and went on to become of the top grossing Pixar films of all time. Professor Schmidt Camacho said of the film, “What’s recognizably powerful about [Coco] is that it deals with loss and separation. It is an artifact of the struggle over migrants’ rights because there’s that whole crossing into the land of the dead that’s like going through the border patrol…There’s the sense of the resourcefulness of people to circumvent those rules.” The film was praised for its ability to respectfully depict Mexican culture for a global audience; it is now translated into forty languages and has become the highest grossing film of all time in Mexico.

   Yuko Kuwai, an intercultural communication researcher examined the manner in which multicultural empathy can be fostered through ethnic minorities’ self-representation in the media. Kuwai examined how a group of Japanese students’ response to the documentary Permanencia, which details the experiences of Japanese Brazilians in a society that prides itself on an assumed ethnic homogeneity. Even though many of the students expressed many of their responses from the perspective of the dominant ethnic group, Kuwai found that multiple students had never been exposed to Japanese Brazilians and thus began to perceive the emotions they expressed regarding their struggles as valid. Kuwai also found that the documentary had particularly powerful effects on students who came from multicultural backgrounds; although they themselves were not Japanese Brazilian, they could relate to the social stigma associated with being “torn between the two identities.” Kuwai’s study is indicative of the transformative power media representation can have on multicultural empathy, particularly for those individuals who live in ethnically homogeneous communities.

        Professor Schmidt Camacho says she greatly benefited from growing up in a multicultural Philadelphia. She states, “I was in school with teachers who had been generations involved in the civil rights movement. Many of them were African Americans. They shared a lot of literature and art related to black life, black experience, and music… My parents were involved in immigrants’ rights work that covered different topics such as farm workers and people fleeing Central America from the civil wars.” Professor Camacho proudly proclaims that her interactions with such individuals and experiences of “shared cultural life” greatly enriched her life.

      As media platforms become more accessible in the future and America grows increasingly diverse, authentic media representation will need to accompany other measures of inclusion in order to create social environments conducive to intercultural understanding and empathy.  Professor Camacho says of this “A child needs a doll that looks like her… but more [of] what a child needs is a society that offers her the full possibility to find community and create community.”


Alejandro is a first-year in Benjamin Franklin College. You can contact him at