Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Representation

I ask you do a simple exercise. Take a look at the world around you and do a count. Choose any one of these ways of categorization - gender, race/caste and count the number of people who are part of these categories in different places - workplace, media (television, radio, magazines, etc), neighbourhood, etc.
This simple number count would tell you something. Something that might be important. You would find that certain members of the society are vastly over-represented than others. Why is that? A simplistic answer that it is because that those certain sections of the society are smarter/better/more hardworking is alluring but is it true? Is it to do with the genes? Are some races indeed superior to others? If yes, in what ways?
There are differences amongst people. How much of those differences are due to how they were brought up and how they were taught? That is the oldest debate in the world. Is it nature or nurture? A question that has been asked for many a generation and for which there are no definitive answers. It would be foolish to ignore the influences of nurture in the making of a person and likewise, it would be foolish to ignore nature's eccentricity. But is there a pattern? For example, there are very few women who do well in the field of mathematics but does that mean that they are genetically incapable of doing well in that particular subject?
I take the example of women because it is the most visible of all (and yet somehow people fail to notice them). I once went to a birthday party of a one year old girl and I could not fail to notice how clearly the baby was marked as being of a particular gender. It was almost as if I was looking at a colour-coded resistor. There could be no doubt as to what _she_ was. She was dressed in clothes that were meant for girls, in colours that are considered girly and also had the definitive feminine feature - a ponytail. The gifts could be construed as more or less neutral, though tending towards feminine but there were certainly no He-Mans. At the age of one, when the child is not even aware of what s/he is and is just getting to make sense of its environment, they are already fitted into a category of appearances and behaviour. Their training starts that young and is it that hard to imagine that they grow into the moulds meant for them. If you are a woman and you are told a million times while you were growing up that women are supposed to be good at this and that and not so good at that from several different sources, is it possible that you are subconsciously do bad at things like maths and rationalise it with the popular opinion?
In the case of women, it is quite obvious that nurture plays a huge role in their development but one cannot attribute some things to nurture. For example, why is the world record for 100m sprint run for women is 10.49 while men have managed to set a record of 9.77 seconds? Yes, there are differences but how much are they important in today's world? Thousands of years ago, when human beings used to live with animals of the forest, physical strength would have been a very important attribute because without it you might get killed in a tussle with an animal. In today's world, strength is no longer required to survive or do a modern task. Secondly, these few women who set the world record for 100 m sprint would outrun the vast majority of men! Thirdly, women are generally discouraged from getting into sports because it is seen as unfeminine and they grow up to be slight as that is seen to be feminine. This is the reason why nature vs nurture debate is so complicated.
Some time ago, Jack wrote a post on representation of non-white people in media. He recounts a heated discussion with a media person.

I said that people of color make up almost half, if not more, of the population in the Bay Area and that they don't get covered that much in the news by local mainstream news stations. I then said alluded to her that why wouldn't an issue in Hunters Point be an important Bay Area issue.

A fellow female student of mine chimed in and voiced my concern pretty well when she said that issues effecting Bay View Hunters Point are more important to her than some University of California Berkeley elites getting upset about environmentalists camping out in their university trees (a semi-big story here in the Bay Area).

I than said how the way the news is going about presenting the news is basically wrong. She's talking about how they need to appeal to a mass audience and yet she seems to be saying she's appealing to a white audience, which is not the majority demographic in the Bay Area. I said how issues effecting people of color are almost never covered, and if they are, they are only covered because of issues of gang violence or shootings, and that's the only thing people see on TV associated with these certain communities.

What Jack points out in his post is how representation of non-white people in the media is so one-dimensional which stereotypes them as violent and criminals (because that is majorly the way they are depicted).
During my brief stay in the Bay Area, I got to meet Jack and he gave a tour of the city of San Francisco. He showed me areas that were predominantly Black or Latino and these areas were invariably poor. The area where I was put up was completely white and there were hardly any Blacks. The Asians are doing better than them because there were a lot of Chinese and Indians in the area. In a country that abolished segregation forty years ago, people are still segregated.
Out of all the non-white races, Black people are probably the most well represented in media (relatively). But even so, a cursory look at their 'representation' would reveal significant information. Ads can be quite informative because they always target their customers and when the target audience were Black, the ads would have Black representation and these ads were primarily that of fast food chains and some instant personal loan (but they dont call that a loan, the ad shows a Black man saying he has 'somebody' to pay the bills). When Jack showed me around, he mentioned how there were always more fast food joints in the poor areas (because they are cheap) and there are more of these money-lenders (I forgot what they were called) in those areas. These ads are targeted and Jack called it targeted racism. I tend to agree. I observed the way a Black man is represented and it seems weird to me that they are almost always bald (or have extremely short hair). The ones who are shown with their natural hair in movies or TV are usually intended to be silly or ridiculous ala Daffy Duck. For a Black character to be positive, he has to be bald or have insanely close cut hair. They just are not represented as positive with their natural hair. This is the kind of negative body image that leads to things like this or this. This is also the reason why people look at some people as 'unnatural' because their conventions have been set by the media representations.

Representation is not about putting more Black (or Latino or Asian) faces on the cover of a magazine (though that is connected) but is concerned with how conventions are set. If conventions are set on the basis of one community and 'good' is defined on the basis of that community, we have a representation problem. The case of media is perhaps more straighforward but this idea can be extended to others too. Representation is not just about numbers but far more than that.

PS. This is a retrieved post. Means that I wrote part of it a long time ago and shelved it to continue later. Finally managed to piece it together.

2 comments:

vaiby said...

Gets the point quite well. Very well written.

Madhat said...

Thanks man.

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