Fictional representations of women and marginalized groups have important effects on the ways in which society perceives and advocates for underrepresented communities. There have been exciting milestones in this area recently, including movies like “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman.” However, diverse representation must not simply be diverse — it must be a good, thoughtful representation that does not play further into harmful stereotypes. The best diverse representation comes from diverse creators.
Meaningful representation of women and racial minorities in popular media is critical to how people internalize racism, misogyny or other forms of prejudice. As a 2011 study shows, media portrayals affect both how members outside a group perceive a group and how members within that group perceive themselves. A lack of representation or poorly executed, stereotypical representation leads to negative social perceptions of a particular group and low self-esteem within the group, a result which the study specifically draws out by looking at the effects of portrayals of black men. A 2012 study on children’s TV viewing habits concluded that only white boys did not experience lower self-esteem after watching television as a result of media portrayals. This demonstrates the tremendous power even casual media consumption has on our relationships both with ourselves and with each other.
The kinds of storylines certain people are allowed to have play a huge role in the quality and effects of diverse character representation. While white men frequently get to be the heroes of the story, members of other groups are not so lucky, often relegated to sidelines that explicitly support and develop the arcs of white male characters. In terms of representation of women, this phenomenon is known as “fridging”. The term arose from the fate of DC superhero Green Lantern’s girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt in “Green Lantern #54,” who was killed and stuffed in a refrigerator to provide emotional motivation for Green Lantern. It spread quickly beyond the comic book community to describe any time a woman’s storyline is thrown away meaninglessly. Examples of fridging are in some of the biggest media in the world currently, and some examples are more heinous than others. Two particularly atrocious examples include Gamora in "Avengers: Infinity War" — which is problematic because of its validation of Thanos’s violent abuse of her as real love — and Missandei's death on “Game of Thrones.”
There are lots of other ways to fail the arcs established for female characters, unfortunately. Thrones is employing at least some of these tactics in its current season including by having one character insinuate that her rape was necessary to make her strong. The backlash from this and other errors of the recent season of the show have been intense. In the recent discussion of whether a certain character’s arc has been particularly underserved, internet backlash has focused on the lack of diversity among the top writers and showrunners. However, retrospective discussion about the source of any particular work’s disappointments in such a hypothetical way is useless, because there is no way to look back at a project’s failures and definitively attribute them to any one factor, like a lack of diversity among its creators. Furthermore, such an attitude creates additional, undue pressure on diverse creators to be extra-perfect, setting them up for failure at the very projects at which such voices want them to succeed.
Conversely, projects like “Wonder Woman” were lauded for being such successful representations in part because it was created in large part by a woman. Patty Jenkins directed “Wonder Woman” as the first woman to direct a superhero film and only the second woman to direct a movie with a budget over $100 million. Diverse creators are important both in ensuring the quality of minority representation and making the elite circles of our world more diverse and welcoming.
Greta Gerwig was only the 5th woman to be nominated for best director over the course of the Academy Awards’ 91-year history, and Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to have ever won. While the 2019 Oscars was among the most diverse ever, it also marked the first year with black victors in two categories — Ruth E. Carter for Costume Design and Hannah Beachler for Production Design. These awards demonstrate important progress towards minority recognition at all stages of the movie industry. While good fictional representation is important to open the possibility of those dreams, recognition on as large a stage as the Academy Awards helps our society recognize and incentivize diverse creators at every level of the process.
Trying to determine what could have been under more diverse creators in a show like “Game of Thrones” is a pointless exercise. However, moving forward we must acknowledge diverse representation does matter greatly, in both the kinds of stories we tell and in who we privilege with the power to tell stories. A true commitment to diverse media means valuing both who is in our media and who creates it, as well as reaffirming our commitment to making every character’s storyline more than a case of fridging.
Katherine Viti is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.