The Reel Me: Representation Matters
Recently I was reflecting on all the media I was exposed to as a child and quickly realized that there were no real characters that showed me myself. I had a mainly nondiverse group of characters to watch and was never able to look at the tv and say, “she looks like me.” Realizing this left me truly heartbroken. I had grown up without any one to lookup to from media and was growing to ascribe cultures and values that weren’t my own. My hope at that time was that future generations of kids, those like my 2-year-old nephew Xander, would have someone that could see themselves in.
After this conversation within myself, my family and I went on a trip to Disneyland for our first family vacation since I was an undergraduate. We spent our first day exploring the park and riding rides. I was happy to be there and even more happy to be on this trip with my nephew. Seeing him react with delight when he went on to the rides or when he met Mickey Mouse were happy moments for me. He was beyond excited to be there. However, there was one moment that truly touched my heart. When evening fell, we settled in to watch the Main Street Electrical Parade. As character floats drove past us, his lit up his face filled with glee, and he was loving each moment. Then the character Miguel from Pixar’s Coco came by, and my nephew pointed exclaimed, “Look, it’s Xander!” He was, in that moment, seeing himself in the character. He, unlike me, had a character who looked like him and taught him things about his culture and heritage. Hearing him exclaim those words made me so happy. What I never had as a child he could now experience.
This moment showed my family and I that representation is important. Children need to see people who look like them in media to feel connected. My nephew received an important gift, one that can never be repaid. These moments remind us that each day children are developing a sense of self; creating who they are and who they will be. “Children shape their reality according to the models they build with many bricks: stories, songs, films, plays, experiences and many other factors which help them in codifying the reality into common patterns to be reproduced. Through these elements, they discover how the world they live in and themselves, too. Children’s representation in…media plays a significant role in child development and growth because it helps children to understand the reality they live in or to discover other cultures, giving them the opportunity to develop empathy and respect for cultural differences. Children’s representation is important to how kids build their perspectives on their own ethnic-racial group, as well as that of others…In this sense, children’s representation has a double dimension: on one hand, it support the discovery of an external dimension, and on the other, it provides inputs for the discovery of the inner dimension.”[i] To better understand themselves, children need to see visual representations that reflect who they see in the mirror. This helps kids build themselves into more well-rounded individuals. When my nephew saw the character Coco at that parade, not only did he see himself in Miguel, but he was also learning about his culture as a Mexican America, LatinX, child. His identity began to take shape that day.
Conversely, “the lack of representation of the reality in which they live may also affect them in a long-term perspective and under many points of view. For instance, research shows that a lack of representation in media can lead to negative psychological outcomes for those with identities that are underrepresented or negatively portrayed…Exposure to negative media depictions of their own ethnic-racial groups can undermine children’s sense of self, whereas high-quality children’s media can promote positive ethnic-racial attitudes and interactions.”[ii] Children need to be able to see themselves and their cultures in the media they consume in order to build a strong sense of self. Without seeing characters who look like themselves, a young child will grow up unsure and, in many cases, ashamed of who they are. Worse yet, they will not understand themselves, their culture, and the importance they play on the world.
However, representation is not only important for children. For adults such as myself who had no characters to identify with, representation matters just as it does for children. With the recent reveal of the new Marvel film, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a new character was teased: Namor. Played by Tenoch Huerta, Namor, “is a hybrid born from an Atlantean princess and a human. Namor protects the seas from any threats, and he has classic abilities like superhuman strength, speed, and breathing underwater.”[iii] Also, along with the reveal of Namor, the audience got introduced to Alex Livinalli’s Attuma and Mabel Cadena’s Namora. All three of these characters are of traditional Atlantean descent. Important to note is that all three of these characters have been redesigned and made into personification interpretations of Aztec gods. This allows many Mexican and Mexican-American people to not only see someone who looks like them, but also to see an stylized and mythologized approximation of their culture on the big screen. Children can begin to understand where they came from, but adults can rediscover and reclaim that history to brings power back to their lives – even through the heightened fiction of a comic book film. With all that has been in occurring in more recent times – from expansion of anti-immigration policies to the vilification of the Mexican, Mexican American, and LatinX people – a film that recognizes the power of a people in turn allows them to reclaim the power which has attempted to be stripped. Many LatinX people have been voicing their excitement and happiness of this coming Marvel character. Twitter users have been very vocal of their excitement and historical relevance this casting plays. Tweets have included:
Huerta himself has also voiced his excitement at this casting and movie. In the
“I come from the hood and thanks to inclusion, I’m here. A lot of kids are there in their hood thinking about dreaming to be here. You can make it! Gracias a todos, todos paisanos, todos los Latino Americanos. Ustedes cruzado el rio y dejaron todo lo que amaron atrás. Gracias a eso yo estoy aquí.”[iv] (Translation: Thank you all, all my countrymen, all the Latin American people. You all crossed the river and left all that you loved behind. Thanks to that I am here.) The actor himself sees the importance his role is playing but also acknowledges all the people who made it possible for him to be there. Colonialism has affected many Mexicans and LatinX’s lives, but in making a film like this, which evokes Aztlán – the ancestral homeland of the Aztec – people of the Mexican culture can reflect and rejoice that not only do we have a superhero bringing justice to our struggles, but it will also allow others to see our ancestors and cultures power and pride.
Representation is important, and although the example we have today are not perfect, they are a great starting point. Kids like my nephew Xander are growing up in a world where they can turn on the tv or watch a movie and see someone who looks like them, and talks like them. For my nephew to have what I never did means the world to me, and I hope as he grows up things will only get better.
[i] Humanium Website, https://www.humanium.org/en/the-importance-of-childrens-representation-in-literature-and-media/#:~:text=Children’s%20representation%20in%20literature%20and%20media%20plays%20a%20significant%20role,and%20respect%20for%20cultural%20differences
[ii] Humanium Website, https://www.humanium.org/en/the-importance-of-childrens-representation-in-literature-and-media/#:~:text=Children’s%20representation%20in%20literature%20and%20media%20plays%20a%20significant%20role,and%20respect%20for%20cultural%20differences
[iii] Collider Article https://collider.com/black-panther-wakanda-forever-tenoch-huerta-namor-the-sub-mariner-images/
[iv] Comicon 2022 Marvel Panel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rf-NqJQJHBU
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