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Savannah Hopkinson: The importance of representation reflecting reality

Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez is interviewed in Orem on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. As her term as president of UVU gets underway, she said she plans to spend time "listening and learning" about the institution.
Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez is interviewed in Orem on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

I’d never seen a Filipino woman on a magazine cover until I saw the edition of UVU Magazine with the university’s new president, Astrid Tuminez, front and center.

I felt a small swell of pride seeing her on the cover because she looked liked me. Like my mother, Tuminez is Filipino and overcame immense challenges and obstacles to be where she is.

Despite there being over 3.4 million Filipinos in the United States, I’d never seen another on a magazine cover. I’ve never even seen one in movies, and only occasionally have I seen one on TV. I’ve personally never seen one being praised for their brains and hard work.

Looking at that magazine cover, I felt inspired and motivated by seeing someone with a common heritage being heralded for their success. Granted, I am only half-Filipino, but it was still a somewhat surreal experience to see that part of my heritage represented in a way that was respected and honorable.

It became clear why celebrities like Octavia Spencer and Kendrick Lamar rented out entire theaters so that young black kids were able to see Black Panther. Blacks make up around 13 percent of the population, but are rarely seen in mainstream media, and rarely in protagonist roles.

It was easy to understand why Crazy Rich Asians meant so much to many Asian-Americans. There are millions of Asian-Americans in the U.S., but they make up less than 1 percent of roles in film.

As for the Hispanic and Latino population? They’ve been virtually erased from representation in the media. Making up over 17 percent of the population, Hispanics and Latinos tragically only make up less than 5 percent of all roles.

Don’t forget the importance of the emergence of female-dominant movie casts in an industry where only 28 percent of all speaking roles go to women.

Mainstream media does not reflect the reality of diversity in America. This need for representation is not just a matter of being fair: When one cannot find themselves represented in their country’s popular movies, TV shows or even music, it creates symbolic annihilation.

Symbolic annihilation is the theory that if you don’t see people like yourself in your media consumption, the message is “you’re not important.” It’s long been an issue for those with mental health issues or physical disabilities, but it also factors into racial representation. What we consume and see in the media shapes our beliefs and idea of what is ‘normal’ or accepted. When you don’t see yourself, the message is clear: You don’t belong.

Representation is not about exclusion — it’s about inclusion. It’s not about replacing characters or actors, but instead including them and making media a reflection of what is already true. Arguments that movies about racial minorities or predominantly featuring women won’t be successful have been proven wrong several times over, especially in the last year.

The financial success of films like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians and Wonder Woman, give production companies little reason to be hesitant about producing films that don’t fit the usual statistics.

This success is also reflected in politics. The Kavanaugh hearings stirred up the conversation about the way white men are often protected and given too much leeway in America. This year’s midterm elections have seen an increase in the number of women and minorities running for office. Women, people of color and members of the LGBT community have won their state’s primaries in their respective races.

Regardless of whether these candidates win their states in November, their success so far sends a message: America is a melting pot full of voices that need to be heard.

Cutting them out will only lead to more division. Including them could lead to a more inclusive culture and policies that allow everyone to feel like they belong.