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Why Representation Matters

Dylan Marron edited the entire Harry Potter series for his project, Every Single World, where he cuts Hollywood movies so only people of color speak, revealing that people of color only spoke for 5 minutes and 40 seconds–just 0.47% of the entire movie series!

The news fueled an already ongoing conversation surrounding the upcoming film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Eddie Redmayne was cast as the lead, Newt Scamander, contributing to the trend of whitewashing characters and erasing people of color from movies. (Remember when Rooney Mara was cast as Tiger Lily?) Naturally, this provoked a negative response from fans, who have been pushing for a people of color lead for a while now and even got #DiversifyTheWizardingWorld to trend on Twitter.

Having a lead of color can’t be that important though, right? Wrong. We are constantly consuming media and are bombarded with posters, movies and magazines excluding people of color, painting white as the default ideal. Many of our favorite characters have been white-washed in book-to-movie adaptations–another case of symbolic annihilation. We are expected to praise and applaud when we see a POC in the background, but we aren’t just extras or supporting characters. Essentially, under-representing certain groups completely dismisses them and sends one clear message– “You don’t exist.”

Story-telling has always been a way of reinforcing values and sharing lessons– so what values are we reinforcing by erasing people of color? The world of stories is there to lift our spirits, to helps us escape from our own world’s cruelty, but relating to characters is that much harder when none of them look like you. Imagine a kid walking into a movie theatre hoping to find a character they identify with but instead walks out wondering why none of the characters look like him. Harry Potter has been translated into 73 languages and touched people of all ages and backgrounds from all over the world, many of who relate to the books. Many of who were let down when Hermione, who is described as “very brown” in the books, was portrayed by a white woman, or when Lavender Brown suddenly changed ethnicity the moment she got a bigger role. Representation matters to everyone who’s had to label the way they imagined their favorite characters as “racebent”.

Of course, representation doesn’t just stop at race. It covers body ideals, religion, gender and so much more. The New York Film Academy discovered that only 10.7% of films from 2007-2012 featured a balanced cast where half the characters were female. Dr Stacy Smith of USC Annenberg found that males outnumber females in a 3 to 1 ratio in family films–the same as it was in 1946! So much for progress!

Movies are so powerful. They are supposed to be an escape from reality, yet they strongly reflect real world biases. They’re an incredible storytelling medium…but whose stories are really being told?

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Lujain Abdulwahab
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A seventeen year old who wants to be happy and make the world a better place.

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