Mainstream media plays a major role in our lives as we are exposed to T.V. shows, movies, music and magazines at a young age. What’s at the forefront of these visuals? The “ideal” human: successful, beautiful and loved by millions. While the average person may not make it to the spotlight like celebrity actors, musicians and models, which we see on our screens and on magazine covers, those same celebrities still give us a sense of personal desire. They show us what we want to be, what we should strive to achieve and what is acceptable by society’s standards.
Even though media is partially the reason we have these ideals in place, there is a constant struggle between trying to enforce the idea that we as a society don’t need to listen to the messages they are sending, while they still continue to send them. So where do we stand and what do we need to listen to? Often times we do not realize that we are being fed these ideals because they have become so normalized by everything we see. When you bring in thousands of reports per year of people being bullied to the point of taking their own lives because they do not fit into the typical constructs that are expected, it becomes a little bit clearer.
For many years, movies and other media have displayed men and women with perfect characteristics. There are dainty and slim-waisted ladies wearing impeccable makeup and clothing and men with big muscles and a chiselled face — everyone is assumed to be heterosexual and has a perfect sun-kissed tan. Kids and adults alike look up to these people, regardless of what they actually present to society and it becomes everyone’s quest to replicate their favourite celebrity.
However, in the last 10 years, things have started to change in terms of how the public perceives these Hollywood stars. Depictions of body image have come a long way in the past two years alone. In 2012 the world was introduced to the trend of “thigh gaps”, which plagued the Internet and the minds of females between the ages of 12 and 30 according to some major media sources. Starting with the ever-iconic Victoria’s Secret annual fashion show and its surplus of thin-thighed models, the trend of the thigh gap became the most desirable feature a girl could have. Within the next year, various news sources cried out about the health issues that this trend could pose to the developing body. Fast-forward to 2016 and new trends are upon us. “Mermaid thighs” are apparently the new fad of this year and girls with thicker thighs everywhere are finally able to rejoice. But where does that leave the girls who still have a natural space between their legs? There seems to be no way to win as one trend ends and another begins. Some forms of media are slowly starting to show us that we can love our bodies no matter what shapes and sizes they come in, but the emphasis put on the “average” woman, and man, is getting more and more praise each day.
With most emphasis being placed on women and how they are affected by society’s expectations, little room is given to the men who are scrutinized because of their body type. Self-consciousness is as relevant amongst men as it is amongst women but it is not focused on or thought about often enough. Even in Hollywood, the actors who you would see playing the “chubby” and lovable guys in TV and film have slimmed down to get different roles and ‘fit the part’, while others gain weight and bulk up. Men can see these expectations and the hype that surrounds the characters, and if they do not resemble the stereotypical depiction, it can in turn change the way they view themselves. Entertainment media outlet BuzzFeed is often jumping on the bandwagon with articles and videos supporting body positivity. BuzzFeed has posts with topics such as “24 Everyday Problems Only Skinny Guys Will Understand” to “14 Plus-Size Guys Who Are Way Too Hot To Handle”. Although the intensity of a hard news story that may cause breakthroughs with the general population is not presented, BuzzFeed and all of its social media platforms does have a way of catching the attention of millennials; most of which are dealing with the issues of body positivity.
As far as body image and perception goes, it does not stop at size and shape. Race has continued to be an issue in Hollywood for decades. The 19th and — parts of — the 20th centuries were a time of racial turmoil and discrimination and only in the last few years have people started to realize the issue of whiteness in Hollywood. After two consecutive years of having no minorities nominated in the four acting categories at The Academy Awards, frustration peaked this past award season with the creation of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag on social media. The fact that there were multiple performances within the year that were worthy of a nomination (notably Straight Outta Compton, Creed and Beasts of No Nation) helps emphasize the fact that The Academy is basically a “white, straight, boys’ club,” as described by the Journalism and Communications Department of the University of Southern California.
People were, and still are, furious about the lack of cultural representation in the film industry and what makes it even worse is that there is an overall insufficient amount of roles given out to people of colour. A lot of the fault in this can be pointed at whitewashing. The BBC reported in 2015 that there are two main reasons behind the casting practice and the reason why it still happens in today’s industry: “institutional racism and producers believing that white actors attract more audiences and maximize profits.” But before we get to today’s industry, incidents of whitewashing historically non-white characters can be traced all the way back to the 1921 silent film The Sheik starring Italian-born American actor Rudolph Valentino in the role of the Sheik with Arab descent. Since then, many roles of originally black, Asian, Indian, Middle-Eastern, Hispanic, Indigenous and various other characters have been handed to white actors and actresses. But the problem no longer stems from what was claimed to be the lack of availability. There are hundreds of actors who get little representation on the big screen and do not get the chance to showcase their talent due to their race or ethnicity. Between 2015 and 2016, nine films have been called out for whitewashing their cast, including The Martian (2015), which went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards, and Gods of Egypt (2016), which suffered a lot of backlash for casting white actors to portray the main Egyptian characters.
With white and light skinned people being the focal piece of film and television, advertising also changes to mirror the kinds of people we see presented on screen. Even dark-skinned celebrities whose names come with iconic connotation like Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna have, over the years, been reported to lighten their skin because that’s what seems to be popular and acceptable. Another trend is the issue of exoticizing anything related to cultures outside of the Eurocentric values in place: making it more foreign or ‘savage’. “For myself, being a [person of colour (POC)], I find that there is either misrepresentation, or complete erasure of my identity. For example, POC are showcased and described in media as being ‘exotic’, and while that may sound flattering, it really isn’t. Exotic insinuates me being a stranger, an alien-like person,” stated Sri Lankan-born Ashendri Wickremasinghe, a 3rd year History, Communications and Anthropology student at McGill University. This occurs all over media and it is unfortunately thrown at anyone, regardless of geographical location. Year after year and campaign after campaign, people are still trying to build the support for people of colour through different media outlets but the overbearing whiteness still shines through. My Black is Beautiful, Unfair and Lovely, The Coloured Girl campaigns are a few of the projects that have been started within the past years and have been backed by celebrities in hope to change the traditional and popularized standards of beauty. In 2014, African-born actress Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the award-winning film 12 Years a Slave and instantly became an icon. Nyong’o is one of only six women of colour to win the award in all 88 years that the Academy Awards have been presented. Later that year, at the annual Essence Best in Black Beauty Awards, Nyong’o spoke about her own experience of whiteness in Hollywood.
“I remember a time when, I too, felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin and my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up light skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment as being just as dark as I had been the day before. I tried to negotiate with God. I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted. I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because he never listened. And when I was a teenage my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought I was beautiful. But that was no consultation. She’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I’m beautiful.”
Nyong’o goes on to express how Alek Wek was her saving grace. The model and designer from South Sudan has been an influential figure in media since the beginning of her career in the mid-90s and an inspiration to many people of colour, including Nyong’o, in the entertainment industry. According to a Daily Mail interview article from 2007, Wek was described as “the first black model who didn’t conform to a Caucasian aesthetic”; she was tall, dark and undeniably different. At 39, Wek continues to push boundaries in the world of high fashion.
Once again, the problem does not stop with colour and racialization. Media continues its affects on society in the form of heteronormativity. It is clear to see the fact that Hollywood is predominantly straight. When a star comes out as anything but heterosexual, the news is snatched up in a whirlwind of gossip, accusations and chaos. ‘Are they a bad role model for children because they conform to non-traditional sexualities or gender norms?’ No, because it should not define the kind of human being they are and they generally turn into an icon for young people trying to understand their own sexuality. The way that media has presented it in the past is that homosexuality is a new concept that people are still getting used to while it has actually been relevant and part of human nature since the days of Ancient Greek society dating back to the Trojan War. Over all this time, homosexuality has been condemned for being unnatural and illegal in many regions around the world. Because of this, it is seen as a taboo topic and was infrequently mentioned in film and television for many years. LGBT movements around the world strive to promote the equality that every human being deserves. The amount of TV personalities, movie stars, models and musicians that come out to the public has spiked in the last few years, but in contrast to those who are straight, the diversity is still limited. The representation of LGBT characters in shows and movies has grown significantly in the last two decades and it is a great achievement in terms of inspiring and supporting the youth in today’s society. While it is getting more common to see gay, lesbian, bisexual and other identifying characters, transgender people are more uncommon. Shows like Netflix’s Sense8 and Orange is the New Black both feature strong roles of transgender women, played by transgender actresses. More issues are starting to be identified, but there are still a lot of sexualities and identities that continue to go unrepresented.
It also does not help that TV producers and writers have been accused of killing off the limited amount of LGBT characters we see on the screen. While it has been an ongoing problem for decades, enraged reactions sparked controversy specifically in regards to The CW’s post-apocalyptic ‘young adult’ shows The 100 and AMC’s zombie series The Walking Dead. Other series have been credited with the same “bury your gays” mentality, such as Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black and American Horror Story. The thing that is most bothersome about The 100 and The Walking Dead deaths are that in the original storylines, written as a series of novels and graphic novel, respectfully, is that the characters in question never even existed or were not written to be gay. Their deaths were the creation of the show writers, alone. The defence that is always offered to the public is that the death furthers the story’s plotline.
All in all, representation of marginalized groups lacks attention when it comes to their portrayal in popular culture. The real problem then falls on the fact that it often goes unnoticed by the average person. But when the “average person” in North America does not fit into a category that is idealized by media, identification becomes easier. It is easy for people to see what they do not like in any situation. So when it comes to the body, picking away at characteristics is a noticeable issue.