/ 20 May 2022

OPINION| South African audiences want more authentic and accurate diversity in TV shows and movies

What you see is what you get: It is important that television shows such as ‘Isono’ (above) reflect a range of people and socioeconomic backgrounds

Representativity matters.

 This is a mantra that politicians and activists worldwide have been occupied with where some voices have been absent from national discourse. 

We are also seeing it in the creative world. Audiences are calling for art to imitate life more realistically through authentic content that represents an accurate and truthful on-screen reflection of all people.

The diversity and inclusion discourse in the film industry is evolving as the sector is held to account to take responsibility for using its power to influence positive social change in relation to how people perceive others, and how they see themselves.

 In a recent study, Reflecting Me: Global Representation on Screen, 89% of the participants in South Africa agree that current on-screen representation is inadequate, and change is necessary to show greater diversity in TV shows and movies.

Commissioned by the Paramount Global Race and Equity Taskforce, the research connected with 15 000 people aged 13 to 49 in 15 countries, including 1 000 South Africans in the nine provinces.

The study shows how representation is multidimensional, characterising the complexity of society, including demographic factors from ethnicity, gender and disability to intricate details such as skin tone, accent and social status.

The study found that although 87% of South Africans agree that it is important for TV programmes and movies to offer diverse representation of various groups and identities, there are certain groups to whom representation matters even more. About 97% say it is important that TV and movies offer diverse representation of their sexual orientation, 96% of their disability, 94% of their gender identity, 93% their economic status and 91% their race or ethnicity.

Further, 93% of South Africans agree that companies making TV shows and movies should commit to increasing diversity and representation on screen, while 90% agree they should commit to improving diversity and representation off screen. Misrepresentation shapes other people’s expectations of misrepresented groups and so affects their daily lives and mental wellbeing.

Ongoing research in the filmmaking industry is crucial, because it’s important that other perspectives are considered when creating stories and regularly gleaning insights from audiences enables a better understanding of how they feel about the content being presented. This, in turn, creates better stories that resonate with audiences.

Representation is not just about people seeing themselves reflected on TV but it is also about how they are portrayed. With the study showing that 56% of South Africans felt people like themselves are not represented enough, there is a need for intervention from the industry. Through shows such as telenovela Isono and edutainment show MTV Shuga, a diverse cross-section of people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and family settings tackle issues closer to the reality of many audiences.

What was also clear from the study is that representation is complex. Different groups experience poor representation in different ways. For example, feeling poorly represented in terms of age is much higher among people aged 13 to 17 while in terms of race and ethnicity, the sentiment of poor representation is higher among people of colour with Indian and coloured people feeling the least represented.

Feeling poorly represented in terms of disability is obviously higher among those with a disability and feeling poorly represented in terms of sexual orientation is higher among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex groups. 

Representation is as intricate as our individual identities are — and the intersectional nature of our lives means that one person could feel underrepresented or misrepresented across many of these aspects.

Being aware of the multiracial and multicultural country we live in is important and the media has power to shape perceptions. This is evident given that 70% of participants agree that there should be a greater diversity of skin tones represented on screen and less stereotyping: 62% of the people interviewed state they see more women with lighter skin tones, 42% say that men with dark skin tones are often portrayed as villains and 49% of women with dark skin tones rarely play the leading role.

Different life experiences lead to different levels of empathy and understanding. For most people, a lack of representation doesn’t make them angry. Instead, it leaves people feeling defeated and marginalised, with 50% saying it makes them feel unimportant, ignored or disappointed, which affects their overall self-esteem and sense of belonging.

Apart from knowing someone personally, media representation and celebrity acceptance has the biggest influence in shaping positive views towards various groups and identities. 

The key take-outs from the study is that people want better representation of different cultures, casting the net wider for stories from different groups, identities and cultures, more diverse casting and movie creators from diverse backgrounds and fewer stereotypes of groups.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.