Last week I wrote about the Bechdel test, which asks a few basic questions about any given movie to begin evaluating feminine roles in film.
Women, however, aren’t the only underrepresented and compartmentalized group in the mainstream American film industry. While modern laws prevent discrimination in workplaces and schools based on age, race/national origin/ethnic background, religion, sexual orientation, and disability, these traits are often generalized, overlooked, or denigrated in television and movies.
The Bechdel test has started the conversation about under- and misrepresentation of women in the media, but we need to develop a test to discuss the roles that other groups that TV and movies relegate to one-dimensional characters. For women, we ask if there are two or more named women who talk to each other about something besides a man. What basic questions should we ask about people of color, LGBT people, and people with disabilities?
“Does the movie include a [nonwhite/LGBTQ/non-Christian/disabled] character? Does that character speak? Does he/she speak about something other than that trait?”
Note that like the Bechdel test, simply having a nonwhite/LGBTQ/non-Christian/disabled character who speaks about something besides his/her “unique” trait doesn’t even begin to cover the range of complexities that comes along with being a human being, let alone one in the minority. Those three questions don’t include how a character embodies (or defies) stereotypes or how other characters treat him/her based on race/sexuality/religion/ability.
For this exact purpose, The Representation Project, an organization that aims to improve representation in the media, has created the Representation Test. It’s an extension of the Bechdel test that asks a handful of questions about a film and then assigns it a grade based on its representation of women, men, race/ethnicity/culture, LGBT people, and people with disabilities. Unlike the notoriously basic questions that the Bechdel test asks (and that I’ve correlated to other groups above), The Representation Test considers if characters are reduced to stereotypes.
Representation in the media isn’t a simple issue, but it should be. I want to see movies and TV shows that better represent a cross-section of society, and that includes women, people of color, middle-aged and older adults, LGBT people, and people with disabilities.
The film industry is perhaps the best place to begin addressing issues of inequality. To accomplish that, media representation of various groups needs to be deliberate, diverse, and accurate.