Q&A with Dr. Joseph Erba
Dr. Joseph Erba, assistant professor of Strategic Communication at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, shares his perspective on gender representation in media
JagWire: Describe a timeline for representation over the last century
Joseph Erba: I cannot give you a precise timeline, but I can give you, probably speaking in terms of trends. My main focus is representation of race, ethnicity, and social class. In terms of representations, as you can imagine, if you just ask your parents, or even your grandparents, if they remember from magazine advertisements from the 50s to 60s, commercials. You know, non-visible media such as radio, the gender representation was very, very stereotypical in terms of the man being the breadwinner outside of the home and the woman being the caretaker inside of the home, more specifically inside of the kitchen. And you know you can look at that for any kind of product most often the woman is seen in that position at home at the mercy of the husband, and the husband is the leader, kind of the head of the household typically in a business casual outfit. It’s been like this for many many years, some would even argue that it’s still the case today but we slowly see changes in the media representation of gender that reflect changes in the actual outside world so if you think of the anti-war movement, free-spirited demonstrations of the 60s and early 70s, women getting access to higher educations, and are slowly, very slowly, getting integrated into the workforce you see those changes reflected in media representation which will occasionally have women taking more of a leading role. It changes for women a little bit, not so much for men, men are still very dominant in their representation, and then more recently you see a more complex representation of women. Anyway, from romcoms to action movies, with the latest example being- ah, was it wonder woman or superwoman? Wonder woman, yeah, with the most recent example being wonder woman which you would have seen anything like this 60 or 70 years ago. I mean I’m trying to think of the woman with the most powers on TV may be bewitched and with powers like making dinner and cleaning, right? Again, very very very stereotypical.
JW: How do you think those portrayals differ based on the race of different characters, like how a black man and a black woman may be portrayed in comparison a white man or white woman.
JE: That’s an excellent question, and we know from many media studies that those gender representations do indeed vary a bit on race, right? Something that most media critics will say is that white characters regardless of gender have more depth and complexity as opposed to racial minority characters who tend to be more one dimensional, right? So if you think of black men they’re mainly stereotyped in terms of illegal activities or music or sports. Every so often you’ll get the black police chief, and they’re kind of romanticized as this wise, older man. It’s very very one dimensional. In term of women, the black women are mainly stereotyped in terms of being loud, of being sassy or being poor and uneducated, similar to the men. The same thing happens with latinos and latinas, men and women, very very similar stereotypes between blacks latinos in the media. Unfortunately, we do not know enough about asians, mostly because they tend to be grossly overlooked in media representation. They are so overlooked that you saw the response to Crazy Rich Asians, the movie. Critics erupted with messages of ‘finally, finally, representation that is not 100% stereotypical’. Something you need to keep in mind when discussing media representation of race and gender is that those representations are often used to etherize that group from the perspective of all of the white people. They use those media representation to kind of reproduce the stereotype and keep the people in touch with where people belong in society. So I would strongly encourage you to look at media representations as a reflection of who has power and who does not have power in society, and how the people that make those decisions reinforce certain stereotypes to keep certain powers intact. If that makes sense, I’m not trying to be too convoluted here
JW: Why do you believe representation is it’s important, what its main purpose?
JE: Well, representation is important for many many many different reasons. The two most important reasons are one, from the perspective of the audience looking at the representation of another, and two, the audience identifying with one of those representations. So I’ll give you a quick example. I’ll just focus on gender and race, okay? Let’s say you are a white man watching TV, whether its a newscast, a movie, a sitcom, any type of entertainment. those representations of others ,whether race or gender, directly influence how you think of those people, specifically when it comes to race, because we know that whenever it comes to the US as a society, we are still very very racially segregated in terms of just neighborhoods, rights? So people are more likely to interact with a racial minority in the media than they are in everyday life, and I’m not just saying seeing a black person and saying hi to them, I’m saying having discussions with other people. So in that sense representations are very important, because the way media portrays those people directly influences how audience members perceive these people, and if the only thing people see of these people are those very stereotypical representations, how could they not have stereotypical views about members of these groups? That directly influences every aspect of their life from how you, to where you shop, to where you go when you’re driving, as in neighborhoods you try to avoid. So that’s a big part of number one. Also part of number one is gender expectations, if you’re a boy watching TV, what does it tell you about expectations of girls, or women, and how do you expect girls or women to behave around you? Or for girls and boys, men and women. You have to really think about those things, right? You can think about your own experiences and what media tells you about men and boys, and what men and boys in quotation marks should look like or behave like. I would see all of this a lot, but there’s no one way to be a man or to be a boy or to be a woman or to be a girl, but if you look in media, there is one way to be a certain kind of person, and that can influence perceptions. In terms of audience members who identify with all of those group members being portrayed in the media.
JW: When a piece of media that is more female focused or has more racial minorities comes out, oftentimes on social media, it may receive a backlash for being “too diverse.” What are your thoughts?
JE: My honest thoughts, that’s nonsense. They’re being stupid. They have no idea what they’re talking about.
My academic thoughts are that it really shows the importance of representation. It really shows the and impact that representation can have on people’s perceptions of others and perceptions of themselves. It’s also more reflective of a larger trend in society. More and more traditional families are headed by women, more and more women are the breadwinner in the family. If you look at the unemployment rate, it is mostly uneducated men. Now you have a group of people who for years, for all of living memory, have seen themselves in positions of power, only know themselves in positions of power, and for the first times in their lives, they are exposed to something that may be different, something that may shatter their worldview, and they are panicking for no good reason. Because if they look around, nothing has changed! Nothing important has changed in terms of who is in power and who has control. For lack of a better word, they are freaking out over very very little, yet so overdue progress in representation.
JW: What impact does representation have on those who are represented?
JE: Self esteem is very important. You ask kids all the time what they want to do when they grow up. They can usually clearly identify with something that they’ve seen. If marginalized groups never see themselves as the doctor and the lawyer and the teacher as the firefighter chief as a NASA scientist, how can they even that has in their minds? Representation matters and it matters a lot for that reason. Unfortunately, lack of representation is as important or as detrimental. If you never see yourself represented in a particular way, what does that mean? Does it mean that it’s out of your reach? Does that mean it’s not for you? As far as society is concerned, you have no place being in that role. That’s the message media sends. As a black woman, you have no business going into science. It is very unfortunate. As a woman, you should aspire to be married and have kids. I’m not saying that you should not aspire to that, I’m saying that it’s a problem if that’s the only thing shown in the media. A white man can aspire to so many types of positions. If you look at some recent trailblazers, you’re not thinking of Justice Sonya Sotomayor or Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas. You’ll find quotes by them saying, ‘if Sonya did it, so can I.’
They broke those barriers, and they want girls all over the world to know that they can break those barriers too. So, obviously I study media, but you cannot in society enough know the important role representation can play in the minds of young people.
It’s just hard to ignore because that’s all you see, or all you don’t see.
JW: What we see in our schools and our communities is a form of representation that impacts us. How do you think media representation plays into or contradicts that?
JE: A lot of what we do here is try to get students to do what we call “counter representation.” In the case of K through 12, the counter representation would be to show male figures as teachers, male figures as nurturers, male figures as caring for little kids. If you look in the media, you see more male teachers as grades increase in middle and high school, which is again a stereotype of society, that women take care of the young kids and the business is left to men. So focusing on the idea of counter representation, showing somebody in the gender role that you would not expect them to be, and keep doing it. Repetition is important. It may change people’s perception. May with a capital M, because it’s an uphill battle.
JW: In terms of creating nonfiction media, what do you think the importance is of having diverse voices?
JE: Get the diversity of voices and [educational backgrounds]. In the case of doctors, make sure you get a diversity of medical schools, because if you get two doctors who went to the same medical school, the same school that is quoted in the media, it tends to be the top ones. How can we be sure we write a story that represents different voices?
JW: What impact do you think it has when stories come from homogenous voices?
JE: It is the same as fiction media. Always the same people are associated with certain positions. I did a project with a Latino college student, and this student said that he was inspired when he saw for the first time a latino quoted in the news media. Until then, he thought that Latinos could not become doctors, even tho that person did not want to become a doctor just having that representation that latinos could do more than pick the meadows was impactful.
JW: What do you think are some big, landmark pieces of media?
JE: This is not my field. I can’t talk about film, but I will say that now, and for the past five, ten years, thanks to social media for the first time ever members of marginalized groups can have the power to create their own country representation. Issa Rae was a student at Stanford in film or theatre and she was tired of — she’s a black woman, born in the US, parents are from Senegal — she was tired of seeing black woman falling into two or three stereotypes in the media in movies. So she created a series of youtube videos called adventures of an awkward black girl and it’s just her and her friends shooting a very very low production showing a very regular black woman and it took off. It took off so much that now, fast forward five or six years, she has her own show on HBO called insecure. She started as a youtube series. She writes with Shonda Rhimes. All this because she took her own initiative to write counter representation. So for a landmark, I would say the power social media can have in not guiding, but creating roles for marginalized groups.
For the purposes of clarity, this Q&A has been edited and condensed.