Representation of Diversity in Media – Overview

Media representation issues

What we see – and don’t see – in media affects how we view reality. Media works can be imagined either as mirrors that reflect an audience’s own experience, windows that give them access to experiences they otherwise wouldn’t have known, or in some cases both. Rosemary Truglio, Senior Vice President of Sesame Workshop, described the diverse cast of Sesame Street as giving children “a mirror for them to see themselves, and (…) a window for them to learn about others."[1]

The original cast of Sesame Street

Sesame Street was a milestone in representation of race and disability in children’s media.

Media portrayals may provide different audiences with mirrors but not windows, or vice-versa, and a lack of either can have a negative impact. For members of historically under-represented groups, “when you have never seen yourself in books or movies or music, the first time you do is stunning.”[2] Similarly, “for children from dominant groups, window moments in stories come when the children realize they hold a powerful place in society and that there is something unjust about this.”[3] Unfortunately, fewer than half of Canadians feel that “Canadian media is a mirror in which all Canadians can see themselves.”[4]

In mass media, these issues typically play out in three ways:

Under-representation: Many groups have historically been under-represented in media. Even today, we are less likely to encounter many forms of diversity in mass media than we are in real life – and diverse communities are typically even less well-represented behind the scenes than onscreen. Under-representation can also make other representation issues worse because less representation means fewer opportunities for authentic representations of diversity within a group.

Besides being simply under-represented, groups may also be de-centred. That means making them or their culture a backdrop for more “mainstream” (e.g. White, abled, cisgender, etc.) protagonists. In some cases this may take the form of having a White character that excels in skills associated with a non-White culture, such as martial arts; stories where characters from under-represented groups need a White or other majority-culture character to “save” them;[5] and cases where aspects of an under-represented culture literally act as a prop.[6]

Stereotyping: This means portraying members of a particular group in just one or a small number of roles. This is particularly worrying when the stereotype is a negative one, but stereotyping can also do harm by only portraying a group in a narrow way. Even so-called “positive stereotypes” can have a negative effect because they limit how we see members of that group, as well as how we see ourselves. For example, if you belong to a group that is stereotyped as being good at sports, but are not particularly athletic, you may feel inadequate for being bad at something you’re “supposed” to be good at.

Another form of stereotyping is exoticizing, emphasizing the ways in which a character or culture are different from the (presumed) audience’s: for instance by overemphasizing aspects of a culture that mainstream audiences are most likely to find strange or disturbing, or by relying on things like accents or stereotyped characteristics for humour. Its most extreme form is othering, in which groups are shown as being fundamentally different from the audience and, in some cases, even as not being fully human.

Stereotyping can also happen when diverse identities always play the same role in the story. Author Corinne Duyvis identifies three ways that a character’s identity may be part of a work: “issue” stories where the identity and the challenges that come with it are what the story is about; “incidental” stories where a character’s identity is apparent but not relevant to the story, such as the main character’s sexual orientation in the Disney film Strange World, which provides a romantic subplot but is never specifically commented on; and “middle ground” stories where the identity is not the focus of the story but is recognized as always being relevant. As Duyvis puts it, “ableism, homophobia, and racism influence countless aspects of people’s everyday lives.” None of these is necessarily better than the other: what is most important is that audiences see all three kinds of stories, so that while marginalized communities’ specific issues and challenges are reflected in media they are also allowed to simply be.[7]

Whitewashing: While it has become rare for White actors to play Black or Asian characters, it remains common for disabled people, 2SLGBTQ+ people and other groups to be played by actors from outside those communities. Similarly, when works are adapted from one medium to another – such as when a book or comic is made into a movie or TV show – it is still fairly common for diverse characters to be changed into White ones, or for characters’ sexual orientation or disabilities to be downplayed or altered.

It’s important to point out that whitewashing only occurs when a character from a historically under-represented group is changed or recast so they are no longer part of that group, leading to reduced representation for that group and less diversity overall. For instance, the casting of a White actor to play an Asian character in the film Doctor Strange would count as whitewashing, while the casting of a Black actor to play a White character in the same film would not.[8]

These three issues are related, of course. Whitewashing contributes to both under-representation and stereotyping, as there are both fewer representations of historically under-represented groups in general and, in particular, fewer authentic representations. Similarly, under-representation contributes to and increases the impact of stereotypes because having fewer characters representing a particular group means fewer opportunities to show members of that group playing different roles in stories and in society.

For more examples of how these apply to different communities, see the specific articles on how each group is represented.

Impacts of media representation

All of these representation issues can have significant effects, both on audiences who are members of historically under-represented groups and those who aren’t. Seeing one’s own group stereotyped can lead to stress, negative self-image[9] and impaired academic achievement,[10] while being exposed to stereotyped portrayals of others can contribute to implicit or explicit prejudice.[11] Even more than changing individual attitudes, media portrayals – because they are seen as representing how others view a group – can have an impact on broader social attitudes towards different groups.[12] At the same time, exposure to authentic portrayals of oneself can improve self-esteem and promote a more positive view of one’s identity[13] or even improve academic performance,[14] while seeing authentic portrayals of other groups – which do not have to be uniformly positive ones[15] – can actually reduce prejudice.[16]

“Works of art are the only silver bullet we have against racism and sexism and hatred […] Art engenders empathy in a way that politics doesn’t, and in a way that nothing else really does. Art creates change in people’s hearts. But it happens slowly.”[17]  Lin-Manuel Miranda

There can be significant impacts if different groups are not represented behind the scenes, as well. In mass media, under-representation behind the scenes generally results in under-representation on the screen, but it can also contribute to stereotyping as the portrayals are less likely to be authentic.[18] In digital media, not having historically under-represented groups involved at the design and management levels can lead to their experiences and concerns being ignored or treated as afterthoughts.

For more examples of how these affect different communities, see the specific articles on how each group is represented.


While the other articles in this section address media portrayals of different groups separately, it’s important to point out that for many people they are not experienced that way. Many people identify with more than one historically marginalized or under-represented group, particularly when gender is added to the equation. Legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to conceptualize “the way that different identity markers, such as race, gender, sexuality, and class, interact and affect each other.”[19]

Intersectionality does not mean that the impacts of different identities (including stereotyping) simply add on to one another, but that they transform and sometimes conflict with one another. East Asian women are frequently hypersexualized in media,[20] for example, while for East Asian men the stereotype is often the reverse.[21] However, audiences tend to consider just one aspect of intersectional identities.[22] When the stereotypes associated with two identities conflict with one another, people who identify with both may face confusion[23] or even hostility[24] from others.

It’s important to consider intersectionality both when making media and when critiquing it. For media makers, “shows and movies that attempt to lift up marginalized communities without thinking about intersectionality are only perpetuating different systems of prejudice and oppression.”[25] As well, some intersections may be an easier “sell” than others, both to audiences and the media industry. While the title character of House M.D. (2004-2012) both had a physical disability and was an outspoken atheist, he was also White; conversely, the showrunner of the currently running (2022) series Abbott Elementary said of one character’s canonical but unseen agnosticism “I honestly don’t know if we would be able to present that on ABC. It may not seem a big deal, but for a Black girl in Philadelphia — there are very few agnostic people.”[26]

When critiquing media, we should consider not just whether individual characters are stereotyped but whether a broad range of diversity, including intersecting identities, is represented.[27] As well, we should make a point of recognizing authentic portrayals of intersectionality in media, such as Reservation Dogs and Hawkeye. Finally, taking an intersectional approach to media education means considering other digital media issues – from cyberbullying to advertising to digital access and privacy – through an intersectional lens: not assuming, for example, that only White youth suffer from body image issues, and giving all young people a chance to confront the distinct ways that those issues affect them.[28]

Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez, a.k.a. Echo, in the Disney series Hawkeye.

Maya Lopez from the Disney Plus series Hawkeye is Deaf and Indigenous, as is the actor who plays her, Alaqua Cox.

The importance of media education

Young people’s attitudes towards media representation changes over time. Children under nine don’t generally question whether what they see in media reflects their reality unless they are prompted to by parents or teachers. Tween and teens typically begin to become aware of media representation issues, especially if they are members of under-represented or stereotyped groups. By their later teens many actively seek out works with better representation.[29]

Media education can help young people put current images and messages into perspective by helping them understand how the media work, why stereotyping exists, how decisions are made and why it matters who is involved in making media works. Digital media literacy, especially if it explicitly addresses stereotyping and other media representation issues, can correct misperceptions of and prejudices towards other groups.[30] For young people who see stereotyped depictions of themselves in media works, media literacy can also mitigate negative effects on their self-esteem.[31]

Media education has also been shown to be an effective way of approaching issues like racism, providing a way of discussing difficult topics that feels safer while still challenging students’ assumptions and preconceptions[32] and can also help students affected by stereotyping deal with its effects.[33] Talking about media portrayals of diversity, especially positive ones, can also be a way of affirming students’ identities and encouraging them to create works that reflect those identities.

Positive portrayals don’t just avoid stereotyping, under-representation and the other issues identified above. They also:

  • take the extra step of authentically portraying the challenges that members of under-represented communities face, such as racism or accessibility issues;
  • tell stories of characters’ accommodations, resilience and agency in the face of those challenges; and
  • show characters in the context of, and connected to, their communities.[34]

Media education is not about learning the right answers; it’s about consuming media images with an active, critical mind and asking the right questions.

Here are a few examples of the types of questions that could lead to a better understanding of how different groups are represented depicted in media:

Who selected or created these images and stories? Why does it matter who made these selections?

The first principle in media education is that nothing is objective—each and every media production is created with a viewpoint and for a purpose. The “reality” depicted in film or television productions is the result of many choices and each of these choices is based on the experience, knowledge and bias of the producers involved. More important than any conscious choices are the questions media makers don’t ask – the things they believe they already know. When members of historically marginalized groups are not involved in making shows, movies, news coverage or other media featuring them, it shows.

It’s also important to understand that media can have very different meanings depending on who made them, and that marginalized groups may “reclaim” stereotyped portrayals for their own purposes.

Whose voices are being heard? Whose voices are absent? Why?

Who is interviewed on a current affairs program? Which “experts” are chosen for sound bites on an issue? Whose perspectives are ignored completely? If characters or cultures representing a historically marginalized group are represented in a media text, have the creators of that text made significant efforts to consult with those communities, as Disney did when making Frozen II and Moana?[35]

The question of whose voices are heard isn’t just important in mass media. While digital technology has made it easier than ever for people to make and share their own media, the online platforms where they share their work – whose ownership and workforce remain overwhelmingly White[36] – do not provide sufficient moderation and tools to push back against hate speech, they may fall silent in the face of online harassment.[37]

Why are certain stories selected or privileged and others not? Are some groups only represented in a small number of frames or contexts? Are characters representing diverse communities shown as real human beings in media, or are they defined exclusively by their identity? Do depictions respect differences and diversity within these communities?

Media producers, especially those in Hollywood, have used members of historically marginalized groups to tell mainstream cultures’ stories for generations. Rarely are diverse characters given complex personalities or autonomous roles. Rarely do they rely on their own values and judgements, or act upon their own motivations. Although efforts have been made to undo this tradition, old stereotypes die hard.[38]

This question highlights why it’s important not to look just as specific media works, but at the bigger picture. Each individual game, movie, or TV show with a White, non-disabled, cisgender, heterosexual, non-denominational Christian protagonist does not necessarily matter by itself, but when all of these are seen as the default identity for a main character it sends a powerful message about who can be the “main character” and who cannot.

How do commercial considerations, including the “conventional wisdom” in the industry, lead to issues around stereotyping and representation?

Commercial considerations are often given as a reason for excluding members of historically under-represented communities, whether explicitly (such as the assumption that White audiences won’t see movies with non-White leads)[39] or implicitly (by saying, for instance, that a movie needs a “big-name” lead to be successful – without saying out loud that most of those big names are White, non-disabled, heterosexual and cisgender).[40] While this industry conventional wisdom has been proven to be false, it’s still widely held.[41]

Characteristics of different media industries, in different countries, can also have an impact on whether diversity is represented. The Canadian television industry is often described as highly risk-averse, with licensing American shows seen as a safer bet than developing Canadian ones. As a result, when diversity does appear on private Canadian channels such as Global and CTV, it more often reflects the population of the United States than Canada’s. When private broadcasters do make original programming, they tend to play it safe – which usually means making shows aimed at White audiences.[42] As the report Deciding on Diversity puts it, “Risk narratives about equity-seeking stories and storytellers persist to preserve the status quo.”[43] Nathalie Younglai, founder of BIPOC TV and Film, paraphrases TV executives’ attitudes more bluntly: “How is this Canadian? How does someone in Saskatchewan relate to this?”[44]

Similarly, digital technology companies claim to be motivated by market pressures in deciding things like which languages digital assistants should be able to speak; this, too, often fails to hold true in the light of accurate data – Apple’s Siri, for instance, is offered in Finnish (which has about five million native speakers) but not Swahili (which has nearly a hundred million).[45] 

How can different audiences “read against” or negotiate the meaning of a work with representation issues?

Some audiences, especially those from groups that have traditionally been marginalized in media industries, may engage in “resistant reading,” interpreting works in ways that are directly contrary to the generally received meaning. Nevertheless, it is true that, as bell hooks put it, “While audiences are clearly not passive and are able to pick and choose, it is simultaneously true that there are certain ‘received’ messages that are rarely mediated by the will of the audience.”[46]

In other words, while we don’t automatically accept the surface meaning of media works, most of us will take away a meaning that is fairly close to it. Only a small number of people, mostly those whose identity or experience lead them to a resistant reading, will have a significantly different interpretation. Until members of these groups have more meaningful participation in the media industries, however, neither the portrayals nor the mainstream audience’s interpretation of them are likely to change.

Resistant reading is also easier in some media than others: in most video games, for instance, ‘resistant play’ – choosing actions other than the ones the designers assume you will take – will prevent you from progressing very far in the game.[47]

How may the codes and conventions of the medium and genre perpetuate stereotyping and representation issues?

Both different media (such as TV, film or video games) and different genres (science fiction, advertising, animation, et cetera) have their own codes and conventions that may lead media makers to fall into stereotyping or under-representation, often unconsciously. For example, both advertising and news (especially headlines) have to grab the audience’s attention right away and communicate information in a small amount of time. As a result they often use stereotypes as a kind of “shorthand” that allows the audience to fill in what they already know (or think they know). Similarly, animation and comics – and works in other media that are based on comic or cartoon characters – often have characters whose racist origins are still apparent, or for whom traits like facial scarring, prosthetic limbs or stereotypically Jewish features serve as visual markers of villainy.

Scar in the Lion KingJafar in Aladdin

Even when media works try to confront racism, homophobia and other issues, there may be fundamental features of certain media, like the episodic nature of news and the focus in fictional media on individual characters, that lead them to portray these primarily as something perpetrated by individuals and downplay their systemic qualities.[48]

How can digital tools and platforms give voice to historically marginalized communities? How may they contribute to marginalization?

Unlike traditional media, there are no one-way connections in digital media. You can share content with other people as easily as a producer or distributor shares it with you. As a result, the barriers to participation are much lower than in traditional media and anyone can publish content and find an audience. But while power in networks is not hierarchical, neither is it evenly distributed: it rests in the nodes with the most links. This means that those who had gatekeeping power in the old media environment have had their influence reduced, but not eliminated.

For instance, while online publishing has made it possible for historically under-represented groups to “restory themselves” by making versions of popular culture works that include and even centre their own experiences,[49] online platforms also have tremendous power to either promote or suppress the same voices through the algorithms that determine what is shown or recommended to users.[50] As the historian of science Melvin Kranzberg put it, different technologies are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but neither are they neutral:[51] like mass media, they reflect the beliefs, unconscious biases and unquestioned assumptions of their creators.

As a result, the impacts that networked technology have had on historically under-represented groups are complex. Online spaces can provide diverse communities, especially those that are geographically far-flung, with an ‘ecosystem’ that would not be possible with traditional media;[52] at the same time, content moderation systems can apply censorship that is more absolute than was ever found in film and television, limiting the ability of marginalized youth to access relevant health information,[53] to monetize content that reflects their community[54] and even to speak the name of their identity.[55]

Technical tools have an impact on how we use them not just through their affordances (what can be done with them) but also their defaults (what we are expected to do with them). For example, one study of video games found that while 23 percent had affordances that allowed players to choose their character’s race, 60 percent of those defaulted to a White character unless the player actively changed it.[56] Whether or not members of diverse communities were involved in the design of those affordances and defaults may determine whether they work successfully when used in or by those communities: a review of facial algorithms found that they were at least ten times as likely to mis-identify a Black or East Asian face as a White one,[57] for example, and many digital assistants such as Siri and Alexa routinely misunderstand Black users.[58]

Networked media can also make it possible, or easier, for marginalized groups to experience harms that were not possible or less likely with traditional media. One of these is amplification:[59] for example, the frictionless quality of networked media allows hate groups to broadcast their messages more widely and to tailor them to potential audiences at different levels of the “radicalization pyramid.” Amplification does not only apply to intentional acts, though. It can also reflect a harm that already exists and make it more widespread by embedding it in the operation of a networked tool – for example, for many years Google searches for terms such as “Asian girls” and “Black girls” returned primarily pornographic results, reflecting how they were most often used in the wider internet, while “White girls” did not.[60] Questions as simple as who appears in an image search for “doctor” or “happy family” can have a huge impact on how different groups are perceived. [61]


Google search results for "happy family", showing only white families

A Google image search for “happy family” conducted in March 2022.

As with the other search terms mentioned above, Google has taken some positive steps in this regard as a result of consumer pressure.[62] This demonstrates why a key part of media education is empowering young people to make their voices heard through making and publishing their own media, as well as to push back against stereotypes and other misrepresentations in media and to use digital tools to make a difference in their online and offline communities.

How can educators limit resistance and backlash when addressing diversity in media?

Two of the most common risks of addressing diversity representation in media are resistance – in which students challenge the validity of media education as practice, such as by dismissing the work under study as “just an ad” or suggesting that the teacher is reading meaning into a work that isn’t there – and backlash, in which students feel the teacher is pushing their own views or interpretations, rather than encouraging students to articulate and argue their own.

One way of minimizing these is having young people explore questions, such as the ones listed above, rather than leading them towards a pre-ordained conclusion. While it is important to make them aware of the facts of representation in media, conclusions about the implications of those facts – and appropriate responses – should emerge from critical thinking and discussion.

Another important approach is to help students understand the key concept that all media have social and political implications – and that when they appear not to, it’s because they reinforce how you already see the world. Similarly, while we may be tempted to dismiss the importance of entertainment media relative to things like news, we are actually more likely to be persuaded by works that “transport” us and bypass our critical minds.[63]

As well, highlight to students that it is possible for a media work to be problematic in some aspects of its portrayal of diversity but successful in others. The 2016 film Doctor Strange, for instance, had many problematic elements in its portrayal of cultural diversity but also a fairly nuanced representation of the main character’s disability and his efforts to accommodate it.[64]

Perhaps most importantly, it’s important to teach students from early on that critiquing a part of something doesn’t mean you don’t like it, nor does critiquing a work mean that you’re criticizing anyone who likes it. Criticizing our children’s media choices can easily make them feel we’re criticizing them. There is a difference between a media work that was motivated by racism or sexism and one where it’s the result of the media-maker not questioning their assumptions or the “conventional wisdom” of their industry. Most of the time, the messages in the things they make aren’t on purpose but because of things they assumed or questions they didn’t think to ask. (It’s important to understand that the people who make media aren’t necessarily media literate in the critical sense.)

As Turner Classic Movies host Jacqueline Stewart points out, this is a distinction that people in historically under-represented groups often learn early. Describing a childhood viewing of Gone With the Wind, Stewart notes that “Black audiences have always juggled the pleasures and problems of mainstream media. I was learning that you can enjoy a film even as you are critiquing it."[65] Of course, we also have to make a habit of studying accurate representations as well as critiquing negative ones – and recognize that a work may be positive in some aspects but problematic in others.

There may also be backlash from students relating specifically to the topic of diversity representation. This can be a result of a belief in the value of colour-blindness; though generally well-meaning, this attitude has been shown to contribute to prejudice, rather than reducing it, because it denies the identities and experiences of historically under-represented groups and prevents us from addressing the challenges and injustices they face.[66] Instead, stereotypes need to be acknowledged and faced head-on. As Jeffrey Adam Smith, author of Are We Born Racist?, puts it, “When we encounter a ‘slant-eyed, Oriental mastermind’ (to quote one old comic of mine), I stop, close the book, and tell [my son] that image is a product of prejudice, and that I think prejudice is wrong. I try to answer any questions he has. Then I re-open the book… and keep reading.”[67]

Young people may also want to distance themselves from a sense that they are accused of being prejudiced, or that they benefit from a prejudiced system. To explore different ways of addressing this, see our article on Privilege in the Media and our guide to Complicated Conversations in the Classroom.     

For more tips on how to approach digital media literacy, see our article on Digital Media Literacy Fundamentals.




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