Art, Media and Representation

I’ll be honest, I haven’t done any writing today. I forced myself yesterday, with everything that was going on…and it stressed me out.

I still want to write today, and I do plan on it, but for today’s blog, which I am posting very late in the day, I thought it might be better to share some videos that I feel are important.

These videos highlight why I feel it is important to have diversity in art and the media.

I want to show perspectives from all sides, not just my own. Things that affect my friends, family and my community…and how harmful the lack of diversity in the media truly is, and why as artists we need to take this into consideration.

This first video talks about beauty standards in the Philippine’s, specifically looking at skin lightening and the impact it has on women. Clariz talks about how the media tries to make it look as though there are only “light-skinned” Filipino’s through their casting, advertisements etc…when 90% of the population has dark skin. Many of their stars and celebrities are mixed race (with white) or foreigners, and therefore have lighter complexions. The lighter skinned characters in their films and shows are portrayed as the leads, and depicted as having glamorous lives while the darker skinned cast members are often depicted as lower class.

This is extremely similar to how in North American media, mixed people and light-skinned people, are often cast to represent and portray POC (this includes Asian, Indian, Indigenous) on television…and how the lighter skin characters tend to have better narratives, whereas the darker character’s are portrayed as less than or negatively stereotyped.

This is a problem, and it really needs to stop. I hate seeing shows where the darkest female character is “rude, arrogant and bossy” and the writers pretend that she’s just “confident.” Those are negative stereotypes attributed to the colour of a character’s skin.

The art community needs to do better.

As Clariz said in her video, “The problem they have right now is that they just don’t have enough representation where people can actually see themselves on T.V.”

Something that resonates with what I discussed in my blog post on Writing Diverse Character’s. We writers are just as responsible as visual mediums are, for creating proper representation.

Something that myself, and my parents loved about Bratz dolls when I was a little girl, was that there was actual representation.

Now, although I love my Sasha dolls, when rewatching a Bratz Kidz film with my 8 year old niece, my niece pointed out that Sasha was very rude and mean towards her friends. Sasha’s character, was always bossy. This is a negative stereotype, that was used in a children’s television series, with toys (that I loved), that portrayed Cloe as this sweet, overly anxious blonde, in contrast to Sasha, who was much of the time a bully.

Sasha was also known for having great taste in music, and for being an amazing dancer. Also stereotypes. She could have been an animal lover, like Yasmin, or been into design like Jade, or dealt with severe anxiety like Cloe…but no. She was written as a bossy black girl, who has good rhythm.

If an 8 year old little girl can see it, how many other little girls do you think resonated with the animations version of Sasha?

Yes, I loved my dolls, they had the same skin tone as my mom and my aunts and cousins. When I played with them, they weren’t stereotyped like this. Since I had so many Sasha dolls (because it wasn’t easy to get dark skinned/tan Barbie’s at the time), I made them one big family of sister’s. The oldest sister, named Big Sasha always looked out for her younger sister’s. She helped them with their homework, loved their pets and she always bought them ice cream.

Like…they could have written her like that, but they didn’t.

I still love the brand, and the dolls because I loved having dolls that looked like my friends (one in every colour), but from 2020 onward, I don’t want to see these racial stereotypes in children’s entertainment.

Sasha deserved better.

The next video is by 16 year old Nana, who talks about what it is like being a dark-skinned black woman during black history month. She starts off by highlighting colourism, which was addressed in Clariz’s video on Filipina beauty standards (posted above), and explains how there are different privileges and stereotypes for people based on their complexion. As she says early in the video, “It took me a while to learn to love my skin,” which Clariz also said in hers when talking about how at age 11 she was bleaching her skin.

These are young girls, and Nana states this. I love when she points out how problematic this is:

“Why should I as a 16 year old girl in this ever changing society, have to learn to love their skin? That’s how you know how much colourism has impacted me, or has always been in the back of my head.”

This really hurts my heart.

I don’t think people understand that, for POC, these conversations, thoughts etc. are apart of their every day. It isn’t a trendy topic that just pops up on Twitter or on your favourite morning gossip show once every few months. These are ongoing issues.

Nana talks about how in her sixteen years, she has always know that lighter-skinned black girls are viewed in one way, and darker-skinned black girls in another. One being considered “better” than the other, and one only being celebrated because it is currently “trendy” in the media (this video being made around Black Panther’s release). She also points out how when you type #naturalhair on Instagram, you will get light-skinned girls with bouncy curly hair.

I know this to be true…and those girls are more often than not mixed race. I know this, because I myself am a mixed race girl, with this hair texture.

Girls with tighter curls and different textures are under represented on social media. Since 2018, this has at least improved a little on Google Search (Instagram unfortunately is still the same). You will however notice in this collage that I made of the first images I got that 2 of these women are mixed race.

You might also notice that each of these women have different hair textures! Which in my personal opinion, is a good thing, because it does show diversity, and what is natural hair for EACH of these women, and women who are like them. It allows for people to see themselves. Something that Clariz felt was missing in the media representation of Filipina’s.

I love how Nana throughout her video breaks things down from stereotypes and slight-derogatory compliments (i.e. “you’re pretty for a black girl”), and how harmful they are. Her video highlights why it is so important to listen to peoples voices both within and outside of your community.

This next video is by Sherliza MoƩ, where she talks about Colourism in Asia.

By this point, I’m sure you are seeing a pattern here. Sherliza however, speaks about how there is a misconception that Asian people who want to lighten their skin are trying to “look European/white” but in reality, this desire had been around long before they had been influenced by European and American media and beauty standards. Much like the European hierarchy, if you were rich, you were indoors and therefore less likely to have a darker complexion compared to someone who was working outdoors. Having a lighter complexion was associated with wealth, and having a darker complexion was associated with poverty.

“This is so ingrained in Asian people that we still carry these colouristic views today, but of course history is not the only thing to be blamed for colourism, but media is to blame too,” she says, before heading into her rant about Asian media.

I like that in this video she includes advertisements from of Asian and Indian actors and actresses, clearly stating how having a lighter complexion will help them win in life.

This is so harmful and damaging. In the one, women continue to mistake a man for being a servant because he’s a darker shade of brown. In another a woman who apparently used to be “African” (yep they did black face) completely changed races and became Asian by drinking some type of liquid.

Yah…I know. She was also talking to a grizzly bear, who wanted to be white like a polar bear. Yep. It was pretty messed up.

Her video highlights how this both effects men and women in these communities, as the ads constantly tell men that unless they are pale, women won’t find them attractive. For the women they take this one step further and say, if you’re not pale, you’ll never get married.

This is why proper representation is so important, and why Miwa Ueda’s, Peach Girl made me so happy when I was younger, because like…there was a girl with my complexion in a manga/anime, who had to learn to love herself because people constantly ridiculed her for having darker skin as an Asian woman!

Lack of representation allows for harmful stereotypes to continue to exist. I loved how in a lot of works by Miwa Ueda that she had character’s who were not “conventional” beauties according to Japanese beauty standards. These character’s often learned to love and accept themselves for who they were, and fought against negative stereotypes like, “girls with dark skin are easy” or “girls with dark skin don’t take care of themselves.”

I know it sounds ridiculous, but these are stereotypes that have been ingrained in peoples minds from the time they were children, along with this idea that if you are darker, you are undesirable, and that is wrong.

Sherliza discusses this in great detail when she breaks down Edward Avila’s video, and why she disagrees with him in his statements on why Korean people want lighter skin. She points out how he completely dismisses colourism, and instead tries to say that having light skin is a “personal preference.” Sherliza’s response to that was, “But why is it the personal preference?” and goes on to talk about how the media heavily enforces the idea that having lighter skin will make you more attractive, and will somehow make you happier. She even shows images that people made of celebrities, like Rihanna who were photoshopped to appear white, with comments on them like, “Rihanna would look so much prettier if she was white.”

This seriously emphasizes the importance of having more proper, diverse representation.

Edward makes the statement in his video, “Why do you have to be validated by the media or something we see on the internet?” He thinks that if it is bothering people to see a lack of representation they should just, not engage with it and get off the internet.

Sherliza responds infuriated and sarcastically, “If you are a tan girl constantly surrounded by pale ass people (you can go to 21:06 in the video), so you feel pressured, ugly, and depressed by that, then just go live in a cave. Disconnect your internet. If you don’t see caramel skin being promoted in your area then just don’t look at the media at all!”

She then points out that Edward himself, is Filipino, and decides to go on to talk about colourism in the Philippines like Clariz did in the first video I discussed.

She finishes off by deciding to expose herself, and talk about back when she was 13 and into cosplay and anime. She talks about how it was annoying to cosplay the characters “accurately” because many of the characters were (are) pale. “My skin tone wasn’t nearly as light as these characters and I used to dislike my brownish skin colour so much in the past. I remember even asking a friend to photoshop my skin lighter, so it looks better like…it’s so cringe worthy to think about the past. But yah, there was a lot of this going on when I was 13 to 14,” she says in her video.

She goes on to say how at age 16 she believed that makeup looked so much better and vibrant on people with lighter skin, and would secretly wish to be a few tones lighter. She mentions how during this time the only Asian makeup artists that she would see had light skin. It made her think she wasn’t able to wear certain colours or types of makeup. She said that when she stopped worrying about the colours not looking “right,” and found what worked for her, that she stopped obsessing about having a lighter skin tone.

She finished the video, by putting emphasis on having more diversity in the media. She says, “Hire people who are qualified for the job but give the brown skinned people, the caramel skinned people, a chance!”

To go off her last statement, I want to add that it is important to not only give them a chance at actually being present in the media, but that when they are shown, their characters aren’t written as negative stereotypes that are often attributed to people of their race or complexion.

I want artists, writers and film makers to be mindful when they are creating. How are they portraying the world around them? Are we having more repeats of Sasha from Bratz, a harmful stereotype which enforces the whole, “rude black girl” trope, or are our character’s more complex, and multilayered?

Are we writing Asian men with darker skin who are considered very handsome and attractive, versus poor, geeky or “ratchet”?

Do we show diversity not only by including other races of lighter skin tones or mixed race people in multicultural countries like Canada, England, and the US but those of darker complexions as well? Is there proper and mindful representation being done for people within those communities, or is the representation dangerous and enforcing negative stereotypes?

Each of these girls spoke about how from young children, we are conditioned to think this way by society, and how they had to learn to love themselves. This is not right, and definitely needs to change as we move forward.

I believe with proper representation, people within these communities will love themselves from day one, and people outside of these communities will no longer be fed and enforce these stereotypes subconsciously (or consciously in some cases).

I know that this post was a lot longer than my other ones, but I do hope that it helps you to better understand why it is so important for us as creators to make content where our audiences can see themselves represented.

Book Talk: Writing Diverse Characters

I came across this video, which relates to a few conversations I’ve seen circling the Twitter #WritingCommunity in these past few weeks regarding writing diverse characters (specifically POC).

This video is about 20 minutes, but I think that regardless of your race, it highlights the key issues regarding representation in media and how to do it properly.

When I saw certain threads regarding this topic, and please note that I am not calling anyone out, I was a little disappointed in the comments people made about why they avoided writing characters outside of their race. Many people felt it would be inappropriate to attempt writing a character outside of their own race because “they don’t understand the experience.” No one is telling you to write a story about racial prejudices. The questions were often simply, is your main character a different race than your own, or do you include other races in your work. The colour of your characters skin doesn’t have to be the main focus in your story.

In fact, I find it annoying (not always but a lot of the time), when a show or book put so much emphasis on the race of a character, versus their actual personality. It stunts character development and shows a lack of understanding.

I believe it was an interview that I watched this Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie, back when I took African Lit’ in university, who talked about how as she was a child she would read western books and all the characters were white. So she thought, that that was how it was supposed to be. Characters in books were white.

Here’s the video here:

As she states in this Ted Talk, it really shows how impressionable children are and also highlights and issue that I remember another author, Jenna Moreci mentioning on her Instagram, when she discussed some of the fan art she had been receiving of her characters. She mentioned in the post, that it frustrated her when people drew her characters who she described to have a deep tan and thick curly locks and brown eyes, were being drawn as pale, blonde-haired and blue-eyed. She was baffled by how readers completely ignored the character descriptions, and automatically interpreted the characters as white. She posted beautiful illustrations that she had created by an artist, showing how the characters looked based on her descriptions. Many readers were shocked to see that this character wasn’t white, and were confused because that wasn’t how they pictured him. Jenna didn’t want to make a big deal about race in her novels because the characters race was not essential to the plot. However, and this is just my interpretation as someone who participated in this conversation on her post, she and many others in the comments seemed disappointed by the fact that when an author doesn’t shove “otherness”…and I hate using that word in this case, but I will…and cram it down their readers throats, it goes completely over peoples heads because “western books are about white people.”

Unfortunately this isn’t uncommon. I myself grew up reading books about white people aside from my favourite Robert Munsch book and the ones I was forced to read during black history month.

Yes, I said forced, because growing up the only books at my school with black or mixed main characters were about slavery. Yep. You try being the only “black” person in your class during black history month, while your class is reading about slavery and relearning about Harriet Tubman for the millionth time. The teacher just turns to you and goes, “So what do you think about this?” as if you were paying attention. Dude, I’ve heard this same lesson for the first 8 years of my education. I tuned you out when you started saying “coloured folk.”

I’m backtracking a bit here, but I want to talk about the Robert Munsch book because honestly, it meant so much to me as a little girl. I saw myself as the girl in that book. The book was called Wait and See. The girl in the book, although both her parents were black (unlike in my own family), had bubbles in her hair and it was braided in two like Pippi Longstocking. She styled it just like me! I loved it so much that every time I would read it, I would pretend that I was her and I was making all sorts of birthday cakes and coming up with these absurd wishes. I’d even read it to my little sister and tell her that the baby in it was her.

Simply having illustrations with a character that looked like me, made me feel so happy, during a time where I honestly didn’t pay any attention to race. At that age race honestly wasn’t something that I paid any attention to unless someone asked me why one side of my arm was white and the other side was brown…to which I answered, “Because my Daddy has white skin and my Mommy has brown skin.”

Also, if you don’t know what bubbles are, because my sister and I realize that they’re no longer in style, here’s what they look like:

Honestly, I’m surprised these haven’t made a comeback. They’re so fun and cute! I loved doing mismatch colours. One side had orange and the other blue, or pink and purple.

Anyway, when I started to write my own stories, I like Chimamanda, wrote about white people, unless of course a character was loosely based on one of my friends. I honestly didn’t see a problem with it at the time, until my brother asked why everyone I drew was white. The drawings in this case, being of characters from the book series I wrote when I was in seventh grade. My only response was, “I don’t know…?” because it wasn’t something I did unconsciously. I simply wrote a story and imagined the cast of characters as white people. They could literally be any race at all, but they weren’t.

It wasn’t until I heard Chimamanda’s Ted Talk in University that it all came together.

Initially I don’t think I noticed it because I’m half-white and half-black. I don’t look at myself as a singular race. I never have. I embody two races and two cultures. Growing up I watched Full House and I watched Fresh Prince. I loved The Proud Family and Kim Possible.

One thing I often thought was strange was how in movies where characters had relationships like my parents, the two families always fought about race…that…that was just…honestly films with interracial couples that only focus on racial issues bother me. I haven’t read a novel with an interracial couple yet, but I have heard that sadly…it is often the same. I’m not saying that we should ignore these experiences, I’m just saying why can’t we have a romance where two people are of a different race or culture and not make the entire thing about race and culture. Why can’t it be your typical person A meets person B and they fall in love kind of story?

The other reason why I don’t think I noticed the lack of diversity in literature, and also the reason why I myself mainly wrote white characters growing up, is because that is what English literature looked like. As I said before, the only books aside from the Robert Munsch one, that I read about black people were about slavery. The only books that I read about Asian people…well at least here in Canada…were about David Suzuki. I’m not joking. It sounds absurd now with all the sudden representation in literature and film in the last 5 years…but seriously. Unless it was like manga, I didn’t read anything about people who weren’t white.

Now like I said, I’m not here to call anyone out. I’m guilty of doing this, but I am also fully aware of why people subconsciously write their characters this way. I can understand the concept of not wanting to tell a story that isn’t your own experience…however, being of another race doesn’t make your character who they are. There are so many different layers to this.

The hopeless romantic is still a soft hearted, falls hard, lives in their own fantasy world type of person.

The warrior is still strong, fighting to survive and constantly adapting to their situations.

Their race has nothing to do with these aspects of their personalities.

I also don’t think it is necessarily appropriate to purposely fill your novel with a diverse cast of characters, for the sake of it, or because it is currently “trendy” or what literary agents are looking for. And yes…I have seen literary agents and publishers specifically say they want stories with POC main characters. Being inclusive shouldn’t be a way to make money…but whatever.

What I’m saying is, by trying to force diversity into your work, you will end up taking away from the story. I’ve seen this happen and it completely blew up in the authors face.

What happens is you end up with a bunch of dangerously problematic stereotypes, which takes away from your writing and shows a lack of creativity.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, but how can I write people outside my race? And even if you aren’t thinking that, well…you’ve probably seen that question come up in writing circles or across the web.

The answer is simple, just write a character the way you normally would. Don’t suddenly make them crave fried chicken, or be obsessed with bubble tea, or love na’an bread. If you are writing a character, you write them as a person, not as a stereotype of a group of people.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching both of those videos along with videos about literary tropes and misrepresentation all across the board.

I also hope that you do understand that just because it seems “trendy” right now to have a diverse cast of characters, doesn’t mean you should write diverse characters for the sake of being on trend. In my personal opinion that can be even more problematic than not being diverse at all.

A favourite artist of mine, Shiroi Room isn’t black but she draws black characters. I have two of her illustrations and they are beautiful! The one I have in this collage is the “Party” one.

What I mentioned above still applies to other forms of art, not just literature. Just because you don’t know how to draw braids or twists yet, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. How will you learn if you never give it a shot?

All in all, I wanted to discuss this topic in regards to literature (and media as a whole), because representation does matter, and to me it is baffling that myself and other authors like Chimamanda fell into this subconscious mindset that all western literary characters have to look a certain way.

As I told my niece in a drawing tutorial I made for her, you can make your characters look however you want. They can even have purple skin and green hair.

Just treat your characters with care and consideration.