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Video by Rawan Elbaba/Student Reporting Labs

Why on-screen representation matters, according to these teens

Why does representation in pop culture matter?

For some young students, portrayals of minorities in the media not only affect how others see them, but it affects how they see themselves.

“I do think it’s powerful for people of a minority race to be represented in pop culture to really show a message that everybody has a place in this world,” said Alec Fields, a junior at Forest Hills High School in Pennsylvania.

Fields was one of 144 middle and high school students who were interviewed about seeing themselves reflected — or not — on the screen. PBS NewsHour turned to our Student Reporting Labs from across the country to hear what students had to say a topic that research shows still has room for growth.

The success of recent films like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” have — again — sent a message about the importance of representation of minorities, not only in Hollywood but in other aspects of pop culture as well.

Only two out of every 10 lead film actors (or 19.8 percent) were people of color in 2017, this year’s UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report found. Still, that’s a jump from the year before, when people of color accounted for 13.9 percent of lead roles. People of color have yet to reach proportional representation within the film industry, but there have been gains in specific areas, including film leads and overall cast diversity.

According to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the nation’s population is nearly 40 percent non-white. By 2055, the country’s racial makeup is expected to change dramatically, the U.S. will not have one racial or ethnic majority group by 2055, the Pew Research Center estimated.

Some students said that not seeing yourself represented in elements of pop culture can affect mental health.

“It just makes you feel like, ‘Why don’t I see anybody like me?’ [It] kind of like brings your self-esteem down,” said Kimore Willis, a junior at Etiwanda High School in California.

Others said they often look to trends in pop culture when forming their own identities.

“We need to see people that look like ourselves and can say, ‘Oh, that looks like me!’ or ‘I identify with that,'” said Sonali Chhotalal, a junior at Cape May Technical High School in New Jersey.

Others, however, feel that Hollywood is overcompensating for their lack of diversity by depicting exaggerated and stereotypical characters.

Eric Wojtalewicz from Black River Falls High School in Wisconsin said that he sees a lot of gay characters that seem “over-the-top,” playing on old tropes. “I definitely think that not all gays are like that,” he said.

Kate Casper, a junior at T.C. Williams High School in Virginia, called Hollywood’s attempt at diversity “disingenuous.” Although there can never be enough diversity, Casper said, she feels that the entertainment industry is using diversity for economic benefit. “Diversity equals money in today’s world, which is cool, I guess,” she said, adding that “it’s cooler to have pure motives.”

The UCLA report agrees that diversity sells. It says that the median global box office has been the highest for films featuring casts that were more than 20-percent minority, making nearly $450 million in 2017.

Although public opinion may be divided about whether the entertainment industry is doing enough to represent all types of people, South Mountain High School student Dazhane Brown in Arizona said that feeling represented is “empowering.”

“If you see people who look like you and act like you and speak like you and come from the same place you come from … it serves as an inspiration,” Brown said.

PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs produced this story in an effort to highlight the importance of representation of minorities in popular culture. Students from 31 Labs across the country submitted these responses.

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