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Putting representation in film in to context

26 April 2019

Our content does not exist in a vacuum and when we are representing marginalised groups, we may be one of very few who are doing so. With that in mind, we must ask ourselves is the way we are presenting our beneficiaries encouraging equality?

To put it into context here we take a look at the content ecosystem around the topic of  LGBTQ representation.

LGBTQ people are diverse, with a range of identities influenced by gender, sexuality, cultural background, economic background and so on – just like everyone else. In popularised media, there has been a lack of representation of this diversity, and LGBTQ representation in the past has gone from non-existent, to tokenistic. It’s now getting better, particularly with the rise in independent creators, production becoming more affordable and the rise of streaming platforms. But what did it look like when representation was less frequent?

In 1994, a short film was released about a young boy named Trevor realising he was gay and facing thoughts of suicide. After winning an academy award, the film was to be aired on HBO. The producers realised that children across the US were going to be watching the film, including those facing similar issues. Realising there was no national support service for LGBTQ youth, they started the first US helpline for LGBTQ youth in crisis. This was launched ten minutes before the film went on air. So the Trevor Project was born – the world’s largest suicide prevention organisation for LGBTQ young people, and as CEO Amit Paley highlights in an interview with the Queery podcast, “the phone started ringing off the hook that night and it hasn’t stopped since”.

Diverse representation which expresses some realm of the complexity of the human experience allows audiences to connect, and for people who relate to have their feelings validated. Conversely, relying on stereotypes or one-dimensional portrayals encourages a restrictive understanding of the world around us, and of ourselves.

So, fair, accurate and equal representation of LGBTQ people in film can have two major results:

  1. More stories which encourage audiences to empathise with different people can accelerate acceptance of those differences.
  2. Audiences may see themselves in the content, which is important because having media role models can have a positive impact on understanding who they are, feeling a sense of pride and comfort in their identity.

So where do charities fit in?

When charities make films, the audience is made up of supporters, beneficiaries and cold audiences. Crucially within this, many people watching the content will in some way have been affected by your cause – potentially directly. To represent a charity beneficiary as a stereotype or a victim will affect the beneficiary watching it, and the people who make up the society around them. Conversely, actively trying to subvert stereotypes or tell untold stories of your beneficiaries can help beneficiaries feel seen, and help others better understand their lived experience.

This means being aware of where the gaps are and responding to that, so having a range of stories illustrating the diverse experiences of the people we exist to support. It’s the ability to look at the ecosystem and focus attention on what is needed.

It makes absolute sense that charities be at the forefront of making change through their comms – and ensuring that they live their values. In recent years, Stonewall has been a particularly good example. Stonewall’s mission is “to let all lesbian, gay, bi and trans people, here and abroad, know they’re not alone” and their content direction reflects that.

Most recently, they were working with an independent filmmaker to produce Stonewall BAME voices, a series of films platforming BAME LGBTQ people throughout the UK.

Sanjay Sood-Smith, Director of Empowerment Programmes at Stonewall explains in the charity’s BAME LGBT Voices documentary: “Listening to and learning from the experiences of marginalised minorities is a vital part of creating a more inclusive culture. For that to happen, BAME LGBT people need more public platforms to speak safely about issues that affect them in their own voices, and for the diversity of their experiences to be represented.”

This particular episode underscores the importance of representation and what it means for people to find examples of themselves in culture.

Questions to ask:
Who are you not reaching?
How can you find ways to engage or involve them? (note: while keeping them safe)

Should charities be responsible for this?

There’s the argument that mainstream culture can do massive things to change perceptions – but these changes don’t happen on their own and it’s through the work of activists and change-makers, of which charities and NGOs are at the forefront, that there is more of a demand for diverse representation in the media.

This is exemplified in the case of the LGBTQ movement. The representation of LGBTQ people in media has improved in recent years, but not without struggle. The organisation GLAAD has been advocating and working for fair, accurate and equal representation of LGBTQ people in media since 1985.

Despite GLAAD’s years of work though former US vice president Joe Biden famously declared on NBC that “When things really began to change is when the social culture changes. I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”

Here, Joe appeared to completely forget that people have been campaigning for LGBTQ equality in life and in media long before it was seen as acceptable for two white, cis, gay men to exist on television. That’s not to say that Will and Grace wasn’t important, but it didn’t exist in a vacuum. The social culture didn’t just spontaneously change because someone wrote a witty gay character into a script. Presenting media representation and social activism as two separate entities is inaccurate.

GLAAD was founded 13 years before Will & Grace first aired. So, a media watchdog organisation existed and campaigned for diverse representation of LGBT communities 13 years before the pop culture show “did more to educate the American public” than anyone, in the eyes of the previous Vice President. Will & Grace happened 29 years after the Stonewall riots and in the aftermath of a monumental health and social justice crisis which robbed the LGBTQ community of close to a full generation of its men. Throughout people clamoured to be listened to. Indeed, just the previous year, Ellen DeGeneres caused controversy and lost her career (albeit temporarily) by coming out as gay. A huge amount of work happens before pop culture changes. As charities and civil society organisations, we stand for the people we represent, and have an opportunity to be part of that work.

Wonderfully, our media channels and platforms are becoming more diverse, especially now that audiences have more control than ever before. Platforms are responding – charities need to too. We are part of a multicultural, interconnected world and we are accountable to the people within it who watch our content.

We cannot see our audiences as a monocultural / single issue mass.

LGBTQ charity film often recognises that LGBTQ people will be watching and often, LGBTQ people have a hand in creating the content. This is not always the case when it comes to International development communication, particularly concerning the African continent. Sometimes, the differences are stark.

This case study is part of CharityComms’ FilmKit for charities guide.

Molly Clarke

former digital content officer, CharityComms

Molly was formerly the digital content officer at CharityComms and a Charity Works fellow. Before CharityComms, she was studying for her MA in International Development. Prior to that, she directed, produced and edited film projects both in a corporate and not-for-profit setting in the UK and internationally.