The need for representation in our media

The need for representation in our media

Synopsis

For decades, white stories centred around teens in movies and on TV have been at the forefront of entertainment.

The need for representation in our media
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Italicise: Glee, One Tree Hill, Skins, The Danger of a Single Story, The End of the F***ing World, Freaks and Geeks, Yeh Meri Family,

Our lives, our cultures, and our struggles are composed of many overlapping stories. Eventually, these stories are transformed to tell tales on a television screen, comprising all the trials and tribulations of the common folk, making it widely relatable and relevant to audiences. But it just so happens, there is a large gap in our media where although content is consistently being made for children and adults but a major subgroup in the middle is consistently forgotten about. When it comes to the entertainment industry, the teenager or the common young adult is the last person in the list of marketable content. Almost all the industry’s projects revolve around themes of marriage or domestic life, whereas shows or movies with relatable content for teenagers remains unquestionably limited.

For decades, white stories centred around teens in movies and on TV have been at the forefront of entertainment. In today’s age, where we have access to all the world’s stream-able content, the brown teenager’s inevitable predisposition to western media is warranted simply because it is the only avenue out there that aims to represent their issues. I grew up consuming mainly western pop culture simply because there was nothing else being produced for my age group. My choice to watch shows like Glee or One Tree Hill cannot be considered as a choice when it was the only option available that remotely resonated with my struggles.

When was the last time Pakistan had a coming of age movie or show primarily catering to a high-schooler? While this may be dismissed by many as trivial in the grand scheme of things, it dictates a dangerously unfortunate precedent amongst the populace. When the only portrayals you have exposure to in media are predominantly white, it breeds a rather drastic effect on questioning minds where it instils Eurocentric values in the absence of proper native representation in media.

The problem lies in the very fact that this particular train of content is of western origins, where cultures, values, lives and banalities of life may differ vastly from the life of a typical brown teenager. The UK series Skins is often heralded as a timeless didactic encapsulation of teenage troubles, the first season of which was cast with real teen actors where they went on to portray many relevant issues ranging from anti-social behaviour or anorexia to loneliness and death; issues that still hold up today. But at the same time, it showcased all the things that would seem alien to a Pakistani teenager.

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Its primary setting was amidst European families where these doting blue-eyed students rode bicycles to school, went to pubs, listened to British music, played in the snow, and had access to unparalleled freedom. Suddenly, all the character portrayals aren’t relatable even if some of the issues they face are. And whilst Skins broke boundaries with its raw narrative and some important representation, including having a brown immigrant teen in the character portrayals played by Dev Patel, it still felt foreign at times. Did my young-adult trajectory have something amiss? Did I have to be more like these teens who talked about the weather in their European accents and had beans for breakfast or went to pubs? Was I not living the quintessential teen life that I was so avidly watching on television?

Shows like these build their foundation on authentic portrayals, which some of them truly do, but due to their target audience being predominantly white, they can often wind up alienating brown viewers whose own teenage reality is far from the show’s version. Adichie’s Ted Talk on The Danger of a Single Story is the perfect representation of what our society might be going through, especially when it comes to young adults. The highly celebrated African author put it quite aptly when she spoke on how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children: “Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books, by their very nature, had to have foreigners in them, and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify with.”

We can draw realistic parallels from Adichie’s struggles where she was influenced by the repetitive “single story” in her youth, causing her to believe that this was the only story to exist. It was only after being exposed to African authors who conceptualised relatable stories did she realise that “people like me, girls with skin the colour of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature.”

It’s fairly simple, the fact that no consistent native representation for a brown teen exists in our media industry is what fails each and every centennial of Pakistani origins. We are faced with all-consuming narratives of white families, leaving us to be dominated by that stark visual and making us rethink our experiences for they simply don’t match what we see on television. The entertainment industry predictably fails 63 per cent of its entire population, and not for the lack of an audience, which there is a vast majority of, but simply because of the industry’s ineptitude in branching out of their run-of-the-mill domestic married life portrayals that do not seem to end.

Where would these forgotten viewers go if not for other readily available avenues that seem to fill this drastic gap in content; Netflix viewership statistics boast a whopping 33 per cent of teenagers whereas YouTube is not far behind with 31 per cent of its teen audience. That’s 1/3 of an available marketable audience that is consuming media on a daily basis, media that tells singular stories or whitewashes native stories.

Adichie concluded her talk by endorsing the power of storytelling, and how once we choose to reject the single story can we appreciate the complexity, highs and lows of every person, city and culture. We are all much, much more than a single story. We are the culmination of hundreds of stories: stories from the past, stories yet to be written and stories we are actively writing ourselves.

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A few months ago, a group of young individuals based in Islamabad took it upon themselves and made an entire scripted show that characterised the life of the brown teenager. Titled Midsummer Chaos, which was put on YouTube, became a huge viral success, albeit for the wrong reasons. The various memes that followed can be attributed to the show’s terrible production and its whitewashed portrayal that made it feel inauthentic. Despite its shortcomings and its limited budget, the series garnered hundreds of thousands of views in a very short time. The main takeaway isn’t that the show was bad, it’s the very unsurprising fact that an audience for an entirely teenage oriented drama existed. The show did what Pakistani media has always been afraid to do, validate this particular market’s potential and then provide them with relatable content. On the other hand, shows like The End of the F***ing World which tackled coming-of-age for teen misfits and existential or nihilistic crises amidst teenagers, or on a lighter note, the classic Freaks and Geeks, which became a cult classic due to its excellent portrayal of high-school life, garnered success simply because of their authentic narratives aimed at teen audiences. A prime regional example could be the show Yeh Meri Family that centred around a simple premise about a boy belonging to a middle-class family and his life. However, the show’s ability to represent seemingly trivial issues ranging from thinking your dad is uncool to dealing with your big brother leaving for college are all the reasons it stands out from all other media productions because it showcased real and relatable stories for the youth. And that is something we desperately need in Pakistan.

If the industry won’t budge on the sheer need for more stories, maybe it can be swayed by the copious amount of untapped money that exists within this group. Because the audience exists, as proven. And there is a rather drastic gap in our content production for these people, as evident. The minute we start telling our own stories, maybe then we will stop becoming victims of another biased sample of Eurocentric media.

 

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