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  • What does modern America look like on screens?
  • What does modern America look like on screens?
    Joshua Stitt (2018) ©
VOX POP

Do Americans feel well-represented in the media?

From magazine covers to small screens, media producers are striving to meet public demand for a level of diversity that reflects reality – but are their efforts enough? Canvas8 spoke to eight Americans about whether they believe mainstream media fairly represents all parts of society.

Location United States

What do Americans have to say?

Real bodies? LGBTQ inclusive? Racial diversity? Click on the videos below to hear what eight Americans think about representation in mainstream media.

HIDDEN IDEOLOGIES

I feel like people with liberal ideologies are overrepresented and people with conservative ideologies are underrepresented

Amanda, 31, Georgia

ALTERNATIVE REPRESENTATION

We’re missing larger bodies, black and brown bodies, people who are not cisgender or confirmed to a gender identity

Katie, 25, California

INCLUSIVE SIZES

They’re trying to get the old school, skinny idea of a woman out, and start pushing the fact that there’s many different sizes and shapes of women

Cody, 27, Pennsylvania

MULTIRACIAL MEDIA

I think representations could be improved for our brothers and sisters who are multi-racial

Daisy, 48, Florida

EVIDENCED ENTREPRENEURS

I think the media could do a better job of representing innovators and entrepreneurs in third-world countries

Devin, 24, Missouri

AUTHENTICALLY AVERAGE

I think we just need an everyday score of regular folks being shown in the media

Ellie, 30, Mississippi

NEW MAJORITIES

The white middle class person hasn't gotten a great representation in the last couple of decades

Julie, 31, Oregon

SINGLE SPOTLIGHT

That [single] person that’s living their best life by themselves is a little underrepresented

Victoria, 30, Maryland

Scope
Pride Month 2019 saw brands come out in droves to show support for the LGBTQ community, from Listerine launching a Pride-themed mouthwash to the Trump administration’s $35 rainbow MAGA cap. Yet while these efforts – regardless of whether they were sincere symbols of allegiance or cynical cash grabs – showed how brands now recognize the value of inclusive messaging, it may be rubbing some Americans the wrong way. [1] A survey conducted by GLAAD found that Gen Yers and Zers, the most diverse generations yet, are actually becoming less tolerant of the LGBTQ community; the proportion of 18- to 34-year-olds who were ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ comfortable with LGBTQ people in a variety of scenarios dropped from 53% in 2017 to 45% in 2018. “When you have a country and a culture that is normalizing hate and discrimination, you will see [people] move from an allied position to become detached supporters,” says Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD. [2]

According to a study from the Williams Institute, there may be a simple solution to countering prejudice against the LGBTQ community and transgender individuals specifically. Following an experiment in which participants were shown images of trans and gender-nonconforming people, the researchers recorded a drop in transphobia and increased support for trans rights. “As research continues to examine the effects of increased knowledge and depictions of transgender people in mass media, this study further suggests that these developments can have a positive impact on the rights and wellbeing of transgender people,” said Andrew Flores, a visiting scholar at the Williams Institute.” [3]

Increased exposure may well help to fight discrimination, but a survey conducted by Toluna on behalf of Canvas8 found that just 29% of Americans feel that different sexualities are well represented in the media and advertising. Meanwhile, 31% think different genders receive balanced coverage, 22% believe that a broad range of body types are showcased, and 18% say they see a variety of ethnic minorities on screens and in print. [4] With help from qualitative research company Verbate, we spoke to eight Americans to understand their views on who is fairly represented in the media.

Media exposure can help erase old prejudices
Media exposure can help erase old prejudices
Ashly Araya (2018) ©

I feel like the media represents college-aged students, younger people, people with bodies that are considered fit, and people that are in the... top 1% of income earners in the nation. I feel like people with liberal ideologies are overrepresented and people with conservative ideologies are underrepresented. I feel like the media favors younger people that are more open to different lifestyles rather than older people who have a set existing ideology, and I feel like middle-aged people are also not represented well.
Amanda, 31, Georgia

White women and men, white bodies, thin bodies, slender bodies, cisgender bodies… have all been represented pretty well in mainstream media. But I do think that there’s always an issue with representation because it’s always stylized or photoshopped. We’re missing larger bodies, black and brown bodies, people who are not cisgender or [conforming] to a gender identity. Those representations are clearly lacking and there’s a pretty big fallout from that.
Katie, 25, California

As far as mainstream media goes, it’s pushing more of a governmental agenda. In advertising, I’m seeing a lot more magazines, newspapers... pushing equality among women and color, especially black women and Spanish women. I think that’s a really good thing and they need to keep pushing that. There’s a lot more body types as far as big women being pushed. They’re trying to get the old school, skinny idea of a woman out and start pushing the fact that there’s many different sizes and shapes of women.
Cody, 27, Pennsylvania

I'm glad that our mainstream media and advertisers are progressing well in representing women and the role women play in all aspects of our society as compared to a decade ago, as well as representations of gender equality, particularly members of the LGBTQ community. Slowly, we are breaking away from the stereotypes. I think representations could be improved for our brothers and sisters who are multi-racial. They are rarely represented by our mainstream media and in advertisements. I think there should be more representations for their multi-racial experiences, like being proud of the multi-racial background and being open to other cultures. I feel the least represented are Asian-Americans.
Daisy, 48, Florida

The number of minority TV leads is steadily on the rise
The number of minority TV leads is steadily on the rise
Kaylee Eden (2017) ©

I think the media could do a better job of representing innovators and entrepreneurs in third-world countries. You don't ever really hear about people creating a business in a country that's not talked about very often. So, I think seeing more businesspeople and their actions in countries that we don't focus on in the media would be really cool.
Devin, 24, Missouri

I'm glad that we're getting there slowly and I think it can be improved by simply showing more representation. That includes body size. I think that we're seeing a lot of plus-size, which is great, and we're seeing a lot of thin body types. But I think a more active representation of everyday folks would be just regular – like a US size four to ten – I would like to see more of that. I think that that would be really helpful now with some women's sizes, and same with men. Buff men are shown and I think more plus-size men should be shown. I think we just need an everyday score of regular folks being shown in the media and I think it can be improved by getting more of us out there.
Ellie, 30, Mississippi

I think the issues and groups that the mainstream media and advertising represent well would be the LGBTQ community, feminism, women's empowerment, equality, equal rights, Black Lives Matter, a lot of minority groups. As far as the [things] that I don't think are represented very well are the good work that our police and law enforcement officers are doing on a daily basis, how hard our military is working, and... the white middle-class person hasn't gotten great representation in the last couple of decades. I think everyone deserves their place to be well-represented and it would be great if those groups got just as much recognition as the groups that were once the minorities that are now seen in the majority spotlight. Those other groups are now definitely being brushed under the rug.
Julie, 31, Oregon

The group that is definitely represented the most in mainstream media and advertising is the romantic couple or those seeking relationships. Whether that’s same-sex, homosexual, whatever type of relationship, it feels like that is a focus. The group that’s least represented is the single person that’s focusing on career or school, that is not seeking a relationship, and not at a club or partying. I do feel like that person that’s living their best life by themselves is a little underrepresented.
Victoria, 30, Maryland

The US is projected to be minority white by 2045
The US is projected to be minority white by 2045
Mihai Surdu (2019) ©

Insights and opportunities
Since the early 2000s, celebrities, grassroots activists, and digital communities have piled pressure on brands to adopt a body-positive approach in their product development and marketing. Fenty’s use of curvaceous mannequins at its New York pop-up in June 2019 was just one example of this shift. [5] Yet despite ample online discussion (there are 10.3 million Instagram posts tagged with #bodypositive) and the emergence of plus-sized icons such as Lizzo and Tess Halliday, only 22% of Americans feel all body types are well-represented in the media. [4] “We’re missing larger bodies, black and brown bodies, people who are not cisgender or [conforming] to a gender identity,” says Katie, 25, from California. With 79% of people feeling dissatisfied with how their body looks at times and 8% always feeling unhappy, brands can go further to show a range of diverse bodies, recognizing that size is far from constant. [6] Universal Standard’s Liberty Fit collection acknowledges this by allowing buyers to get free replacements of certain items in the case of weight fluctuations and body changes.

The rise of call-out culture has seen businesses across industries sit up and take note of their practices, pushing many to adopt more true-to-life representations of their audiences. Within the film industry, Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 11 have been rebooted with all-female casts and the 25th James Bond film is set to see Lashana Lynch take over the 007 codename, becoming the first woman and non-white person to do so. [7] None of these developments have come without their fair share of controversy, but box office figures show that balanced gender representations appeal to everyone. According to an analysis of the top movies at the US box office between 2014 and 2017, female-led movies outperformed non-female-led ones, and those that passed the Bechdel Test earned more than those that failed it. [8] Yet while positive steps are being made in regards to gender representation, just 33% of American men and 31% of women feel media coverage is currently fair in regards to gender. [4]

The group that’s least represented is the single person that’s focusing on career or school, that is not seeking a relationship, and not at a club or partying

Victoria, 30, Maryland

In 2018, LGBTQ representation on TV hit a record high, with 8.8% of the 857 series regulars on broadcast TV openly identifying as on the gay, trans, or queer spectrum. [9] Netflix is leading the way in terms of representing three-dimensional queer characters through shows like Special, Orange is the New Black, and The Haunting of Hill House, with figures from GLAAD suggesting that it has more LGBTQ characters than any other network, doubling the number of queer characters in its shows in the last year alone. [10] While this progressiveness may be drawing praise among the community and its allies, the zero-sum bias can make some audiences feel like increased coverage for marginalized groups is coming at a cost to people like them. “The white middle-class person hasn't gotten great representation in the last couple of decades,” says Julie, 31, from Oregon. “I think everyone deserves their place to be well-represented and it would be great if those groups got just as much recognition as the groups that were once the minorities that are now seen in the majority spotlight.”

Six in ten American adults say that having an increasing number of people of different races, ethnic groups, and nationalities makes the country a better place to live. [11] And with census projections revealing that the US will be minority white by 2045, the present minority groups will no longer be considered so. [12] Pop culture, particularly on the small screen, has been making headway in representing the true and nuanced face of modern America. Results from a 2017 report on diversity in Hollywood showing a rise in minority leads, especially on broadcast TV shows, where they represented 18.7% of main characters in 2016/17, up from 5.1% in 2011/12. [13] Despite this progress, however, Canvas8’s survey showed that only 18% of Americans believe that ethnic minorities are fairly represented or recognized in mainstream media and advertising, indicating that there’s still room to improve on-screen diversity. [4]

Canvas8 carried out this research in collaboration with Toluna, surveying 4,500 people across the US in July 2019. The video interviews were conducted by Verbate, a qualitative research company that offers instant feedback from users around the world.

Sources
1. 'Listerine mocked for ‘gay pride’ rainbow bottles', Yahoo (May 2019)
2. 'Young Americans are increasingly 'uncomfortable' with LGBTQ community, GLAAD study shows', Time (June 2019)
3. 'New study says trans media representations can change the political landscape', INTO (May 2018)
4. 5. Research conducted by Canvas8 in collaboration with Toluna
5. 'Rihanna used curvy mannequins at her Fenty pop-up and her fans feel seen', Harper’s Bazaar (June 2019)
6. 'Most Americans experience feeling dissatisfied with how their body looks from time to time, including nearly two in five who feel this way whenever they look in the mirror', Ipsos (February 2018)
7. 'Lashana Lynch will play 007 in new James Bond movie: report', The New York Post (July 2019)
8. 'Female-led films outperform at box office for 2014-2017', Shift7 (2018)
9. '2018 saw record growth in LGBTQ roles on television', The Verge (October 2018)
10. 'Why Netflix is leading the way when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation on TV', Digital Spy (April 2019)
11. 'Most Americans express positive views of country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity', Pew Research Center (June 2018)
12. 'The US will become ‘minority white’ in 2045, Census projects', Brookings (March 2018)
13. 'Report shows slight progress for Hollywood on diversity', The New York Times (February 2018)

Author

Tahmid Akthar is a History graduate, who’s worked as a content writer and researcher within the fashion and creative industries for the past 7 years. Outside of work he’s watching Arsenal through his hands over his eyes.

Canvas8

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