The power of visuals, or why representation matters.

I start this post by stating this: visuals matter.

Photographs, portraits, banners… Whether framed on walls, strewn on gates or gracing the pages of a booklet, your eyes are drawn to them. You stare at the faces looking back at you, and wonder who they are, how they think, what they do.

You also wonder whether you can relate to them.

Visuals, in whatever capacity, are a means of representation. This occurs most especially in advertisements, when companies hope to connect with consumers. We have all seen this in action, no doubt.

And more often than not, many of us cannot feel represented.

I recently began thinking about representation, whether in the media or elsewhere, in the light of this year’s Oscars nominees. How could I not? For when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the Oscar nominees for 2016, only white actors and actresses were among the chosen few in the top four categories – for the second year in a row. The consequence of the announcement was the understandable resurgence of the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, and a veritable host of concerns about diversity in Hollywood. Even more understand was the announcement that several high-profile actors would boycott the Oscars, notably Jada Pinkett Smith and her husband Will Smith.

Pinkett Smith’s comment, that African -American actors should not have to ‘beg for acknowledgement’, strongly resonated with me. This was no doubt in part due to her making her announcement on Martin Luther King Junior Day, a public holiday in the US in remembrance of the civil rights activist, who was assassinated simply because he believed in equality in rights, in opportunities – in living.

Personally, I was surprised at the snub of Straight Outta Compton for Best Picture and Beasts of No Nation’s Idris Elba for best supporting actor. Both were powerful films, and Elba was fantastic. I thought that the Academy would recognise the poignancy and power of both films. I thought wrong.

Elba spoke before Parliament recently on the very subject of diversity and representation in the media. He stressed the importance of diversity, the importance of representation:

“I’m here to talk about diversity…
Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin colour—It’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most important of all, as far as I’m concerned – diversity of thought. Because if you have genuine diversity of thought among people making TV & film, then you won’t accidentally shut out any of the groups I just mentioned.”

Elba makes a brilliant point about diversity, in that it is not limited to skin colour, but includes all groupings and classifications of differences. In my opinion, diversity is the vital understanding that we must recognise we are all unique. We must recognise and celebrate differences of both group and individual nature, not fear these differences, or shun those who are different to us.

Sadly, such diversity in representation and thought as described by Elba was not acknowledged or celebrated by the Academy.

There have been comments that the Academy is not racist, or biased. It has been noted that Lupita Nyong’o was recognised for her performance 12 Years a Slave by winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2014, and 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture that year.

But I refer you back to Pinkett Smith’s comment: no one should have to beg for acknowledgement, and no one should be brushed off with comments that they have received said acknowledgement so many years previously.

Incidentally enough, Nyong’o spoke out about the lack of diversity present in this year’s Oscars nominees. Speaking of her ‘disappointment’ of the presence of ‘unconscious prejudice’ via an Instagram post, she stated:

“The Awards should not dictate the terms of art in our modern society, but rather be a diverse reflection of the best of what our art has to offer today.”

I thought the Academy would recognise talent and art. I thought wrong.

But perhaps this is not surprising, given that the Academy itself is hardly representative of US society. A study conducted by the LA Times in 2013 found that the overall academy is 93% white and 76% male. As the Academy does not release demographic information on its members, the LA Times had to conduct its analysis using public records and private databases, and was thus able to confirm the race, gender and age of all but 45 of the 432 new voting members in 2013.

Both classes from 2012 and 2013 were about 69% male. The 2012 class was about 87% white and now has a median age of 50, while the 2013 class was about 82% white and had a median age of 49. Yet according to a 2014 census,  African Americans are the largest racial minority, amounting to 13.2% of the US population.

Upon the growing backlash following the 2016 Oscar nominee announcement, the Academy sought to utilise that weapon of PR: damage control. In a unanimous vote on the 21st January, the Board of Governors of the Academy approved a ‘sweeping series of substantive changes’ designed to make the Academy’s membership, governing bodies, and voting members ‘significantly more diverse’. The Board’s goal is to commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020; obviously the Academy has realised it must make its membership more diverse and reflective of society.

This is a move which should be welcomed, but a pity that it did not occur sooner. A more diverse membership will result in tackling the ‘unconscious prejudice’ identified by Nyong’o.

Why have I devoted so much of this post to discussing the Oscars, I hear you ask. Simply put: visuals matter. When an all-white list is presented and covered in the media, what must aspiring non-white actors think?

Put a different way: does this reveal that despite campaigns for equality and change, society will always be dictated to by a handful of predominately white, middle aged and middle class men?

Allow me to share a brief recollection of my high school memories. I used to walk through the main administrative building of my high school, and the walls of the entrance hall are decorated with framed portraits. Framed portraits, that is, of past Headmasters. I say ‘Headmasters’ only, because not once in my past high school’s 231 year history has there been the appointment of a woman to the top post.

I would walk through that entrance, surrounded by portraits of Headmasters past, and wondered at this strong, visual representation of male-dominance. I would walk through that entrance, and wonder how I could possibly relate to these middle-class men as a girl of working class background, and I would wonder when the day would come that a portrait of a Headmistress would decorate those walls.

More recently, I was taken on as an intern at a public affairs agency. I was handed a document pertaining to our clients, which I was to study. I read page after page of information about our clients, and discovered a sadly far too common statistic. Out of all our clients, only one is fronted by a female CEO. I stared at many photographs of male CEOs, and wondered why women are so poorly represented in boardrooms across so many practices.

It will be election time in Northern Ireland soon, and posters of candidates will decorate lampposts and signs across the state. I know that for every poster of a woman, or person of colour, there will be easily double the number of white men. These candidates aspire to be elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, but can the Northern Ireland Assembly be truly representative of the state when it is so populated by men? The Northern Ireland Assembly currently has 21 female Members out of a total of 108 (19.4%) after the 2011 elections. We may now have a female First Minister, but to state that the strive for equality and diversity in representation is over is laughably wrong.

Visuals matter. Images have a powerful effect  which we must be aware of. It is this which is important to consider when nurturing the next generation of leaders.

Research has revealed that simply seeing a photograph of an influential woman can have  tangible effects on girls’ behaviour, increasing confidence and inspiring ambition. Iris Bohnet, a public policy professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, commented:

“Think of the portraits on our walls…Are these of male leaders only, or is this a diverse set of leaders?”

Think of the images and their impact, their message. The portraits in my high school seemed to say to me that only men could be in charge, and white, middle-aged and middle-class men at that.

Representation matters, because it seemingly tells us the status quo, a hierarchy which can either assist us or hinder us in our dreams.

If we cannot see it, we cannot be it.



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