This Is Art: The Importance of Representation

By Jack Rechsteiner, page editor.



Representation is an important thing to talk about, not because of what we do notice, but because of what we don’t.

Art is a monumentally important influence in all of our lives. It’s something that we all take part in, whether it’s making the art or music we choose to listen to, or the shows on Netflix we decide to binge-watch. For a lot of people, lack of representation isn’t a reality they have to experience. People who fit into a majority see others like them in art, music and television. To be able to see a face, body or identity similar to yours is powerful, simply in its effect to validate you as a human being.

Outside of that majority, though, many groups do not see themselves reflected in art or the media. To have the positive portrayal of people of color, women, immigrants, the LGBTQIA, interracial couples, people of different socioeconomic statuses, people with disabilities and so many more is crucial, not only to support these groups, but to appreciate and celebrate the diversity of them. This is especially important in the face of prejudice, institutionalized discrimination and actions that invalidate these groups. There was a recent study done by the University of Michigan that found television boosted the self-esteem of white boys, but had self-esteem damaging effects for boys and girls who are members of these different minority groups. The study pointed to the primary reason being that white boys regularly see positive representation of themselves, but the opposite is the case for other kids.

“I can’t tell you how many times after a show I’ve booked with a number of women on the bill, at least one woman who attended the show has come up to me and thanked me specifically for including women. I, personally, have cried along with my fellow queer friends listening to folks talk and sing about queerness on stage. If you see yourself represented in a field you’re interested in, you start to believe you can work or exist in that field, too,” says Sara Johnson, manager of the Flint Local 432.

It’s a strong and impactful feeling when you spot something that shows you that the world’s possibilities are open to you. Different groups of people are deprived of this feeling when we present them with an image that doesn’t look like them. In an interview, Whoopi Goldberg told a story about how she was nine years old when she realized for the first time that she could be anything she wanted to be. Goldberg was watching TV when Star Trek came on and she went screaming through the house, saying, “Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” Having this diverse representation thrive let’s all kinds of people see and hear their identities in the world and it allows them to know that those possibilities are there for them.

“It never occurred to me as I was going through it, but getting into music was more difficult for me than most people. Music scenes aren’t always the most welcoming places, but when you’re someone with a disability it can be even more difficult to ask people to include you because of that disability,” says Garrett Willig, bassist for the Lansing band Hot Mulligan.

Change starts on a small scale. Mainstream culture reflects our own communities. It starts with our local art and music scenes and with choosing to support diversity. If we can’t have representation and inclusivity of all kinds in our local spaces where people are supposed to feel safe, then how will we see those things happen in mainstream culture? The inclusion of different groups creates a community where everyone feels welcomed and appreciated.

There is no simple answer for how to make this happen, but discussion and spreading awareness are integral parts of solving social issues like these. We have to listen to those who are affected by this lack of representation and help remove the obstacles that may be in the way. The best place to start is by giving people of all identities a voice and a platform in our local art and music scenes.


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