The Future of Representation in the Media
by Tyler Genevay
In the Year of Our Lord 2020, a diffuse understanding of what constitutes “media” has increasingly flooded the world with easily consumable content—Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, Disney+, and others create and distribute online television and movies, while the traditional Hollywood studio system works frantically to keep pace with its nimble digital competitors. Alongside cable television, this triumvirate of mainstream content-makers contends with the proliferation of media that has arisen in recent years—podcasts, fringe websites, talk radio, YouTube, social media. With a camera and microphone nestled neatly in your pocket, one can create, edit, and distribute content of any kind with ease—and the cultural impact, like the technology that enables it, is rapidly evolving. What does it mean for society when anyone can be the producer, curator, and commentator of his or her own story, and how can we ensure a broad level of inclusion, representation, and accuracy? In this age of alternative facts and #fakenews, of cyberbullying and name-calling, of global reach and instant impact—can we even hope to?
As the world grapples with this deluge of memes, tweets, and likes, the United States rests uneasily at the forefront of the upheaval of media. In the twentieth century, the nation was the global gatekeeper of content—Hollywood studio bosses and New York network executives dictated what did and did not appear on screen—and American media found success and sales in foreign markets as the world developed a keen sense of the country’s values. Or, really, the values of the moneyed producers of this content, whose near-total control of the image of the network, its contracted stars, and its distributors affected every decision. Shifting cultural attitudes eventually led to the on-screen appearances of people of color, of working women, of marriages ending in divorce, of sexual liberation, of LGBTQ experiences, of mental health, but these characters were almost always written and directed by wealthy straight white men. That matters.
If you have realized anything from venturing this far into this edition of the paper, it is that the editors and contributors to this fine publication believe that privileged people writing inaccurate narratives about underrepresented groups creates a harmful dissonance in our media. That, of course, is an analysis generated from reading the variety of perspectives presented in Fordham’s free speech newspaper, but one that is enlightening for several reasons, especially in our fraught political, cultural, and social climate. To imagine that the views of the paper are representative of all members of this generation is, you know, dumb—and yet, the discord that exists between activism-oriented young people and their often-recalcitrant parents is striking. In certain political circles, it is advantageous to deride accurate representation of underprivileged groups in the media as political correctness run amok. It is worth noting that these commentators are almost invariably white, rich, and societally privileged—and don’t you somehow just know that they would be a drag at the very few parties they’re ever invited to?
Here’s the thing: representation matters. Today’s poisoned politics have pervaded our cultural identity and economic realities, and the fact is that our romanticized notions of America’s founding ideals have never been fully inclusive to the broad, beautiful diversity in this nation. Crucially, though, as the world enters this new content-flooded era, the ability of any and everyone to join, influence, and change the cultural discourse provides opportunity to better reflect the daily realities of those previously excluded. With the definition of media expanding, there is an impetus to have the experiences of all groups featured accurately and soundly—and this must include people with mental illness. Thankfully, many Americans are now familiar with the statistics demonstrating the widespread nature of mental illness in this country, and that younger people are especially vulnerable to this scourge. Let’s see that in our media, in our arts, in our culture. Let’s portray mental illness for what it is: A daily reality for millions—your partner, that classmate in your project, the stranger sitting next to you on the subway. Let’s recognize the resounding difference that being seen provides to those who have lived their lives in the shadows, feeling different, unwanted, broken, as if their burden was theirs to bear alone. It isn’t—and it never should be.
For those that struggle with mental illness, it can be uncomfortable to speak about, to haul that darkness inside your mind into the judgmental light of public conscience. It’s fearsome, it’s brutal—it’s the kind of thing that can make it difficult to get out of bed in the morning and pull open the curtain and let the day begin. It’s necessary. Given that this special edition of the paper focuses entirely on mental health and that mental health is a deeply personal matter, I will deviate from my traditional avoidance of first-person pronouns and level with you, dear reader. Like millions of Americans, I have struggled with mental illness, a fact that I know faces stigma in some parts of our community. I’ve been to therapy, developed strategies that work for me, sat with my demons, and—thankfully—emerged a better version of myself. However, I know that the Tyler Genevay I am today—Co-Arts Editor, son, friend, student, obsessive lover of politics, mediocre singer, improving chef—will always be a Tyler Genevay with a shadow, however diminishing, of mental illness. That’s not a bad thing; I am not ashamed. In this great expansion of media, the paper is a platform that is attempting to give voice to issues that matter—and mine is just one of innumerable stories that could be told about what living with mental illness is like. I promise: Most days, my life is just like yours. Representation—accurate representation, unexploited representation— matters to the person who grabs a copy of this publication and recognizes themselves in its snarky humor, eerily predictive horoscopes, and frank discussion about mental health. Let’s make the media we consume reflect who we are. In doing so, we can destigmatize our culture and make it just that much brighter.