The Power of Representation in the Media

The Power of Representation in the Media

Rachele Di Francesco
Doctor in Psychology & Sex Counselor

Welcome to TPC Identity, a column in which we will discuss everything that makes you, you - from gender to sexual orientation and everything between. Come as you are. Have a question about sex, wellness, identity, relationships, or more that you'd like us to answer? Send it in here.

Nowadays Disney and Pixar are producing some amazing animated movies representing many cultures and identities: Coco for Mexico, Encanto for Colombia, Luca for Italy, Moana for Polynesia, Brave for Scotland, and so on. Recently, I saw an Instagram reel about a little girl who was incredibly enthusiastic once she noticed that her curly hair and dark coloured skin were the same as that of the main character of Encanto, Mirabel. Since then, she has become her inspiration and idol.

Of course, this has nothing to do with sexuality, but it may give you the idea of the important role played by representation; to grow up watching people with your body-type modeling, a person from your own small town as a well-known politician, a woman being part of NASA…It inspires you to reach your goals, to be able to proudly express your unique identity without the need to hide who you are and who you want to be. To succeed in life being yourself and not the expectation of another person or society.

The use of internet as a source of sex education

Imagine growing up watching movies, reading books and listening to music perpetually describing heterosexual, cisgender, monogamous, white couples. It’s the standard we have always been used to - the heteronormative white male gaze. Nowadays times are changing and the internet has become the most popular source for sex education for children and teenagers. If your school and family haven't provided you with sex ed, you might simply search for answers on the internet. It’s tricky: you may easily find interesting, professional and inclusive information for free, as well as myths, stigmatised definitions, and unrealistic perspectives. It’s like having a headache and searching for your symptoms on Google: the first thing you’re probably going to read is that you may have a deadly disease, even if its cause may be as simple as your body reacting to the exaggerated number of hours you’ve spent scrolling on Instagram and TikTok that day! That’s one of the reasons why we should pay more critical attention to the content we read, listen to and share on social media.

How can all of that be linked to sexuality and sex life?

It’s not just sex. It’s not just pornographic content. In our daily life, we’re used to being exposed to messages regarding our bodies and sexualities, no matter if we acknowledge it or if they’re subliminal and way too implicit to notice. By doing so – and depending on the specific society context we live in - we grow up thinking that certain bodies are sexually pleasant and some being “too ugly”, “too different”, “too unattractive”, “too unable”. Too pretentious of enjoying a healthy and fun sexual life. The multiplicity of dynamics intrinsically mixed and hidden beyond these thoughts is too complicated to be highlighted in this article; in fact, media plays a significant role in society as it simultaneously constructs and maintains societal norms and values (Neary C., Ringrow H., 2018) and often reinforce – or at least corresponds to – various societal hierarchies or groupings (Gill, 2007). By doing so, media representations are continuously nourishing the gap between what is shown as “normal” and what is portrayed as “deviant or wrong”, which ultimately creates stigma through the use of stereotypical messages.

My intention here is not to report all the problems and obstacles you may face but – instead – to give you a safe space to explore and share ideas, emotions, thoughts, experiences, and dreams. To read someone else’s personal story and think, “I’m not alone. I’m not defective and flawed. I’m different from my friends and peers and it’s beautiful. I’m unique. My sexuality is valuable. I am valuable.

Try to think about the little girl I was talking about earlier: how great it was for her to watch someone like herself on the television, singing and dancing, being the protagonist. Of course Maribel is just a fantasy character, of course she’s not her. But, in her world, she’s someone important and capable, and people are singing her songs worldwide. This is the power of representation, as well as the risk of being misrepresented or considered as nothing else than a stereotypical category: the gay boy with the high pitch voice, the girl suffering from obesity who’s bullied, the smart and nerdy Asian student…

Try to think about what you’ve been reading until now, but instead, with Pornography: porn websites can help you to explore your sexual fantasies, to feel attracted or not attracted to a specific type of sexual activity or behavior, to understand what arouses you more and what does not. If, growing up, you feel yourself portrayed in a certain stereotyped way, you may also feel trapped in the category you’re put in by the media and start to act like you truly are. The walls built around the character you’re associated with remain stuck in your brain as well as in the collective imagery of expectations reflected on you.

Try to think about children and teens growing up with people asking them if they already have a  boyfriend or a girlfriend without considering that they may be not attracted to the same-gendered peers, or in anyone at all. From a very young age – actually since people acknowledge a pregnancy – your own person isn’t based on who you are but on the gender that’s been assigned to you. It’s not your identity but, instead, the role you’re supposed to play.

That’s one of the million reasons why communication is the key: sharing your thoughts and experiences you may be able to be the representation someone has never had the opportunity to feel connected to. Your words and personal story could be empowering and inspirational to someone else’s life. If you want to share everything that makes you, you - from gender to sexual orientation and everything between, I’ll be happy and glad to welcome you here.

Have a question about sex, wellness, identity, relationships, or more that you'd like us to answer? Want to share your story with us? Send it in here.

Gill, R. (2007) Gender and the Media. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. - Neary, C., & Ringrow, H. (2018) Media, power and representation. In P. Seargeant, A. Hewings, &  S. Pihlaja (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of English Language Studies (pp. 294-309). London:  Routledge.

Rachele Di Francesco
Doctor in Psychology & Sex Counselor