Written by Jory Gomes ’18
Notice: This article is spoiler-free!
The importance of positive representation is a hot topic for opinion piece writers on HuffPost, Buzzfeed, and other popular news and entertainment organizations. Scrolling through HuffPost and Buzzfeed you can see a few articles reviewing, critiquing, and praising both Black Panther and Love, Simon. However, these articles are missing something important: the positive effect these two movies can potentially have on the mental health of black and LGBTQ+ people, particularly the younger ones.
Black Panther is a landmark superhero movie in that the cast is almost entirely made up of black people, and set in the fictional country of Wakanda. David Sharos writes in a piece titled “Heroes, leaders and innovators: Why representation in films like ‘Black Panther’ matters” about how important it is for young people to see examples of black characters as brilliant innovators, as powerful leaders, and as determined warriors. What Sharos is putting forth in his article is that more positive representation of black people on the screen will help show kids what they can attain to—the same way Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman have for white kids. It’s important to note that sometimes people see this analysis of the media as divisive. It’s important to explain that the proliferation of white superheroes doesn’t explicitly exclude black children, but that having positive characters and superheroes that look like you, is a luxury that white children have had since the dawn of the superhero genre.
Black Panther is for many people, the first time they will see themselves represented positively on camera. This is important. Jean S. Phinney, a scholar at California state University, Los Angeles has stated that “strong ethnic identities, when accompanied by a positive mainstream orientation, is related to high self-esteem.” This is the power of “seeing yourself” in characters on the big screen. Positive representation with characters on television and the big screen is shown to be a protective factor against negative conceptualizations of self according to research done at University of Michigan by L.M. Ward.
Similar research done at the University of Toronto by Shelley Craig and other researchers has shown that positive role models in media and positive representation of LGBTQ+ characters on television helps make LGBTQ+ youth more resilient. Having positive gay characters for example, can help make gay men, and gay youth, better at handling the plethora of negative images and experiences that they are hit with on a daily basis. Love, Simon can have an identity-strengthening effect for LGBTQ+ youth—similar to the effect that Black Panther can have on black youth. Sarah Gomillion and her fellow psychologists at Southwestern University have done research that shows that positive media representation aids LGBTQ+ youths’ identity formation, improves comfortability in their identity—and perhaps most importantly increases pride. Joy in being yourself is something that LGBTQ+ individuals struggle to gain, and having positive representations of LGBTQ+ characters in television and movies can make that process all the easier.
In fact, the movie Love, Simon shows the entire process of finding pride and happiness in your identity. In the movie Simon Spier comes out, and is put through the typical gauntlet of being out in high school. Love, Simon expertly shows the more intimate parts of the coming out process and the process of embracing your identity in front of the whole world. By being a high-budget, well-marketed, star actor/actress-studded movie aimed at teenagers and young adults, this movie has the potential to revolutionize the way LGBTQ+ youth think about themselves. And more than that, the movie gives these youth a framework to think about themselves through, and a literal script to identify with. They get to see themselves in Simon and his struggles. And this is the paramount concept—seeing yourself in popular movies like Black Panther and Love, Simon makes you feel like you belong, it gives you a source of pride, and it gives you a positive lens to see yourself through.
The experience of “seeing yourself” is special and revolutionary for one’s self-confidence. Access to this feeling shouldn’t be restricted.
Craig, Shelley L. Lauren McInroy, Lance T. McCready & Ramona Alaggia (2015) Media: A
Catalyst for Resilience in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth,
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Gomillion, Sarah C. MS & Traci A. Giuliano PhD (2011) The Influence of Media Role Models on
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Phinney, Jean S. (1991). Ethnic Identity and Self-Esteem: A Review and Integration.
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Sharos, David. (2018). Heroes, leaders and innovators: Why representation in films like ‘Black
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