Why Representation Matters: Avoiding the Single Story

A lot of my childhood was spent in front of the television. After school, I would always go home and go straight to my room and turn on the TV to Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, or Disney Channel to watch some of my favorite shows. I grew up being amazed by heroes like Superman and Batman, laughing at live-action sitcoms like iCarly and Big Time Rush, singing along to Disney Channel originals like High School Musical and Camp Rock. The TV was a huge part of my life growing up and while the media I consumed was indeed entertaining and still continues to bring me nostalgia every time I hear anything remotely related to it, I’ve come to realize that the characters I loved and grew up with have virtually no relatability to me as an Asian and more specifically as a Filipino.

Was this need for self-identification in these characters that important for a child who had such little grasp of what representation even was? In a way, yes. Representation through a character on TV or other media is a form of telling the audience that these people exist and could also serve as a way of educating more people about the background culture of this character. The media we consume heavily influences our views and opinions of the world. If what we see on TV is a bunch of stereotypes about a certain group of people, that portrayal manifests itself in our own stereotyping of that group according to how we saw them on TV. This leads to a one-sided view of other people based solely on how the media portrays them.

This phenomenon is talked about very extensively and in-depth by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk entitled “The danger of a single story”. To quickly summarize the talk, she describes her own experiences regarding the single-story such as when her mother would always use their poor neighbor as an example of why they should not waste food, therefore, their poverty became their single story in her eyes. She also recounts how upon leaving Nigeria to go to university in the United States, her roommate was shocked at her because all she ever knew about Africa was the poverty and hunger in the region that would often be shown in Western media.

Photos (L-R): 88 Rising Head In the Clouds Cover Album; Mulan Trailer from Walt Disney Studios Youtube Channel

Every day, we face single stories which influence our judgments of other cultures and other people. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing we know everything there is to know about someone solely based off what media tells us about their culture. This is precisely why proper representation matters. With proper representation, a more in-depth and holistic portrayal of a culture leads audiences not familiar with that culture to have a better understanding. Simply reducing a person to a cultural stereotype or insignificant comic relief may lead audiences to be more inclined to believe that single narrative. 

That’s why I personally feel a renewed sense of pride and empowerment with the recent boom of Asian representation in pop culture and media, hereafter referred to as the Asian Boom– that’s taking the Western world by storm. Movies like Crazy Rich Asians which stars and is directed by Asians or Asian Americans have become pop culture phenomenons that until now are still being talked about on social platforms. Crazy Rich Asians especially seemed to be one of the biggest sparks that ignited the Asian Boom being the first Western movie in decades to have an all Asian cast and director. It brought to Western audiences snippets of Asian culture devoid of the common stereotypes and TV tropes associated with Asians of the past. Film and TV shows are a way for audiences to see for themselves and experience in a way the narrative stories of what some Asian go through. Audiences are then made to realize that these types of stories are endemic realities of the world which they may previously not have known about. The same goes for other types of media such as music wherein more Asian artists are bringing more of their culture to the world such as the fast-growing global phenomenon known as K-Pop. Music is known to be a universal language and can be enjoyed and shared with others. Language translations now enable these songs to be understood by people who don’t speak the same language. The growing trend of Asian music becoming globally enjoyed goes to show how we can enjoy each other’s culture and thus grow in respect for one another.

There are many dangers of a single story that we face everyday, especially through the media we consume. For us to truly respect one another, avoiding the single story trap and supporting the growing representation of different cultures in media certainly goes a long way to help. The Asian representation trend is a great turning point for Western media, but we must remember that it should not stop there. There are so many more stories and paradigms of this world to be told and brought to the attention of other audiences. At the same time, we should also support media outlets that aim to do just that.


Published on July 18, 2019
By Jam dela Fuente, current WYA Asia Pacific Regional Intern
Learn more about the Internship Program here.