Representation Matters, But It’s Not Enough

By Viacom Archives
Cover image for  article: Representation Matters, But It’s Not Enough

Multicultural Millennials have a cultural radar that’s on high alert, uniquely attuned to minority representation in media.  However, diversity alone isn’t enough to drive interest in programming.  An in-depth study by Viacom’s Marketing and Partner Insights (MPI) team on multicultural (non-white) Millennials aimed to better understand this growing demographic.  They are 36.7M strong in the U.S., where the population will become majority-minority by 2044.

Viacom’s MPI team took a 360° approach to this research, using social listening, quantitative surveys, personal vlogs and expert interviews to collect insights from the 2,603 Millennials participating. Along with other findings they uncovered a unique paradox: Only 18% of multicultural Millennials “tune into a TV show because it has characters that share a similar ethnic background.”

As a 27-year old African-American woman (which places me firmly within the multicultural Millennial demo) and consumer of copious amounts of film and television, I can relate to this indifference. Along with 82% of the respondents I don’t find that diversity in casting is enough to pique my interest, an apathy that demonstrates just how far we’ve come in matters of representation.

My mom, who grew up in the ‘60s, recalls a time when, “If there was a black person on TV, it was a big deal!  Everyone would huddle together in the living room to watch.”  This visibility of blackness was so rare it couldn’t be missed.  It didn’t particularly matter if this black person was cast in a stereotypical role; J.J. from Good Times(1974-78) comes to mind, the eldest son in a poor family in the Chicago projects, who became known for his catch phrase, "dyno-mite."  J.J.’s character, used for comic relief, was portrayed as dim and dishonest, which reinforced several negative stereotypes of blackness. Social scientist John Parker described him as a “cartoony, streetwise, jive-talker.”  To this my mom explains, “We weren’t discriminating about the role, we were just happy to see people who looked like us.”

New Research from Viacom Reveals Multicultural Millennials Demand More from Media

Today there is a wealth of content that features people of color, giving me the privilege of seeing a black face on the television and mindlessly changing the channel.  The MPI research explains, “For Millennials, diversity is the default -- but don’t cast a black person and call it a day.” Casting is never enough.  Content creators need to tap into the unique cultural insights of the community they’re portraying to tell a story that feels relevant and honest.

Of the multicultural Millennials surveyed, 60% believe “advertising and media have the power to change the conversation about race in America.”  I agree with this sentiment.  I see all of the work that Chescaleigh does on MTV’s Decoded and I rejoice in her uniquely comic yet well-researched approach to schooling people on controversial topics like 5 Excuses for Slavery That Need To Stop, Do You Speak for Your Entire Race? and How Voter ID Laws Explain Structural Racism.

Multicultural Millennials aren’t settling for tokenism.  We crave and reward stories that authentically capture our unique perspectives.  And while I don’t want to see negative stereotypes of black women perpetuated, the portrayals don’t need to confine themselves to positive portraits of unrealistic perfection, either.  We just want to be to be seen with the same multi-dimensionality our white counterparts are afforded.  Viola Davis summarized this desire best when she said, "It's time for people to see us -- people of color -- for what we really are: complicated."

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