See Jane: Changing The Stories in Media To Reflect Real Life
“If she can see it, she can be it,” is the motto of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
The drive to change who is seen, heard and represented in television, movies, print, broadcast and digital media was the goal of the recent See Jane Salon in Chicago. A panel explored the best practices to address unconscious bias, media portrayals and representations of marginalized groups in order to have more inclusive narratives.
The “overlapping identities of race, class, ages, abilities and religion” are important as storytellers, says Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Genna Davis Institute.
By 2020, more than half of the nation’s children will be part of a minority group and by 2044, no one racial or ethnic group will dominate in the U.S. in terms of numbers, Di Nonno says.
Marlyne Barrett, an actor starring in NBC’s “Chicago Med,” and founder of The Way Out, a group of homes in Montreal for girls rescued from sex trafficking, says performance was a catharsis for her.
“Growing up I had a rage inside of me,“ says Barrett, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Canada. “I was also a phenomenal liar and was drawn to people who pretended to be other people,” she says. So she began acting.
“If I could release that energy I had inside, it was allowed to come out without getting arrested,” Barrett says.
Born to Haitian American parents, Barrett says she was the only person of color in her school in Quebec and she has “a sober estimation of how much I was pointed at.”
Theater was her release and she began doing Shakespeare and television.
“Here we are today still fighting the fight and continuing the conversation on inclusion. It’s a must, not a maybe, and we have to communicate the story of who we are as women,” Barrett says. “There are not enough opportunities for dark skinned black women. We have to get into the game and be able to say something.”
According to the Geena Davis Institute, 73 percent of top feature films have white lead characters. Only 17 percent of top films feature persons of color as leads.
Fawzia Mirza, a Pakistani activist, actor, producer, comedian, writer and filmmaker, also grew up in Canada, with what she says was “a fear of my brownness. I wanted to be white. I hated how my lunch smelled. Comedy was a way of survival and suddenly people were laughing with me and it offered the power of possibility for me.”
Mirza is featured in the award-winning series, “Her Story,” and her first film, “Signature Move,” was screened at 150 film festivals and won multiple awards. Mirza was a writer on the CBS series, The Red Line, and she wrote, co-directed and stars in the sort film, “Saya,” out in 2019.
Her sexual violence prevention series, “Sex Signals,” is performed on college campuses and military bases. Mirza says she wishes that people would understand “Muslims are not all sad and depressed under their scarves.”
Ageism is present in media as well as non-diversity of ethnicity and religion. People 60 and older were featured in films only 11.8 percent of the time, according to the institute. The majority of female characters are in their 20s, at 32 percent, compared to 27 percent in their 40s.
Nikki M. James, is a New Jersey-born actress who won the Tony Award for her role in “The Book Of Mormon.” Her latest project is starring in the Fox series, “Proven Innocent.”
As a child, she walked to the library to take out books and ordered Backstage magazine from the local news vendor. “I used my babysitting money for headshots,” says James, and sent those off to agents who called her in for interviews. James started acting in commercials when her first role as a child was “as the daughter of a constipated woman.”
The institute reports that male leads outnumber female leads two to one. Male characters are given 61 percent of screen time, compared to 39 percent for female leads. Similarly, male characters have 64 percent speaking time and female characters have 36 percent.
Fay Ferguson, co-CEO and co-owner of Burrell Communications Group, has spent her entire professional career in marketing and advertising, leading innovative campaigns for Toyota, McDonald’s Comcast, Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s, Pillsbury and more.
Ferguson is also the founder of Allies of Innocence, an organization that provides grief and trauma counseling to survivors of gun violence in Chicago.
Starting in advertising, Ferguson says, “what fascinated me was the opportunity to have an impact on people’s lives. That to me meant I can help change the world.”
Working at the agency Bozell & Jacobs, Ferguson says she was the only person of color, and Tom Burrell, founder of Burrell Communications, contacted her and convinced her to work for him because his firm was “based on the idea that black people are not dark-skinned white people.”
Ferguson’s recent project, “Black is Human” is a youtube series of videos of young boys talking about what they will do “if they grow up” shown in schools and churches. Ferguson says her wish is “to treat everyone like human beings.”
Michael Patrick Thornton, co-founder and artistic director of The Gift Theater, is seen on stage, in films and television, most recently in “The Red Line” and “Private Practice.” His mission he says is to “make a theater in a neighborhood as common as a grocery store.”
As a disabled person, Thornton says his wish is that people “stop asking disable people what happened to them.”
In media, only 2.5 percent of speaking character are depicted with a disability, and three-quarters of characters with disabilities are white.
Ferguson says her wish is “to treat everyone like human beings.”
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com