Can we pay our way to better representation?

Poster for the film 'Booksmart', with two teenage girls sitting with their arms crossed on their knees

I am a strong proponent of the idea that we should put our money where our mouths are. If you like something, give it your money, if you don’t, then you shouldn’t encourage it by offering your financial support. This is essentially the principle of ‘voting with your feet’ – if you like something, then show up for it. If you dislike something, don’t give it your time. It’s an idea that can be applied to lots of different areas of life, and intersects with lots of current political debates. Care about the environment? Don’t buy plastic and use public transport. University hosting a right wing speaker? Don’t go to listen (and ask your friends not to either). But what about the realm of media? Does ‘film has diverse cast; go see it’ really work as a guiding principle? I would argue not.

The major problem with the idea of voting with your feet is that it falls in line with the concept of micro-consumerism. It makes the assumption that the actions of individual people can overcome systemic problems. Sometimes this works, to the extent that it does buck trends and disprove theories – I’ve suggested that the success of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s work challenges the idea that people don’t want to watch content about women. But what about when diverse projects aren’t huge hits? Should we really be leaving it up to market forces to decide who is and is not represented in our media? The answer is a resounding ‘No’.

For paying our way to representation to work, we’d have to be playing on an even field. This is something Roxane Gay highlighted recently in tweets addressing the marking of indie-hit ‘Booksmart’. The film performed poorly on first release, and its creators resorted to imploring people to go and see it if they wanted similar films to be made in future. Gay cut straight through this, noting that such films never perform well compared to the type of film it was up against (including Avengers: Endgame), and that pressuring people to see it will make no different to whether this type of film should be made.

In conjunction with pointing out that a film about loquacious white girls may not be everyone’s thing (implying perhaps that the film is not as ‘woke’ as it thinks it is), Gay gets straight to the heart of the issue: in a system weighted against such creations, you can’y rely on the numbers to tell you what to make, and people shouldn’t have to feel grateful for any and all representation they are handed.

Media is reflective of the flawed societies that produce it, and reinforces the inequalities already present. Therefore we cannot expect the basic economics behind its creation to be anything but flawed too. ‘Diverse’ productions usually have smaller budgets, and thus will rarely mange to financially outperform their mainstream compettion.

Some will take this to demonstrate that there is no need for diverse films. If the audience isn’t there, why make it? The same people will obsessively remind you of population percentages when discussing anything to do with representation. However, this males the ever-flawed presumption that diverse films only appeal to ‘diverse’ (read: not white) audiences. To pretend that the population is divided into different categories, whose stories cannot be of value to those in other categories is deeply troubling, and is a pretense that can only be upheld through deliberate ignorance of cultural history and human interactions.

“We can’t wait for capitalism to bring us a better world, we have to change it ourselves”

But what is perhaps even more important is that media, while reflecting society, also has the power to change it. The audience, specific or otherwise, is there for these stories, and it is our duty to tell them. Media representation plays an enormous part inn shaping cultural norms, and by choosing to represent our complete society, we can work to create a more harmonious and understanding reality. This is not about people of colour and women ‘deserving’ to have their stories told; it is not that something they have to earn, but a right. Seeing yourself reflected in the culture you are a part of is not something reserved for the white middle classes, it is for everyone. It is up to us to make sure that the cultural creators and producers understand that, completely aside from market factors like profit and loss, they have a duty to respond to the needs of their entire audience.

So no, I don’t think we can pay our way to better representation. To think so would be to reduce our agency and impact. We can’t wait for capitalism to bring us a better world, we have to change it ourselves. Our power is greater than the size of our wallets, it is in raising our voices, asking questions, and demanding better.

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