Hobbits, elves and Disney’s Arielle: More and more films and series are focusing on the representation of PoC

From Jara Zimmermann

This is a translated version.

The reactions to so-called diverse casts in films and series like “Arielle, the Mermaid” and “Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power” are drawing attention: on the one hand, there is great enthusiasm, on the other, incomprehension. How can this be explained?

Stunned, thrilled and happy. These were the reactions full of emotions of many Black girls to the trailer of the remake of “Ariel the Mermaid”. TikToks in which young PoC cannot believe that the new Arielle is now Black and looks like them went viral. „She looks like me“, they exclaim with surprise. More and more films and series now focus on a diverse cast. While this can be hugely significant for some, the increased representation of Black people is also met with many negative reactions on the internet – especially from white people. Such is the case with the new series “Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power” on Amazon Prime. The series features Black hobbits and elves for the first time, which many fans of the Tolkien universe criticised. For the actor Ismael Cruz Córdova, who is PoC himself and embodies the Elf Arondir, representation is very significant. On Instagram he wrote: “This Elven dream of mine seemed like an impossibility, as I was laughed at and told “You can’t be an Elf”. There are no Black Elves. There are no Latino Elves.“ He explained that his dream of playing an Elf seemed impossible for him for a long time because he felt that PoC had to live with being silent and invisible.

So how important is representation for PoC and what is the reasoning behind the negative reactions? Myriam Alvarez, a staff member of the Office for Migration and Integration of the City of Freiburg, has herself helped to make many PoC voices visible as part of a project at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Freiburg. “The representation of a society in film is very important for the construction of its social narrative“, says Alvarez. Because of their roles, artists from a particular community may be assigned characteristics, which become entrenched in people’s minds and generate prejudices. According to Alvarez, it is necessary for PoC to be represented in order to portray the current reality throughout the media. However, it is important to represent them truthfully and to be aware of the responsibility of the representation. The narrative about PoC is currently still shaped by existing stereotypes. Alvarez attributes great importance to the current debate on representation in the media. “The public needs this discussion to be able to enforce change in terms of discrimination or discriminatory views.” 

But how do young PoC themselves see it? 

Clara Bievélot, Erasmus student from France, is also pleased with the rising diversity in the media. “Today’s generation is more empowered by the increased representation.” Bievélot was able to find her own role models in her family during her childhood, but emphasises the potential importance of representation. “It’s inspiring to see Black people succeed,” Bievélot says. The student cites examples such as actor Omar Sy from the film „The Upside” or former tennis player Yannick Noah. For the future, she would like to see more Black girls on the screen. It is important to her that no stereotypes are reflected, but that realities are portrayed. 

Bassit Agbéré, a student of computer science and economics in Heidelberg and Mannheim, emphasises: “Representation in the media can help build your own identity and it can have a positive effect, because the image of people becomes more diverse and PoC get more jobs as actors.” A lack of representation can also go hand in hand with a lack of identification opportunities, as children and young people are missing role models. Personally, however, he has not been affected by this.

Apart from the positive effects, Agbéré also sees a danger: “The increased representation can have a divisive effect between the progressive and the conservative sides in society. Moreover, cultures are often homogenised and racial stereotypes are served. “Representation is basically important and positive, but I don’t want representation just for the sake of representation”, says the student. Regarding the criticism in the case of the Hobbit, Bassit Agbéré therefore shows understanding: “In Tolkien’s books, elves are described as white and characters like the elves are recoloured”. In general, however, in his opinion, the criticism can also be justified by a certain oversensitivity.

Myriam Alvarez understands the negative reactions as follows: “Current changes in the media represent the expansion of democracy”. This democracy is still very much limited to the white man, whose mediated mentality can also be a cause of negative reactions.

Dr. Nausikaa Schirilla, Professor of Social Work, Migration and Intercultural Competence at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences Freiburg, explains: “White people get into identity conflicts because their identity is based on exclusion and devaluation of others.” If their own existing images and ideas were shaken in the film, white people would lose their securities and seemingly consolidated identity. “Many white people see the developments towards more representation in the media in the context of morality and guilt,” Schirilla suspects. As a consequence, white people think they must feel guilt or are accused of immorality. But many do not see themselves as perpetrators, but as people who are innocently classified as guilty and as privileged people who now have to give up privileges. It is like a moral condemnation, against which people develop resentment. The current positive representation is a counter-movement to the distorted and pejorative portrayal of Black people in film and is purposeful in changing perceptions of PoC. However, Schirilla also points out: “We have to be clear that increased representation does not mean real social change and racism does not disappear as a result.” The representation in the film, she says, represents a small building block of change critical of racism. 

In a society where structural racism is firmly anchored through internalised discriminatory behaviour patterns, representation in the media cannot simply dissolve racism. But increased representation can help counter stereotypes and broaden people’s awareness through a more diverse view of humanity. This, in turn, can also empower children in their development of personality and identity.

Nevertheless, care must be taken that the representation of other cultures is not based on stereotypes but on realities. From the negative reactions of white people, one can perhaps see how fragile the white self-image is, when even increased representation can shake the world view that has been built up. 

About the author:
Jara Zimmermann

Jara is 19 years old and studies English and political science in Freiburg. She is interested in topics such as European cooperation, languages and literature. She may eventually become a teacher. But one of her big dreams is to live in Great Britain or France for a while. Perhaps also as a journalist? 

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