Immigrant representation doesn’t stop offscreen

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Popular culture is a tremendously powerful force, one that has implications for not only its audience but also the world — this is what a recent joint study from nonprofit advocacy organization Define American and The Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has found. 

In research that has made significant leaps ahead for the future of popular culture, researchers explored how inclusive and positive portrayals of immigrants are correlated with more inclusive attitudes towards immigrants overall. Titled Change the Narrative, Change the World: How Immigrant Representation on Television Moves Audiences to Action, this research states that the inclusive attitudes fostered by television narratives featuring immigration contributed to viewers re-examining their prejudices surrounding immigrants, becoming inspired to take actions related to immigration and decreasing support for criminalization policies targetting undocumented immigrants. 

To evaluate this study’s implications, it is essential to emphasize the underlying assumption that “representation” is not just an onscreen phenomenon. Because popular culture and politics are interwoven in many ways, empathetic attitudes about immigrants fostered by entertainment must translate to real-life visibility of immigrants. This visibility must manifest beyond the screen for cultural representation to truly make groundbreaking political changes for the immigrant population. 

According to the recently released report, researchers analyzed 129 immigrant characters across 97 episodes of 59 scripted narrative TV shows (airing between August 2018 and July 2019) available on multiple streaming platforms. In addition to analyzing the representations present within those shows, the researchers also looked closely at the viewers of three shows featuring prominent immigration storylines: “Madam Secretary,” “Orange is the New Black” and “Superstore.” As part of the methodology implemented, researchers asked participating viewers about their knowledge of immigration and their likelihood of taking immigration-related actions after watching these television shows. 

In essence, the study illustrates the importance of representation through entertainment, which can serve as a powerful platform for changing cultural perceptions of immigrants. Through nuanced and dynamic renderings of characters and storylines, narrative television shows can inspire viewers to rethink their perceptions of immigrants. In short, though the immigrant experience is not truly quantifiable, representation has the power to inform cultural and societal understandings of immigrants as a diverse group with their own complex stories to tell. 

When considering this research, it is necessary to recognize that while it can be easy for readers to directly conflate positive representation of immigrants with decreases in negative and dehumanizing rhetoric, representation’s positive implications go beyond the ability to shift individual perceptions. Change the Narrative, Change the World encourages us to reflect on the ways in which TV representation can serve as a starting point for immigration reform as a whole. Yet discussions of immigrants and immigration must evolve beyond onscreen representation. 

Representation is not only cultural. Part of its importance comes with tangible change, as representation is key to creating spaces for conversation and dialogue about immigrants and immigration policy in education. Positive conceptions of immigrants do translate into more empathetic attitudes, but it goes without saying that more than empathetic attitudes are necessary to counter the dominant narrative surrounding immigrants. 

This means that on a more sociological level, representation’s impact hinges upon its capacity to produce and sustain substantial, collective change in the real world. Empathy is an immensely powerful tool, as it can produce individual changes in mindset that enable collective shifts in behavior. Yet the most impact comes from channeling empathy into tangible, grassroots action and initiatives for visibility in daily life, which can yield more impactful results than an individual response to representation on a television screen. 

As the research implies, representation is complex and constantly changing. More work still needs to be done, and there is no straightforward conclusion when it comes to the issue of representation. However, it’s clear that when immigrants are represented in nuanced and complex ways — ways that don’t conform to a dominant narrative of criminalization and negative emphasis on an “outsider” status — there is potential for this representation, as a form of education, to have a lasting impact beyond the screen. 

It is for this reason that immigrant representation should not occur solely as a phenomenon on the television screen. Rather, it is essential that immigrants are represented in all aspects of contemporary life: in the textbooks of our education, in politics and in everyday discourse. 

Visibility goes beyond a television storyline. While television can serve as an effective platform to spark these conversations about immigrants, there needs to be an acknowledgment of immigrants who do not appear as a character onscreen and who don’t appear as part of a well-crafted storyline. Immigrants have their own stories, ones that don’t necessarily make it into the cookie-cutter plotline of a television show. When television viewers critically consume narratives about immigrants, they must also channel this understanding of a complex narrative to real-life interactions with immigrants. 

Audiences must support immigrants regardless of whether they are depicted inclusively onscreen. They must actively support immigrants and push for an accurate representation of immigrants not only within a script but also in the realm of daily life. Popular culture does not exist in a vacuum. The sooner viewers take the time to support immigrants offscreen just as much time as they spend time consuming immigrants’ lives onscreen, the sooner that popular culture can yield substantial change beyond the entertainment industry and truly, for the world.