Why seeing diverse and authentic representation on screen is so important, one might ask. Studies show that children do not develop rigid gender stereotypes until they are five years old (Martin and Ruble, 2013). They have similar projections towards their future and similar dreams and goals, like becoming the president of the United States. However, the studies show that the percentage of girls who dream of being the president significantly falls by the time they begin high school, whereas this is not the case with boys. This drastic change is believed to stem from the lack of on-screen representation of women in significant political or business roles. As young girls do not see these influential figures to look up to as they grow up, they distance themselves from their initial dreams. The argument is suggested in Miss Representation (2011), only one of the many documentaries that explore the problematic representation of women in cinema and media in the US. This Changes Everything (2018) is another one, revealing the gender bias in Hollywood and how women filmmakers do not find a supportive environment in the industry. The documentary concludes that the glass ceiling leads women to shoot fewer films, which contributes to the limited portrayal of females in cinema. The white male dominance in the industry is traditionally pointed out to be the reason for the problematic representations and stereotyping of historically underrepresented groups. However, the film and media industry’s mechanisms are challenged for a change with the advent of digital. By allowing the traditional passive spectator to be the progressive producer they would like to see in the industry, digital platforms allow people to themselves tell their stories, which points to the increased visibility of a younger and more diverse group of people. While Shohat and Stam argue that the representation issue should be analyzed through questioning “whose stories are told by whom,” (2014) Diawara had already suggested that the self-representation of black independent filmmakers, for instance, was the solution to the problem (1993). The “powerlessness of historically marginalized groups to control their own representation” (Shohat and Stam, 2014) found a silver lining for breaking the cycle in the digital world as it makes self-representation more available; faster and cheaper. Especially among the younger generations, the advent of digital allows global participation in online platforms where more diverse stories are told. By pointing out the importance of self-representation, this paper examines Generation Z’s and the Millennials’ online habits, namely in TikTok and YouTube web series, to discuss its extent. It acknowledges the limitations of digital presence toward being a solution to social injustice, yet concludes that having such content within reach and the fact that such polyphony can be created without barriers is a great step forward for the notorious issue of representation.
“They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above” (Marx, 1851). Karl Marx’s words on peasantry refer to the essence of the representation issue in cinema and media. The minority communities are fed up with the dominant groups telling their stories for them as they end up being represented on screen unfavorably as something defined by outside. The “burden of representation” (Shohat and Stam, 2014) has been an ongoing struggle as the minority communities’ stories have been traditionally told from the dominants’ perspective. The Academy Award-winning film Green Book (2018) tells a story of racism from the point of view of a white male character, who is a racist (Obie, 2018). The film was criticized for being a “white savior” film which “spoon-feeds racism to white people” (Judge, 2018). Similarly, after productions like Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), Carol (2015), and Call Me By Your Name (2017), the industry has been criticized by the queer community of straight men making films about queer people that will appeal to straight people (Kirst, 2017). After a screening of Tom Donahue’s documentary mentioned above, This Changes Everything (2018), the all-female audience was furious that a man had to advocate for women’s representation in the industry. The examples can be furthered to highlight how the oppressed communities have been advocates of self-representation ever more so in recent years. The fact that creating a presence in the digital world has no financial barriers, the younger generations, in particular, used this feature of the advanced technology to represent themselves in online communities.
Owing to the advent of the digital, the younger generations, namely Generation Z and the Millennials, have all the means to express themselves available to them when compared to older generations when they were their age. Through social media and video sharing platforms, the younger generation voice and represent themselves without needing to expect a more resourceful party to tell their stories for them. As a result of large waves of immigration to the US in the 1980s and 1990s, the Millennial generation, born between 1981 and 1997, is ethnically and racially the most diverse adult generation in the American history (Frey, 2018). Therefore, their online participation brings about more content from various backgrounds and higher diversity in the represented groups. Generation Z, born after 1997, is born into a digital world, where 95% have access to smartphones, and 45% of them claim to be almost constantly online (Anderson and Jiang, 2018). Consequently, the younger generations finding online grounds to share their stories lead to a more diverse set of stories to circulate at a speed that history has never experienced. Therefore, the digital world empowered a certain group of people who are more diverse and loud than any other.
Generation Z is born into a digital world where they don’t know how life was like before its advent. Their use of the internet keeps increasing and almost doubled in four years (Anderson and Jiang, 2018). Recent research incorporates the online presence of children aged between six to eleven in social media communities as a part of their out-of-school learning journeys: “The results display significant aspects of children’s learning trajectories in self-representation, presented as: Input from comments, understanding the other, preparing for a performing self and taking actions” (Wernholma and Reneland-Forsman, 2019). Therefore, their self-representation in the digital world is a part of their personal development for the members of Generation Z. For the teens that establish themselves online, TikTok has been the biggest platform for youth between 13 and 18, comprising half of the 500 million monthly users (Chen, 2018).
TikTok entered the market like a storm and became one of the most downloaded mobile apps in a few years (Akenzua, 2019). In a nutshell, the application is a social media platform that features “scrappy viral videos shot with no budget and low production” (Barrett, 2019). The “internal video creation tools” and its “user-friendly interface” means that any user, without necessarily having the skills or mediums to create a variety of videos (Akenzua, 2019). These short videos of various contents are found to be ideal for killing “fragmented spare time” and they are “more compact and engaging” in comparison to longer videos (Chen, 2018). Therefore, their short nature is ideal for the younger generation with notoriously shorter attention span, eight seconds to be precise (Law, 2019). TikTok doesn’t require the user’s social network to fill the homepage with an infinite number of videos, so having posts “liked” and being “followed” are much easier when compared to other social media platforms. As the videos are typically built around music, the platform seems to have exceeded the language barrier to achieve global popularity (Tolentino, 2019). The users experience a smaller globe when people from all over the world dance to the same song and do the same “challenges” with celebrities. Having tailor-made qualities for its young users, TikTok is one of the biggest platforms that Generation Z prefers to voice themselves.
In line with their need to represent themselves, the youngest generation seems to value authenticity the most. In contrast to other social media platforms such as Instagram, which has been repeatedly criticized for users not presenting their authentic selves, TikTok provides the users a platform where they can “let their guards down [and] act silly” (Akenzua, 2019). Anna O’Brien, who gained a million followers over six weeks, explains that she started creating content for TikTok as there is “no judgement” (CNBC International, 2019). The digital platform allows Generation Z to authentically represent themselves as it “liberates young people to play without adhering to the visual styles, narratives and online cultures of the past” (Bresnick, 2019). Not solely creatively, but the advent of digital opened the way for the youngest generation to have the opportunity to represent themselves online politically, as well.
One might argue that the elated digital representation of the younger generations isn’t equal to progressive politics. After all, despite their tremendous publicity, the younger generation is underrepresented among legislators even though they make up thirty-four percent of the eligible voting population (Thompson and Singh, 2018). Nevertheless, their insufficient political representation doesn’t mean that they accept not being heard. For instance, a movement against the systemic racism in the US following George Floyd’s killing was initiated on TikTok. When certain public figures were called out and removed from their positions of power, a young user posted a “celebratory dance routine” with the caption, “Me watching all these racists getting exposed” (Sung, 2020). The original video received millions of likes, hundreds of thousands of shares, and remakes from Generation Z, to support the Black Lives Matter act through an online platform. Similar online activism took place in Turkey, the leading country in the number of imprisoned journalists (Sahinkaya, 2019). The country is known to have an ongoing crisis regarding freedom of speech; however, the notoriety doesn’t refrain Generation Z from speaking their mind freely. Recently, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with Turkish youth in a live-stream to wish them luck in the university entrance examinations. The live chat feature of the online event was bombarded with comments from the teens, stating they will not vote for him. They created a trending hashtag on Twitter, “#OyMoyYok,” and the video posted on Erdogan’s YouTube page has currently reached 423K dislikes. The younger generations seem to be raising their voices even more digitally, owing to their strong presence in the online world and in social media.
While the younger generations make use of the recent developments in digital technology to voice themselves in their way, the Millennials also constitute the group of people that aims to establish themselves in the competitive job market. The digital world is proven beneficial for especially the ones that want to work in the creative industry. They can portray and project themselves without any barriers and therefore produce content that is diverse by nature.
The advancements in digital video technology led to filming equipment, and editing softwares become within reach of many creatives. YouTube is one of the most well-known hosting sites that allow these creatives to upload their videos for free to share with viewers from all over the world. Therefore, the Millennial creatives who don’t get attention from big television studios found themselves a platform to upload their productions. By eliminating the gatekeepers, they can tell more daring stories to a wider audience in a significantly shorter time. The opportunity brought about web series, which are episodic stories created and shared by independent artists on YouTube. Dan Williams calls them “web television,” as they “feel relatively like abbreviated versions of traditional television shows,” even though their creators’ voices are “left out of traditional entertainment” (Williams, 2014).
A glance at the most-watched web series reveals that most of these productions aim to tell stories of traditionally underrepresented groups and young people navigating life. Similar to the younger generation, the authenticity of these productions is cherished. The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, for instance, is an award-winning web series with 486K subscribers, which follows a young black woman through awkward moments in life. The creator Issa Rae says she likes to be raw, to curse, and to portray the discomfort, which she thinks is “not really fit for network television” (Williams, 2019). Undocumented Tales comes from a similar perspective, portraying a story that cannot find a place in mainstream entertainment. It is a web series dedicated to telling how undocumented immigrants live in the United States without legal documents. Armando Ibanez, the writer and the director of the series, explains in the introduction of the series that he believes immigrant people are not represented in the entertainment industry, and therefore having such leading character will voice those people.
Not finding a place on network television initially does not mean these web series will be limited to a digital presence. BroadCity is one of the most well-known web series with 73.9K subscribers as it, later on, got picked up by Comedy Central and aired five seasons. It is about two young women and their relationships, jobs, and general struggles in New York City. “The characters are ambitious, but in a confused, vague way,” one of the creators says. The creators aim to voice the females in their twenties who struggle, and help them by showing how “failures are really just opportunities to react in a cool way” (Zeichner, 2011). These web series might be a way to break through the traditional understanding of production. During the pandemic, where almost all productions had to stop, some web series tackled the issue creatively and continued being produced. Bollyweird is a comedy web series about a young Indian woman who cannot go home due to the pandemic. The series is created, produced, and shot entirely in quarantine and already has 1.02K subscribers.
Like TikTok, which allowed Generation Z to have an online presence in their most authentic self, web series allow the Millennials to tackle the entry barriers around the competitive entertainment industry and represent themselves on screen. YouTube works as a media platform free from the long-established film and media industry structures to represent communities and share creative stories without the necessity of network deals. Younger people without the means of a production company can craft and market their series, as a result of the digital culture. Since the subscribers are aware of how these videos are made on almost no budget, the artists can focus more on the story and the message than the quality of the production.
Despite how liberating it sounds, the digital world for sure has its limitations. Some believe that even “self-representation” is a “representation,” therefore “shows a certain aspect of ourselves, a certain way of seeing ourselves” (Rettberg, 2017). The researcher suggests that the premise of authenticity cannot be reached as users negotiate with their self-representation by choosing what to share and whatnot. If the viewers change the content creators’ ideas of how to tell their own stories, digital self-representation ends up being a library of portrayals of fake individuals. People’s eagerness to being popular in online platforms might be a downside to sharing authentic presentations in the digital world.
Another limitation is around the subject of visibility. It is a fact that posting material online doesn’t have entry barriers, and it is fairly easy to create an online presence. However, there are limitations to the visibility of the created content and the communities it reaches. The algorithmically driven software is biased in what search results promote as there are human decision-makers behind the system (Noble, 2018). Noble points out that terms such as “big data” and “algorithms” give the impression of bringing forth benign, neutral, or objective results, but the reality is quite the opposite. By highlighting cases of racism and sexism from algorithmically driven data, Noble’s study suggests that even though digital self-representation seems like a progressive step toward solving the struggle of representation, the visibility of such content depends on biased gatekeepers.
Even if the created content passes through the less than impartial Silicon Valley workers, the way digital platforms are structured prevents users from seeing polyphonic content. The algorithms use “like” and “dislike” data of the users to segregate users into “neighborhoods” (Chun, 2018). Chun explains that homophily, the “love as love of the same,” fuels further discrimination as a pattern because it creates boundaries and distinguishes and discriminates people by assuming their groups and affiliations. A data analyst from YouTube explains they experimented with bringing random content to the users, but it wasn’t successful as people were not choosing to click on the videos that do not reflect their already established perspective or idea set (Computerphile, 2014). Therefore, even though any person can represent their authentic beliefs online, it is not very likely for people outside of that belief system to actually see the content. With a similar argument, Jon Keegan created a webpage to show the contrast between a liberal and a conservative Facebook pages side by side for everyone to see how the platform brings forth dissimilar posts according to the user’s political inclination (2016).
Therefore, the digital world has its limitations in terms of the authenticity of the created content, the audience it reaches toward changing people’s ideas, and helping to solve systemic injustice. Nevertheless, even with these limitations acknowledged, the digital world supplies a massive space for diversity and empowerment that is not mirrored before its advent. Historically, entertainment and mass media teach the public about minorities and point to a way to treat them (Lawson, 2018). The rise of self-representation meant these communities to show the way they wanted to be seen and treated. Around the ongoing issues of power dynamics around authentic representation, equitable screen time, and nuanced characters of all groups (Nguyen, 2018), the digital world opens an inclusive platform for any person to share their versions of reality. With more people represent themselves on screen, regardless if big or small, society is more likely to be accustomed to accepting a variety of ideas, beliefs, and humanly experiences.
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