Culture3 min read

This Got Us Thinking: is this reel representation?

The Star Wars saga might have more intergalactic species than most films, but its human cast members haven’t always been very diverse. The first six films’ protagonists were all white. Then came a new trilogy in 2015 which brought with it Star Wars’ first Black protagonist. 

Some people boycotted the film because they couldn’t handle the idea of a Black stormtrooper (yes, the ones in head-to-toe armor). For others, the news brought joy and excitement. 

But was it true representation? 

Maybe not. In an interview with GQ Magazine last week, actor John Boyega spoke out about how his character was introduced as a main character only to be sidelined in the Star Wars franchise. Boyega said the same happened to other cast members, while white characters were “given all the nuance”.

This got us thinking.

Is it really representation if the share of screen time you get ends up dwindling to a side story? And what does true representation look like? 

🔬 Litmus testing: The Bechdel-Wallace Test

You’ve probably heard of The Bechdel Test, also known as The Bechdel-Wallace Test to include the friend who sparked the idea.

The Rule comic by Alison Bechdel in Dykes to Watch Out For.

The Rule by Alison Bechdel in Dykes To Watch Out For.

The concept was popularized in the 2000s and has been used since to measure the representation of women in film. The three criteria are: 

  1. There are two female characters
  2. These two characters have a conversation
  3. They talk to each other about something other than a man

If the test sounds simple, it’s because it is. Critics of the test say that we can do better. What makes a conversation isn’t defined. And a single conversation between two female characters — who can then disappear as quickly as they were introduced — is all it takes to pass. 

That means there are films with nuanced female leads that don’t pass, while films that spare a few minutes for a couple of minor female characters to talk do. 

We’re with the critics who say that films and their makers should be held to higher standards. Yet it’s telling that so many films are still failing to meet these basic requirements 35 years after the comic was created.

GIF of woman rolling her eyes

Over It Wtf GIF by @underimpressionism.

What about your favorite films? Do they pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test, or the tests below that were inspired by it? 

The DuVernay Test by film critic, Manohla Dargis: named after director Ava DuVernay, this test checks that “African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories”

The Vito Russo Test by GLAAD: named after LGBT+ activist and writer Vito Russo, this test requires films to have a character who a) can be identified as LGBT+, b) are defined by more than their sexuality and c) are tied to the plot in a meaningful way.

Speaking of testing, we’re interested to see what happens in 2025 when The Oscars’ new diversity standards kick in which require best picture categories to fulfill at least two categories. Will it be enough to have representation on or off-screen? 

🙅🏿‍♂️ Wakanda Forever: The Legacy of Black Panther

The recent death of actor Chadwick Boseman resurfaced widespread love for one of the greatest examples of representation in film. Boseman played Black Panther, Marvel’s first Black hero. Set in a futuristic, African country called Wakanda, almost all of the actors in the film were Black. The film did phenomenally at the box office. It did wonders for its audience, too. 

Rio de Janeiro resident Ygor Marinho shared his feelings about Black Panther in an interview for The Intercept:

A movie with 90 percent black actors fills me with pride… It makes me want to win. It makes me want to fight. It makes me like myself more, like my own skin tone, like my kind of hair, like the shape of my nose, like the shape of my lips, like myself more. Because you start to see people who are like you and you see how they carry themselves — empowered, happy with themselves — and you start to like yourself better. And you see there’s nothing wrong with you — that, really, black is beautiful, black is capable, black is incredible, and blackness needs to be respected.

We absorb messages from TV and film. Research shows that watching television reduces self-esteem for girls and Black boys, while boosting the self-esteem of white boys. Researcher Nicole Martins puts this down to the fact that the hero has traditionally been white and male — sidelining anyone who doesn’t fit into those categories. 

Representation isn’t always perfect, but we know that it’s necessary.

GIF of Chadwick Boseman doing the Wakanda Forever pose of arms crossed with fists pointed upwards on the opposite collarbone

Academy Awards Animation GIF by @cartuna.

💡 Want to learn more? Read about racism in cultural representation and the media in our Inclusion Works programme, What is systemic racism?

🙌 Representation is for everyone

Seeing yourself on the screen is important. So is seeing others. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg perfectly summed why we all need real representation for everyone.

Tweet by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg @TheRaDR, "We need diverse representation not only so every kid can see themselves as the hero of the story, but so that every kid can understand that other kinds of kids are also the heroes of the story"

Original Tweet by @TheRaDR.

And since we can’t have adverts featuring a black family without adults misunderstanding it as an anti-white message, go ahead and swap “kid” for “person” and “people”, too. 

✅  Challenge yourself to watch a film that represents a lived experience that is different from yours this week

Does the film treat the protagonist with the full complexity you would expect it to? Do you notice where characters are watered down or sidelined in favor of giving white, heterosexual, male, neurotypical and able-bodied characters all the nuance? 


This Got Us Thinking is a weekly blog that brings you easy-going nudges to think differently, do differently and experiment with how to be more inclusive. Each week, we dip into the unanswerable, nuanced and gray areas of inclusion and offer, not answers, but inklings. You can request a topic to be covered by the This Got Us Thinking series by reaching out to us here.

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