clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What the #FirstTimeISawMe hashtag reveals about representation in media

On Twitter, people are getting candid about what it feels like to see (or not see) characters like themselves onscreen.

Artie Abrams, a character who used a wheel-chair in Fox’s Glee, was played by able-bodied actor Kevin McHale.

A new Twitter hashtag, #FirstTimeISawMe, is spotlighting both the evolution and stagnation of representation in media and pop culture.

Officially launched on August 1 by Netflix as a celebration of inclusive media and Netflix’s own diverse programming, the hashtag was intended to start a conversation about the first time that people saw themselves represented on television.

But even though it began as a marketing campaign — complete with Netflix asking several high-profile celebrities and entertainment writers to participate —#FirstTimeISawMe has clearly struck a nerve, inspiring plenty of people with a variety of identities and backgrounds to speak candidly about how specific television characters have impacted their perceptions of themselves.

Many people have shared positive experiences with seeing themselves represented in a variety of media, highlighting the substantial role that such representation can play in people’s everyday lives.

The conversation has also offered a glimpse at how personally meaningful representation can change over time.

However, it’s simultaneously called attention to how the progression of inclusion isn’t always linear or all-encompassing, with some #FirstTimeISawMe respondents pointing out how poor representation has been for particular communities. Some people have lamented that they haven’t seen any representation of themselves onscreen, while others have raised criticisms over how authentic or respectful various portrayals have been.

Those sorts of responses have underscored how there’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to representation in media.

Jamie Broadnax, who founded the Black Girl Nerds website — which was one of seven media outlets Netflix selected to officially participate in the #FirstTimeISawMe campaign — has been involved in media representation conversations for years. But she told Vox that certain responses to the hashtag were something she had “stumbled upon for the first time.”

“My friend Alice Wong, who has a disability — she actually runs the Disability Visibility Project — had retweeted the video we published saying, ‘Hey, anyone out there with disabilities, do you relate to this tag?’” Broadnax said. “A lot of the people that tweeted said they couldn’t see themselves in any sort of properties. It made me sad, but it also told me that there’s a lot more work that needs to be done. There’s still a large contingent of people out there that don’t see themselves.”

In 2016, a University of Southern California analysis revealed that of the 414 recent films and television series it surveyed, only 28.3 percent of speaking characters were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. Around a third of speaking characters were female; 2 percent were lesbian, gay, or bisexual; and less than 1 percent were transgender.

A different USC analysis released the same year surveyed 800 films released between 2007 and 2015 and found that “only 2.4 percent of all speaking or named characters were shown with a disability.” And according to GLAAD’s most recent “Where We Are Now” report, 1.7 percent of regular broadcast characters during the 2016-’17 television season were people with disabilities — a marked increase over the previous season’s 0.9 percent and “the highest percentage since GLAAD began tracking disability statistics in 2010,” but still a small number.

Broadnax says she hopes #FirstTimeISawMe will encourage positive change.

“I’m a part of another hashtag campaign that has gotten quite controversial — for the Confederate show on HBO,” she said, referring to the recent #NoConfederate hashtag that has been used to protest the newly announced project, which is set in an “alternate timeline” where slavery is still legal in the US.

“A lot of viewers don’t want to see that kind of content, and they are participating to say that,” Broadnax said. She also noted that social media gives viewers a powerful opportunity to publicly tell studios and networks what they think of their programming offerings.

“So if it’s something that we don’t or do want to see, then we’re going to say something about it.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.