When we think about how we feel when we consume media, we may recall a plethora of different emotions. Sad movies make you feel sad, happy movies make you feel happy, and so on and so forth. However, there is an underlying emotion that we are likely to feel when we deeply connect with a character or concept in a piece of media, and that feeling is belonging.
Whether it be movies, TV shows, or books, great storytelling has the power to make us feel involved and represented in the things we hear and see.
While this feeling of belonging may seem rather arbitrary and unimportant to storytellers, it makes a world of a difference to the audiences who consume their projects.
People with marginalized ethnic and social backgrounds, sexuality and gender identities, or stigmatized trauma and disabilities may feel ostracized from society. They often feel alone or excluded from the basic human experience that seems to bind everyone else together. Media has an extraordinary ability to recognize these people, to place them in the books, shows, and movies they consume, and let them know that they are not alone.
Achieving a sense of belonging can be accomplished in several ways through media. It may be the conflict a character must overcome, a character’s personality or actions, or even just the color of their skin.
“Abbott Elementary,” a TV series created by Quinta Brunson, is about Black teachers as they work at a woefully underfunded elementary school. The show is a prime example of the difference that representation can make in media, and how it contributes to a significant feeling of belonging. Brunson not only made a show about Black characters, but she made it about their lives and struggles beyond their race. By telling the story of Black people without prioritizing their racial struggles and trauma, Brunson creates a space for Black communities to identify and connect with the characters and storylines on a more personal level. She makes her audience feel like they belong.
Inclusiveness is not just important to adults. In fact, making children feel like they belong is one of the most amazing things a piece of media can do.
“Encanto,” a Disney movie released in 2021, captures the essence of Latino culture in a fun, colorful, and sentimental way as it hones in on the rather large Madrigal family. The movie featured a diverse range of characters, so children could finally see their skin color, hair texture, and heritage reflected in a movie made just for them.
Social media posts started popping up from around the world as parents captured their children standing next to the TV, smiling as they stood next to an “Encanto” character that resembled them. Latino children began to feel like they belonged.
Media can even go further than character design and plot points to evoke a sense of belonging from its audience.
One of my favorite movies of all time is “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and it creates such an extraordinary feeling of belonging for me. I don’t look like any of the characters, in fact, they’re all anthropomorphized foxes. What makes me feel so connected, though, is the actions of the main character, Mr. Fox. He struggles with his identity, and remains in a conflict throughout the movie regarding his constant need to outdo himself, hurting others in the process. I identified so much with this from the very first time I saw it. Although there was no explicit race, sexuality, or ethnicity from the movie I could connect to, I deeply felt the emotions and behavior of the protagonist, and it was really fantastic.
If you have yet to find your piece of media that makes you feel like you belong, I encourage you to advocate for the representation you are entitled to. Media is undeniably one of the most significant influences of our lives, which is why it should make us feel represented, seen, and heard. When we turn on our TVs or open a book, we should feel like we belong in the real world. Remember, whether or not you have seen yourself mirrored in the movies you watch or the books you read, you do belong.
Editor’s Note: Sasha mentioned in their article that the movie “Fantastic Mr. Fox” made them feel an extraordinary sense of belonging. We asked the young people of The kNOw Youth Media to share what piece of media (movie, TV show, book, music) made them feel the same way.