Why Representation Matters: Symbolic Annihilation and Publishing

Recent months have shown a growing commitment to support BIPOC writers and creators in the publishing industry. While major publishers like Hachette have made gestures towards supporting marginalized groups, publishing as a field is still far behind where it needs to be in order to truly foster equity. While these conversations are continuing to unfold, it’s heartening to see that some organizations are starting to take steps to increase equity and support marginalized voices on a structural level. Ooligan Press is among a growing number of independent publishers actively working to bolster marginalized people by providing a platform for their voices and adding positive representation in their catalogues.

What is often left out of conversations surrounding equity and representation in media is the why of the conversation. Why do we need more diversity in publishing? While some may consider it self-evident that we need more representation, the answer is not nearly so simple. Numerous scholars have dedicated their entire careers to understanding why people need to see themselves represented in stories, so a blog post like this one could never adequately address (or even summarize) the complexities of the problem at hand, but these complexities shouldn’t deter us from the conversation. I want to offer an explanation for one aspect of this problem, in the hope that it will help equip those in a position to address issues of equity with a cogent reason why we should be actively providing more representation in publishing. This reason is symbolic annihilation.

The term “symbolic annihilation” refers to the erasure of people—specifically categories of people like women, people of color, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community—from popular media. As Robin R. Means Coleman and Emily Chivers Yochim explain in their article on the subject, “symbolic annihilation points to the ways in which poor media treatment can contribute to social disempowerment and in which symbolic absence in the media can erase groups and individuals from public consciousness.” More simply, symbolic annihilation is what happens when the lack of representation of a group affects their real-life empowerment in the public sphere.

In <ahref=”https: web.asc.upenn.edu=”” gerbner=”” asset.aspx?assetid=”276″”>an article written in 1976, the researcher responsible for coining the term, George Gerbner, argues that the role of symbolic annihilation is to maintain inequality on a structural and social level. By not allowing the representation of marginalized groups, “tastemakers” and other wielders of cultural capital not only strip people within these categories of their identities, but deny that identity’s place within the larger cultural context. Gerbner argues that “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence.” This denial can, and does, have lasting effects on the psychological and social well-being of people in marginalized groups, as detailed in a 2011 Opportunity Agenda study that shows the ongoing effects of poor and non-representation on the lives of Black American men.</ahref=”https:>

In 1979, Gaye Tuchman expanded Gerbner’s approach to include the insidious ways that symbolic annihilation reaches beyond the limitations of mere exclusion. Tuchman’s definition includes omission, trivialization, and condemnation as ways that symbolic annihilation manifests itself. These forms of symbolic annihilation are particularly harmful, as they present potential role models for people who need them in ways that are demeaning and often predatory. This kind of representation distort a subject’s conception of what it means to be part of a group.

A study was conducted in 2012 to understand the ways in which representation of gender and race in children’s television shows impacted self-esteem. It revealed that of the four groups that took part in the study—Black girls, Black boys, white girls, and white boys only the group of white boys’ self-esteem was not negatively impacted by the experience. In their discussion of the study, the authors cite the representations of racial and gendered stereotypes in the TV shows as the force behind this change. The study effectively shows the consequences of Tuchman’s trivialization and condemnation forms of symbolic annihilation at play as poor media representations distort the self-image of these children.

While the term was first applied to television in the 1970s, its impact is applicable across all media types, especially those that have as formative of an influence on culture as books. While publishing’s position as a taste-making entity has received some criticism in recent years, it remains a multibillion dollar industry and has worked to shape culture for as long as the book has existed. For this reason, publishing is an important medium in which to combat symbolic annihilation, both in what we produce and in who we hire. It is our duty as publishers to not only provide space for marginalized groups, but to defend the voices of the people within those groups. We are the media and passivity is not an option.

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