Throughout the years, the media have encapsulated our minds, making us perceive, feel, and think whatever they want us to, without us even noticing. Films have done the same; although, the importance of diversity has escalated in the film industry, making most film directors take this into consideration when directing their films. The Representation Test is described as “a media literacy tool meant to spark learning and conversation around representation in film, and to encourage more overall diversity on screen and behind-the-scenes in Hollywood” (TheRepresentationProject.org). If a film portrays a diverse array of people and experiences, it will get a higher score. Soul Surfer is a film that came out in 2011, and was directed by Sean McNamara. It is based on the true story of professional surfer Bethany Hamilton. Even though Soul Surfer managed to score an A on the Representation Test because of its representation of women, other races, and the disabled, it failed to represent LGBT people.
The first section of the Representation Test is titled “Women”. Soul Surfer was awarded five points in this section because of the important roles that women are given in this film. Even though there are male characters in this film, women are not treated as inferior to them in any of the scenes of this movie. An example of this is when Bethany’s family is making dinner. Her dad, and both of her brothers help out without being asked to. Usually, movies show how women are the ones who make the meals for their families, but in this scene and in the rest of the film, Bethany’s family members are all treated equally, and always working as a team.
Moreover, the protagonist of the film, Bethany Hamilton is no ordinary woman. She lost her arm in a shark attack, but never stopped working to acquire her dream of becoming a professional surfer. This depicts women and the disabled in a positive light. She teaches people that no matter what our circumstances are, if we keep working hard, regardless of our failures, we can achieve our goals.
In most films, we tend to see “women’s picture – emphasizing a female star and focusing on typical female concerns such as getting or holding on to a man” (Giannetti 430). Even though there is a boy named Keoki who seems to like Bethany as more than a friend, Soul Surfer does a good job representing women as more than “objects for the male gaze. In the beginning of the film, Keoki invites Bethany and her best friend Alana to go night surfing with him and his friends. Bethany and Alana could’ve been portrayed as the “typical” teenage girls who are excited about boys, but instead, they show how they are more excited about surfing, since it is their passion.
Soul Surfer portrays men in a positive light as well. The film avoids glorifying violent men, while emphasizing the “caregiver” side of its male characters. Throughout the entire film, the men in Bethany’s life support her mainly by loving her and believing in her at all costs. Her dad is shown as a competent involved parent, who encourages and helps his daughter pursue her dreams. In the scene when Bethany decides to train for a surfing competition after her accident, she tells her dad, “I don’t need easy, I just need possible,” and he responds, “With you, everything is possible.” Bethany’s dad was there for her every step of the way, and so were her brothers. Even before Bethany’s accident, her brothers went to her competitions, and were not only vastly involved in her life, but they were also incredibly supportive of her, and her dreams. Most films portray teenage brothers as self-involved or careless, but in this film, it was the complete opposite.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people are not represented at all in Soul Surfer. The only couples in the film are Alana’s parents and Bethany’s, who are both straight. The film also shows how Keoki is interested in Bethany, further representing straight people. Even though Soul Surfer does not show or talk about LGBT people, I do not believe they meant to do this purposefully. Soul Surfer is based on a true story, so it is portraying its characters based on the real people that were involved in Bethany’s life. If the film suddenly changed someone’s sexual orientation in order to show diversity, it would misrepresent Bethany’s true story.
Soul Surfer’s depiction of the disabled and people of other races is effective throughout the film. A scene that shows the disabled in a positive light is when Bethany had lost hope in surfing again, but letters from other disabled children changed her mind. “You may sometimes want to use emotions to connect with readers to assure them that you understand their experiences” (Lunsford, 51). The connection that she felt with these children was unbreakable. Bethany had inspired these children not by succeeding, but by simply trying to achieve her goal. Likewise, Bethany was inspired by these children that were now trying to follow their dreams, and decided to surf again. This scene shows how the disabled are able to pursue their dreams by working hard, and also, it teaches them to never give up, even when they think their goals might seem impossible. Another aspect of the film that emphasizes the strength and courage of the disabled is that Bethany always asked to be treated equally. At her first competition after the shark attack, she was offered a head start, but immediately turned it down. The film also shows various races, some being native Hawaiians, Americans, and Thais. All of these races were portrayed positively, and no stereotypes were used.
Although I am still not sure if the Representation Test is scoring films accurately, I do believe that Soul Surfer deserved the 13 points that enabled it to get an A. It is one of the films with the most meaningful cultural impact that I have ever seen. Its message is not directed to the disabled, to women or to a specific race; it is directed towards anyone who watches the film. The film reminds us that no matter who we are, or what our situation is, we should always look forward and keep trying, like Bethany says in the last scene, “I’ve learned that life is a lot like surfing. When you get caught in the impact zone, you need to get right back up, because you never know what’s over the next wave.” Sometimes we forget that there are numerous people that are less fortunate than we are, but it is humbling to not only be reminded of that, but also to look at our lives with a different perspective and work hard to attain our dreams.