Media Representation: What It Means & Why It’s Important
There’s been a lot of discussion about representation at the HPA blog lately. With Quinn’s blog on strong female characters and the story reviews on Welcome To Night Vale and Threads, we’ve been dabbling around in the subject of media representation a lot, but today I’d like to go a bit more in depth as to what it means to me and why I think it’s important. Leave a comment and let me know some of your favorite examples of positive minority representation!
If I get to see myself on screen, then I know that I exist.
-Gabby Sidibe, star of Precious
First of all, why is representation important? There are a lot of answers to that question:
1. It gives people a stronger sense of self and affirmation of identity.
2. It gives children somebody to relate to and look up to.
3. It expands people’s assumptions of their capabilities (assumptions that are often relayed to them through constant negative media portrayal).
4. It provides a more realistic look at the world’s population.
5. It fights the idea that straight/white/male = normal and everything else is “other” (think about your local bookstore: there’s probably a section for African American Fiction, Gay and Lesbian Fiction, and Women’s Fiction, and while these can be positive spaces for marginalized groups to find books that include them and portray their issues with honesty and authenticity, it’s important to discuss the reasons why they have to have separate sections, and why they’re not already included in general literature and fiction).
Clearly, representation is important. Mae Jemison, the first black female astronaut, was inspired to join NASA after watching Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. Would she have connected to Lieutenant Uhura as much if the character had been played by a white actor? Probably not, and the world may have then lost our first black female astronaut, an inspiration to millions of other little girls.
So, representation is important, but what exactly qualifies as representation?
I don’t know the official definition, but in my opinion, there are two kinds of representation- minimal representation and positive representation. Minimal representation requires very little effort, but appears to privileged populations as “diverse”, so this is what most writers of books, movies, and TV shows do- throw in a couple female characters, POC characters, or LGBTQ+ characters to fill in the background. Unfortunately, this type of representation results in a lot of stereotypes, two dimensional characters, and disappointment for people who want to see themselves portrayed honestly and authentically in the media. Every time a foreign TV character is used as comedic relief by not speaking English correctly, every time a female character is defined only by her relationship with men, every time the central cast is white and straight with a few token minorities as secondary characters- there’s representation there, yes, but are these groups being represented truthfully, are they being represented positively? Not so much.
Sadly- and I hate to say this for fear of hardcore fans getting angry- Harry Potter most likely falls into this category. Don’t get me wrong, I am head over heels obsessed with the series. I wouldn’t be volunteering with the HPA if I wasn’t. But it’s important to acknowledge problematic elements even in things that you love, and the Harry Potter series, though it has phenomenal female characters, severely lacks racial minorities. I can think of eight minority characters (the Patil twins, Cho Chang, Dean Thomas, Blaise Zabini, Lee Jordan, Kingsley Shacklebolt, and Angelina Johnson- and they aren’t even in the central cast), while the number of white characters are in the hundreds at the very least (and there’s no way this is an accurate reflection of the UK’s population- I don’t even have to dig up a census to tell you that much). The minority characters are often not even considered well written- check out Rachel Rostad’s spoken word poem ‘Dear J.K. Rowling, From Cho Chang’.
Harry Potter also has very little positive LGBTQ+ representation. Yes, Dumbledore is gay. But how do you know that? Because J.K. Rowling said so in an interview? Are you telling me that you could read the entire book series without it ever once being mentioned? Is it really OK that the only LGBTQ+ character in the series doesn’t even get his sexuality acknowledged in the books beyond a bit of subtext? This is on top of the fact that his relationship with Grindelwald was already severely twisted and depressing, while most of the straight relationships in the books (of which there are many) have a happy ending.
Perhaps J.K. Rowling wasn’t trying to represent anyone in her novels; she just wanted to tell a story. After reading this blog, though, I hope you realize that even when trying to simply tell a story, it’s important to be aware of who your characters are. If they’re straight / white / male, is that an important part of their identity? Could it be changed? There are tons of straight / white / male characters, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but perhaps your story would benefit from the uniqueness of a different perspective.
And, just as important, if you have minority characters, how are they portrayed? This is where the second kind of representation comes in: positive representation. Rather than tokens and background characters, positive representation portrays women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community as, first and foremost, human beings. Their identity is not the only aspect of their character, but at the same time, it’s not ignored or glossed over. They have a variety of traits, agency in their story lines, and are never reduced to stereotypes. Some examples of this? I’ll go with some of my favorite TV shows: Crime shows are a genre usually dominated by straight white male characters, but the central cast of Numb3rs has multiple women of color, and the main female character, Amita, is an Indian woman with a STEM career who never lets herself be defined by her boyfriend, despite him being the main character. Glee (yes, I like Glee, don’t make fun of me), though it screws up a lot, also has some positive representation as well- Kurt and Blaine’s relationship, for instance, or some of Unique’s story lines about being transgender, or Jake’s struggles with being multiracial. Glee has a long, long way to go, but at least it’s trying- you can’t fail if you never try. If you combined Glee’s earnestness with another show’s better writing skills, imagine how many people would find their place on a TV screen when they previously couldn’t relate to anyone.
Because this post is already extremely long, I won’t cover topics like whitewashing/racebending and queerbaiting, which are incredibly important in the discussion of media representation. But I will send you along with a few posts that cover them pretty well: here and here. And if you’re interested in learning more about how fandom intersects with positive minority representation, check out Fandom for Equality, a community of fans dedicated to discussing representation in the media (brought to you by the Glee fandom’s Box Scene Project for charity and LGBTQ+ representation).
And please, leave a comment! Let’s discuss characters! <3