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 Threadswe’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).

Mae Jemison, the first black female astronaut

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.

Padma Patil from the Harry Potter series

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.

Amita Ramanujan from Numb3rs

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

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6 Comments

  1. Quinn Kess

    August 31, 2013 at 9:00 pm
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    A couple of LBGT characters that I’d like to point out from TV:

    The first lesbian character that I encountered on TV was Diana from White Collar. (I was never a Buffy fan) Diana has a girlfriend, who is barely mentioned, but definitely there. Her sexuality is never a huge deal, just another part of her.

    And one of my favourite characters is Steve Jinks from Warehouse 13. He’s gay, it rarely comes up, and his ex is treated with the same awkwardness as everyone else’s exes. It’s not a huge part of his character, just another aspect of him. (His Buddhism comes up more/more awkwardly than his sexuality!)

    (Honourable mention to Helena Wells from W13 too for being an awesome bisexual character!)

    And keeping on the Warehouse 13 train, Mrs. Frederick, the Warehouse Caretaker is a lovely powerful African-American woman, and Mr. Kosan, the head Regent of the Warehouse (Arguably the person with the most power in the entire show) is Middle-Eastern. The show does pretty well with representing various minorities in its cast.

  2. Shrima Pandey

    September 1, 2013 at 6:05 pm
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    While I agree with mostly everything you discuss, I don’t think it is necessary for JKR to have been clearer about Dumbledore’s sexuality in the books. In doing so, she would have made him “the token gay guy” much like she’s racially done with the other characters. I always appreciated that his sexuality was not at attention, thereby making him a character beyond that one aspect. I don’t know, that might just be me. I don’t know whether she eventually said he was gay just to say it or whether she really truly made him so throughout the series but, either way, I prefer characters who go through a range of issues not particular to one group although some of their issues may be.

  3. Rhiannon

    September 2, 2013 at 10:59 am
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    I don’t see it as negative that Dumbledore’s sexuality wasn’t mentioned in the books, I think it could have been integrated with the Ariana subplot, but it wasn’t necessary or relevant to his relationship with Harry as a father figure. While I obviously agree that there should be fair representation I think highlighting it in places where straight relationships and preferences wouldn’t be is alienating the minority and damaging to the media.

  4. Thræn

    September 2, 2013 at 11:59 pm
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    There is a running joke within the Dumbing of Age (dumbingofage.com) fandom that David Willis (author) doesn’t have straight characters. It’s not true, but the comic does an amazing job of providing positive representation of not only GSM (gender and sexual minority) characters but also POC, women, people of various faiths (including atheism), PWD, and other minorities. It’s seriously one of the best casts in terms of diversity and also just general awesomeness, and it’s also a seriously well-written story.

  5. Elizabeth Fierro

    September 3, 2013 at 10:05 pm
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    Hi guys! Thank you so much for your comments! <3

    I've gotten a lot of feedback not just from people online but also people I know in real life who disagree with what I said about Dumbledore, so I feel like I should clarify. It's totally OK to have different opinions! I just don't want anybody to misunderstand me.

    The thing that bothers me about Dumbledore is that so many people applaud J.K. Rowling for not making his sexuality the most important thing about him. And yes, that would be awful, of course it would. But what people fail to realize is that it's equally awful (in terms of representation) to not acknowledge his sexuality as an aspect of his character. In my opinion, by not making his sexuality a part of his character, J.K. Rowling is only painting heterosexual as normal and queer identity as something to be deciphered or hidden between the lines. Unfortunately, due to heteronormativity, an LGTBQ+ character who does not have explicit evidence of their identity in the writing will be considered straight by most people (and I have no doubt that this is what would have happened with Dumbledore if it weren't for Rowling's interview). By the seventh book, J.K. Rowling had already written a three dimensional character whom people had grown to love, and she had nothing to lose by acknowledging Dumbledore's sexuality- a single line stating that he was gay would not have detracted from the story at all, would not have seemed out of place, would not have made his sexuality the most important thing about his character, and most importantly, it would have been a blessing to many, many people who read the Harry Potter series hoping to find someone they could relate to. The problem with her racial minority characters was that they were given hardly any development; pushed to the background completely. Dumbledore, however, was a main character, and acknowledging his sexuality would not cause him to be a token but rather would finally give the LGBTQ+ community positive IN-TEXT representation (I think a lot about John Green’s quotes, how ‘books belong to their readers’ and how he refuses to develop his characters outside the story, and when it comes to representation I’m afraid that the most important thing is that it is not confined to interviews or speculation but rather acknowledged in canon writing).

    Again, everybody is open to have their own opinions, but I’m sorry to say that without a SINGLE other LGBTQ+ character, I don’t believe J.K. Rowling did enough for the Harry Potter series to be considered positive LGBTQ+ representation. Dumbledore is a beautiful person, an incredible character- but in my opinion, representation he is not. I don’t blame people for enjoying the interviews J.K. Rowling has given or clinging to Dumbledore as the only author-confirmed LGBTQ+ character, but I do think that as people dedicated to social justice and fandom communities, we should expect more when it comes to positive representation, and we should hold our authors and screenwriters to that standard.

    • Quinn Kess

      September 4, 2013 at 10:24 am
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      I, for what it’s worth, completely agree with you. I’ve never really been comfortable with taking interviews as actual canon for something. Theoretically, anything can be true if it’s not explicitly stated.

      Jane Espenson, a writer for a lot of TV shows said on Twitter the other day when asked about if something in Once Upon a Time was canon: “there is no official answer. Until any fact is established on show, you are free to interpret as you wish.”. And that’s why saying so when something is true is so important. Anything can be interpreted in any way, but unless it’s confirmed or denied in actual text, it’s like Schrodinger’s Information. It can be either, both, or neither.

      When we’re fighting for representation, we shouldn’t have to rely on little bits pulled out of interviews. If something is that important, it should be stated in the text of the canon.

One Trackback

  1. By Miss Representation | Ember Maselli on July 21, 2014 at 8:38 pm

    […] 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). (By Elizabeth Fierro) […]

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