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One of my all-time favorite shows was Sens8. It’s a science fiction Netflix series about eight adults who discover they can connect with each other telekinetically. When I watched it for the first time, I was amazed by its inclusivity of the LGBTQ+ community, people of colour, and diverse subject matter surrounding sexuality, bullying, wellbeing, growth, fear, and courage.
I was shocked to find out that members of the community, and many POC writers that I follow, were not as keen on it as I was. Why? Because the type of representation perpetuates the oppression of certain groups. How is it then that I could watch a show and be so profoundly moved, when it portrays its POC characters as secondary, and its white characters as primary, pushing the plot forward?
Asking myself that question I realized one thing: I am immune to the lack of representation in the media. I have the privilege of opening a magazine, watching a series or film, with certainty that I will see people like me. This immunity is a major part of the problem.
Big Media Moments
I will always and forever remember the moment Wonder Woman was released. I went with my father and brother – the only members of my family who share an equally geeky obsession with everything DC and Marvel. I grew up worshipping Batman, Superman, and Captain America. I wanted to be strong like them, brave like them, bold like them. When female superheroes made appearances, I couldn’t identify with their sultry and seductive attitudes, their tiny outfits, and the way men swooned over them. It felt uncomfortable…
Fast forward to May 15, 2017, only five days after my 26th birthday, sitting in that theatre, having an epic cinematic experience…crying. Right there, between my dad and brother, my heart raced as tears tumbled out of me. For the first time I understood why the boys I grew up with were so sure of themselves – they believed they could be superheroes. At 26 years old, I finally felt like I could be one too.
When Captain Marvel appeared on-screen last year (2019), the feeling was even stronger. Not only was the protagonist female, but her back story had no roots in finding heteronormative love. In fact, the most important bond she shared was with her best friend, Maria Rambeau, a fearless, level-headed pilot, and a single mom!
I cried again. A lot. I felt like a child. The messages I should have received growing up were finally there, in explosive colour and action. Even at 28 years old, I thought, I could be her!
The Fabric of Life
Representation in the media is vital because it shapes how minorities are viewed by society. Diverse stories are the fabric of life! It empowers those who have traditionally been silenced, and it forces people to recognize how we perpetuate this silencing. I will never, can never, fully understand what it means to be underrepresented or marginalized to the extent of disabled groups, POC, LGBTQ+. I have the perspective of a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered female, and I’m married to a cis-gendered man. Even with my Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel experiences, I spent my life seeing people like me on the front of every magazine, playing the lead roles in plays, singing songs on the radio, and yes, being cast as lead superheroes in major productions. Media has been saturated, white-washed. Monochromatic interpretation has offered me a false sense of reality. I am not everyone, and everyone is not me
Lead, Climb, Create
I have six nephews and two nieces. The idea of them spending their entire life thinking, “why isn’t there anyone like me doing X, Y, or Z?” causes me the most pain. The sad reality is someone’s nephews and nieces are wondering why they’re not good enough to have a place on the stage…
You see, representation is inspiration! It gives people permission to lead and climb and create; it empowers, authorizes, and enables people to take action; it normalizes diversity – something that is in fact normal.
People are becoming more impatient with political correctness (PC). In Reach Out’s article, What’s the deal with polical correctness, they define PC as avoiding language and actions that insult, exclude or harm people who are already experiencing disadvantage and discrimination. The intention of PC is to eliminate hate speech, or the subtle use of language that holds minority groups as punchlines, reducing them to shallow superficialities and harmful stereotypes. If you are reading this and thinking, “political correctness is unfair,” I challenge you to look deeper. Is it possible this comes from your resistance – resistance to letting go of ideas or language that may be harming people you perceive as “different.” Are you experiencing fear or anger because your right to self-express is being policed?
Fear is Not Your Armor
We live in a world dominated by social media. Communication is shrunk to 280 characters, most of which give. People are afraid — afraid of making mistakes and feeling the online wrath, seeing their name attached to words like “ableist,” “bigot,” “racist,” “sexist.”
Fear is not an excuse. In fact, turning off because of fear is an act of privilege. Giving in to this fear is an act of prejudice. There is no growth in curling away and blaming the rest of the world for being “too sensitive.” Your fear is not your armor. Everyone can see through it.
The antithesis of fear is this: make mistakes. Even if they are embarrassing. Take the feedback with grace, understanding, and aim to grow.
In less than 24-hours, Sia managed to lose an entire population of fans. I do not believe Sia entered this project thinking, “I want to piss off a bunch of people and wound my career.” No, she genuinely thought her moves came from a place of inclusivity and love. What went wrong then?
Sia does not know what it means to live with autism, and instead of listening to the group she was trying to represent, she defended her decisions, further excluding her autistic fans and following. I do not believe Sia was wrong in creating a story based on a character with an underrepresented disability (quick note: all disabilities are underrepresented!). We need more stories like that! Sia went wrong the moment she refused to listen and reassure her followers she would do better next time.
There was no grace in her error. No humility or moment of reflection. She met the community with anger, waving her flag of privilege.
Representation Has Power
Yes, I am a white, able-bodied person. That, by default, makes me racist and ableist. Not because I want to be, but because our society was born from a racist, ableist foundation. I am also a misogynist. Not because I want to be, but because our society was born from a misogynistic foundation. Whether I want to believe it or not, I’ve absorbed the punchlines and stereotypes, and the bare minimum I can do to make myself better is remaining cognizant of the language I use, the conversations I have, and yes, the media I consume. I can also listen up when people feel they are being misrepresented. I can stand behind them as they share their stories of discrimination.
There have been huge steps forward with #StopAsianHate, #BLM, #ActuallyAutistic, #metoo, and #timesup. These movements shine a light on issues that, in my opinion, should be ancient history! Unfortunately, sometimes that light is so bright, people turn away, refusing to let their eyes adjust.
This is why representation is important: so our ideas don’t get trapped in a box with a universal definition for disabled people or people of colour or trans people or gay people. Reducing a group – a person – down to a set of recyclable characteristics is an insult to humanity, to nature, to each other, to ourselves.
I do my best to create a loving space for anyone who crosses my path. But I am still part of the problem. We need more stories. We need authenticity behind these stories – real people, truths, political correctness, diversity. Why? Because representation has the power to transform worldviews. Real, true, proper representation has that power.
And everyone has a story…
Until next time, friends.
Quean Mo xx