On Representation

I would like to speak about representation and diversity in American culture and media. Since this is obviously a huge topic I'll be self-centered for a bit and talk about representation of myself.

You might ask why representation is important. After all, putting people into "camps" based on seemingly superficial aspects like race, gender or sex, personality traits, and sexuality seems awfully shallow and prejudiced. Shouldn't we be more focused on things like character development? I would ask you how you would feel if every character in a book was one race, sex, sexuality, and so forth. Not only would this be boring, but if you were unlucky enough to not be part of these groups, you would feel left out. And superficial categorizations like race and sex can and do have significant bearing on how an individual sees the world and thus are not something to be taken lightly, to be belittled at the expense of identity. Such categorizations become restrictive only when these categories completely identify a person. Otherwise, they are useful ways to celebrate the rainbow of the human condition.

The portrayal of different types of people in a culture shows that society's acceptance level and opinions about said types of people. Everyone needs to feel validated, accepted, and included in their societies; the level and quality of diversity determines if that need is fulfilled or not.

Obviously it is more difficult for "minorities" to be represented in media than it is for "majorities" (if that's even a word.) Note that a minority isn't a group of people fewer in number than a perceived majority group, but a group discriminated against in favor of the majority group; women are the main example. People could wag their fingers at the white heteropatriarchy for this lack of diversity, and it is true that since white, rich, straight men rule the world, cultural representations of various types of people conform to how said rich, straight, white men (want to) see the world; think of the societal obsession with female body image, or assuming everyone is white and straight until proven otherwise.

But if the portrayal of a member of any minority group is to be believable, sensitive, and honest--that is, if said portrayal is about the person him/herself and not a flat stereotype that allows the sense of identity to only come from said character's identity of a minority--it is unfortunately ultimately up to people in said minority groups to ensure their groups are thoughtfully portrayed in media. This responsibility is unfortunate because in an ideal world, it would be up to all people, not just minority groups, to ensure accurate diversity in media. But blaming everyone for a lack of diversity is somewhat fruitless because a) in reality, minorities see less representation of themselves than members of majority groups do and b) people in majority groups don't care as much about the representation of minority groups so long as they're represented. It is the ones who see the problems who are more likely to fix them, and more often than not such people are those at least somewhat disadvantaged. This does not mean that it is not up to everyone to fix the lack of diversity in media, rather that it is an unrealistic expectation. This article about race in the publishing world explains an aspect of this phenomenon.

An interesting reflection of the "majority-people glasses" viewpoint is the phenomenon of minority groups applauding any time a minority group gets representation, even if that minority group is not their own. I can't find anyone else talking about this strange aspect, but I'm 99% sure it's not only me who mentally claps when Lupita Nyongo'o had super-short hair and appeared in magazines as an incredibly beautiful and talented person, or when a Latina doctor works at the hospital, or when Michael Sam was drafted into the NFL. Technically I belong to none of these minority groups, but I still feel proud. It's like I've been pitted against insurmountable odds, so the enemy of the enemy becomes my ally.


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