Any representation is a good representation?

Take a look at the above image, depicting a dark-skinned person with hair in tiny twists, peering thoughtfully through a barbed wire fence. What does that image conjure up for you? If you scroll down to the image credit, you can cheat and read the context, but let’s engage in an exercise instead: Is this person watching a sports game through a fence? Checking on a fenceline on a ranch? Getting ready to protest imperialistic policies at a port? Waiting in a refugee camp? For many people, images like this one conjure up notions of refugees, poverty, ‘Africa,’ as though Africa is some sort of vague, nebulous entity filled with poor dark-skinned people milling around and waiting for UN handouts. In this particular case, the subject of the image is indeed awaiting a food distribution, but the image was taken in Haiti, and the food comes from the Mexican government.

This is an example of the way people quickly code images, and it’s a reflection of a larger issue in media and pop culture. Just as I talked about dogwhistles in pop culture yesterday, so to do people rely on snap judgments and stereotypes to quickly process data. Otherwise, it can be overwhelming to confront a tide of incoming information — this is the way people deal with the world around them. It comes with deep, systemic flaws, though, like the belief that assumptions are accurate, and that all assumed stories are valid.

Right now, there’s a huge call for diversity in media and pop culture. This is an issue I’ve been championing for over a decade and I’m very excited to see it talked about in more public spaces, though you’re kidding yourself if you think that ‘diversity is mainstream’ or ‘it’s really easy to get diverse media on the market’ or ‘diverse creators have an advantage now.’ Diversity is not mainstream, as illustrated by the predominant makeup of media and the people who create it. It’s still challenging to get diverse media on the market, especially when it challenges dominant notions of marginalised experiences. And diverse creators still face significant barriers to entry. These are all things people are working on and I hope to see many more disabled creators, creators of faith, creators of colour, creators from low-income backgrounds, non-white creators, LGBQT creators, and myriad others making media.

But along the way, we need to have a serious conversation about representations, because there’s a popular notion that ‘any representation is a good representation’ — something I actually wrote about some years ago with respect to Glee — and thus that people should be grateful for whatever scraps are thrown out from the table. Here’s the thing, put plainly: Any representation is not a good representation. Some are bad from a purely structural and artistic standpoint, and some are actively harmful, contributing to the continued marginalisation of the communities they purport to help.

First you have the characters who are just tokens, rendered entirely one-dimensional: She uses a wheelchair, so I can check one off the list! You don’t need to know anything more about her, because her impairment is the sum total of her identity! Then there are the characters who are rendered diverse in a single line, with no further contextualisation: ‘This character is Latina, but I am never going to mention it again or discuss how race interacts with her storyline and the way she relates to the world around her, also she likes tacos!’ The characters made diverse for no reason other than to score diversity points. The characters made diverse in a way that doesn’t really serve a plot, instead distracting from the story. We see what you’re doing there, creators, and most of you are from dominant groups, trying to cash in on what you see as a growing diversity trend. Meanwhile, members of the groups you’re depicting are struggling to get their feet in the door.

Then you have the characters who are actively harmful, inhabiting tropes and stereotypes and advancing terrible representations that do tremendous damage. The tragic disabled kid. The magical Black guy. The inspirational, plucky poor kid. These stereotypes perpetuate dangerous things and they don’t showcase the spectrum of humanity. Instead of depicting authentic lived experiences, they show what dominant people imagine the lives of marginalised people to be like. If you’re disabled, wouldn’t you do anything to be nondisabled? Wouldn’t disability be the worst thing ever? Wouldn’t you fight like hell for a cure? How could any other experience of disability be valid?

These depictions hurt. Every time racism appears on the page, or disablism rears its ugly head again, or a queer character is completely stereotyped, or a trans character comes with a load of transphobia, it hurts readers, and it perpetuates harmful social attitudes. Any representation is not a good representation when it perpetuates oppression — and many of these do. Many of them also, again, come through the dominant lens, telling stories about people rather than in solidarity with them.

People sometimes complain that if people are going to criticise depictions of diversity, they’re saying no one should write stories about identities they don’t share. I can’t speak for every single critic, but that’s not how I feel (this does not invalidate the feelings of those who make statements to the contrary). I feel that people need to write characters carefully and in solidarity with others, and that they need to consider the repercussions of their actions, that they need to consult (and pay) people to get advice, that they need to solicit experienced second readers and editors. I feel that writing outside your experience can enrich your understanding of human experiences, when done right.

I don’t think, for example, that all trans people need to be written by trans people, but I do think that cis people writing trans characters need to think good and hard about why they’re writing a trans character, how that transness serves the plot, how the plot interacts with negative stereotypes (please, no more tragic trans stories). And they need to dial up a real live trans person to have a chat about the depiction and ask for a second read — and not just any trans person. If you’re writing about a trans woman, I’m not your genderqueer. If you’re writing about a trans man, I’m not your genderqueer either. If you’re writing about a hijra or muxhe, I’m not your genderqueer. If you’re writing about an intersex person, I’m not your genderqueer. Find people who share the experiences you are writing about, and be prepared for the fact that what they have to say might not make you very happy, but that’s exactly why you need to hear it.

Image: Woman Waits for Food Supplies, United Nations Photo, Flickr