What is it like to be represented in film, television, and books?
By Derek Newman-Stille
When I see myself in a character, when I encounter a character who is like me – queer or disabled (or maybe even both like I am?)… but written in a way that represents those identities, not filled with tropes meant to reduce us to symbols… I feel a sense of ecstasy. My heart starts to race. I start to connect with the character, start to feel their passions.
And I think to myself – is this what it is like for straight, able-bodied, cis, white people to read?
I imagine what it would be like to live in a world where one is saturated with representations of oneself…. where every magazine, every book, every film, every television show is like a mirror.
This is what we under-represented people feel when we encounter representation of ourselves, when we finally see something in our media that could be made to reflect (even slightly) ourselves. Suddenly our world is opened up to potentials. When I see people like me represented, I finally feel a sense of belonging, a sense of really being part of the world and not it’s dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about. I feel a sense of community, a welcome, an invitation to participate, to be part of the world.
I feel like I can exist.
I wonder if this is something that other under-represented people feel when they see themselves reflected. Do they also feel like a world of possibilities has opened up? Do they get the same heart-racing, open-eyed, pausing breath sense of excitement and wonder? Do they feel that weird, uncanny, tingling magic through their bodies at the moment that they see the potential for representation, the possibility, the cusp of belonging? Do they feel the clouds of isolation break? Do they feel the sense of excitement that for once our stories are THERE are HERE… that our stories are shaping something, carving out a space for us, a tiny cave in a wall of ignorance and oppression?
Do others sigh with relief that the character that we are told is like us doesn’t end up being a shallow reflection of society’s bigotry? Do they bite their nails as they see the words “And he/she was Queer/Disabled/Trans/Indigenous/Black/Of Colour/An Immigrant/Fat” and wonder if this is going to the the time that someone sees deeper than the portrait society paints of us and see that we are standing right behind that portrait, trying to push it aside so we can EXIST?
I crave representation. I crave good representation. I crave deeper thought about what people like us are like. I crave creators like us creating characters like us. I want… I need to feel like our marginalized stories are out there.
And I know what happens whenever I say I want marginalized voices represented. I know I will hear from people some suggestions of “have you seen this one show that was on for half a season that had a character who was Queer?” and “before the author kills off this character in this book, you should see how much like you they are” and “there are so many marginalized people represented out there that it is really the straight, white, able-bodied, cis man who is underrepresented”. I know I will hear them because it happens every time. I know I will hear them because people in positions of privilege always want to believe that token representations are enough. They want to believe that if they just show us ONE image, we will go back to complacency… that we won’t still crave MORE. They want to share that one representation of us because they enjoyed it. Because it was new, innovative, different. But if so many people like our representation, like our stories, why aren’t we given much of a platform? Why aren’t there more representations of us?
It feels like we are always being told “isn’t that enough?” Well, no, it’s not enough. We still feel that sense of isolation when we are surrounded by an ocean of representations of the straight, white, able-bodied, cis man even when we can see that one speck of a life raft of representation out on that ocean. That one, precarious, uncertain, singular representation isn’t enough to hold onto in a world where we are drowning in representations of people in power, people who make decisions about our lives.
We crave representation because we not only WANT it…. we NEED it. Because it is rare, because it is precarious, but mostly because it makes us feel a sense of possibility and wonder, a sense of belonging.