Representation and diversity in all kinds of media is a topic that has gained a lot of momentum in the past few years. While there has been some improvement, there’s obviously still a big issue with certain groups (such as people of color and members of the LGBTQIA community) being under-represented. Even when they are represented, the characters are often underdeveloped or based on overdone stereotypes. When people complain about this fact, others often try to dismiss their complaints and silence them by saying things like “you shouldn’t be complaining – be happy you’re being represented at all.”
The issue is, of course, that we don’t need to be happy with representation just because it’s representation. If we see bad representation, we should feel free to call it out because inaccurate representation can be just as harmful as no representation.
It’s important that representation is accurate. For some people, the portrayal of marginalized groups in media may be their main source of exposure to these groups. While it’s unlikely they don’t encounter people who identify as LGBTQIA in real life, they may live in an area where these people are highly stigmatized and so may not know that they’re interacting with someone who identifies as such since the person may not feel comfortable being open about their identity. Seeing characters who openly identify this way in media can help them see that they are real people and not something to be feared or hated or judged. These characters and their stories can be a learning opportunity for many people, so it’s important that we get it right.
The problem comes in when these characters are not well-developed or are based on stereotypes. If the only representation of LGBTQIA people is in white gay cis male characters who are really flamboyant and talk in a high-pitched voice and love to go shopping, then people may get the idea that that’s how all gay men are. While there are of course people who do fit that description in real life, not every cis gay male is like that. When the only representation of LGBTQIA people is in gay cis males, the entire rest of the community is left out and people may continue to hold stigmatized views of them.
These stereotypes can also perpetuate the idea that a certain narrative is the only narrative when that obviously is not the case. By relying on the same stereotypical characters or the same storylines, we erase the incredible diversity that exists within these groups. For example, a lot of LGBTQIA characters and their stories have tragic endings. You may remember a few months ago when Lexa, a woman on The 100 who had been romantically involved with Clarke (I don’t remember if she was ever explicitly called a lesbian or if she was bisexual or something else so I’m not going to give a specific label), was killed off. She was a tough character and a fan favorite, but was accidentally shot and killed by another character. This got a lot of people mad and rightfully so. A large portion of LGBTQIA characters face similar fates. While it may not seem like a big deal, especially on a show like The 100 where characters die all the time, it perpetuates this idea that LGBTQIA people can not have a happy ending. It leaves people constantly seeing the characters that are like them dying over and over again and can make them feel as though there is no hope for them – everyone who is like them is dying some tragic death, so are they doomed to suffer the same fate?
While I’m white and not really in a position to comment on the quality of representation of POC in the media, I’ve seen quite a few people voice similar feelings regarding the representation of POC. For example, Latinx characters in books are often only presented as characters who live in the inner city and struggle with drugs and violence in their neighborhoods. Of course these issues are real issues faced by many people, including Latinx, but by only including Latinx characters in these narratives, it again perpetuates the idea that all people who are Latinx struggle with violence and crime and that’s simply untrue. Believe it or not, they have other concerns too!
When people rely on the media to learn more about people they don’t know a lot about – whether it be a group that I’ve mentioned here or not – and the media representation is the same, they won’t learn any really useful information. They’re going to have it in their minds that anyone who is a gay male is really flamboyant, that members of the LGBTQIA community are doomed and can’t have a happy ending, that the Latinx community’s only problems are drugs and gang violence, etc. They’re not going to see all the incredible diversity that exists within these communities. And even people within these communities can be negatively affected. Like I mentioned previously, if all the characters that remind people of themselves end up being killed, what hope does that give them for their future? And when they don’t see any characters at all that look like themselves, that can be devastating too as it may make them feel as though they’re alone or as if they’re “freaks.” Representation can help them feel more secure in their own identities if the representation is there and reflects their situation. So many people, especially people who identify as LGBTQIA, find comfort in seeing characters that resemble them and use these characters to feel more confident in their identity.
So while getting representation in the first place is clearly very important, it is just as important that the representation shows how different people in these groups can be and is accurate. You can’t label one narrative as “the gay” narrative or “the Latinx” narrative. Those don’t exist. One person who identifies as gay is bound to be incredibly different from another who identifies the same way and it’s time that our media – all forms of it – reflect that.