On Representation in Pop Culture

It’s been a rough couple of weeks here in the United States. I’m scared; most people that I come into daily contact with are too. And we have every reason to be. We’re living in the backstory of a dystopian novel right now. And in these frightening times, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity and privilege and personhood. I’m lucky: I’m a white woman in a liberal city, and I come from a solid upper-middle/lower-upper-class economic background. I’ve got parents who will support me if things get rough. I’ll be okay because of who I am. I wish everyone could have that feeling.

It’s hard for me to talk about our political atmosphere without getting overwhelmed with anxiety. There are a million things wrong right now, and the sheer depth and breadth of them all is overwhelming. I’m not going to be able to break them all down and figure out how to combat all of them, but I’m going to try my best to do as much as I can. I’m going to write postcards and call my senators and do something every week that maybe helps our collective souls. One step at a time. And because dialogue is important, and one has a responsibility to use whatever size platform one possesses, I want to use this week’s post to talk about media and representation and why it matters.

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As I said, in many ways, I’m very lucky. I get to look at magazine covers and billboards and see faces like mine generally doing okay. I’m lucky enough to see people who look like me on television, in movies, described in books. These characters have jobs and families, experience love and happiness and adventures. I’m grateful for that. But not everyone is so lucky. One of the things that Zelda and I often grapple with on this blog is the feeling that our views are too insular. We’re two white girls with very similar upbringings, offering one viewpoint on the South and New York and our lives. And that’s hard for us. We want to bring in other voices, to highlight them and their stories as much as we can, and while we try, we don’t always succeed. Even looking back at our list of our favorite Southern movies from a couple weeks ago, there’s not a ton of diversity there. We know we need to do better. All media needs to do better. If we only tell a single story, how are we supposed to understand the struggles of others?

People of every walk of life deserve to see versions of themselves illuminated. It helps them accept who they are and stops the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. And on the flip side, one of the best ways to cultivate empathy is to hear human stories about people of different backgrounds or different identities from your own. It helps you to imagine others complexly, to understand the things that bring us together and celebrate the things that set us apart. And while clearly I don’t have it as tough as some people, I can speak from personal experience when I say that representation is really important. Here’s why: I am bisexual. I came out to my small group of friends a little over a year ago, and to a lot of my family…just now, in the previous sentence.

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I come from a place where being queer wasn’t maligned, but it was heavily stereotyped. Certain people “looked gay” or “acted gay.” There wasn’t such a thing as a queer spectrum; identities were either homosexual or heterosexual, and bisexuality was for girls in a “rebellious” phase or for people who just weren’t ready to be “fully” gay yet. That kind of environment is still the case for many people. And these biases  proved really hard for me to get over, especially the idea that being bi was like some sort of sexual purgatory you were in until you “picked a side.” I didn’t learn about the Kinsey scale until college, and even then I wasn’t totally comfortable with claiming my pretty central place on it. There was a lot of socialized thinking that having a “girl crush” was a totally straight thing to have — and maybe for some people it was. But not for me. Slowly, I acknowledged my identity internally near the end of college. It would take years after that before I was able to come to terms with it publicly.

I was able to come out when I did because I was in an environment that made me feel safe, surrounded a strong support system. But the journey to that point, and since then, as I became comfortable telling people and owning my identity, was also thanks in large part to positive representation — specifically two characters: Clarke Griffin of The 100 and Darryl Whitefeather of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. These two are not by any means the first bisexual characters to grace television screens — far from it — but they were the first two that I was able to really connect with. They were the first, on shows that I watched, whose bisexuality was depicted as just another facet of their personality, not the be-all-end-all of who they were. It wasn’t overly sexualized; it wasn’t portrayed as a phase. It was brought up simply for what it was: attraction to two genders. It wasn’t the one thing that defined them, but it also wasn’t insignificant. It was a part of their story the same way it was a part of mine.

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My first encounter with bisexuality in the media was not as nuanced. The O.C. brought me the character of Alex Kelly, played by Olivia Wilde, back in 2004. Alex was great because she introduced me to the fact that there was such a thing as bisexuality. But a lot of her arc, and of Wilde’s performance, was hyper-sexualized. She didn’t have much of a personality outside of being a significant other to both Seth and Marissa, and with Marissa in particular her character seemed to exist as an object for rebellion and a method for Marissa to shock her mother, rather than as a three-dimensional human being with whom Marissa shared an intimate connection.

At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I was still a long way off from exploring this aspect of myself, so I wasn’t really looking for representations of this part of me. But as I went on, I continued to encounter bi characters that were similarly oversexualized, or even more so. The media made it seem like being bisexual meant you had to have a lot of threesomes, which just isn’t true. You can be bisexual and have threesomes, just like you can be heterosexual or homosexual or queer and have threesomes. But you can also be bisexual and not have any sex. You can only date one gender and still be attracted to two. Each person’s sexuality — bi or otherwise — is as unique and diverse as people themselves. But until recently, it seemed like all the bi characters I saw on tv and in films were one-dimensional sex fiends. And that started to hurt.

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Now Clarke and Darryl are far from the only bisexual television characters nowadays (which is awesome), and they’re far from perfect. They’re both white, which is not exactly groundbreaking, and they both come from relatively privileged backgrounds. But nevertheless, they’re the ones I connected with. I identified with them because they’re rounded, interesting characters whose identity is not rooted solely in their bisexuality. Clarke’s got other things on her mind besides relationships, having to save the world multiple times and all. But sometimes she wants comfort or companionship or a little fun, and she can get it from men or women. And while there are periods  of the show where she is in an exclusive relationship with a woman, that does not invalidate her bisexuality. Then there’s Darryl, who is wonderfully unafraid to claim his newly discovered identity — sometimes in song. His sexuality-discovery arc is one of the most genuine things I’ve seen on television.

I am so grateful to live in a time where Clarke and Darryl are on TV, and network TV at that. But the world needs so much more. We need more Clarke’s and more Darryl’s. We need more Annalise Keatings, more Magnuses, more Korras and Asamis. We need more queer characters and trans characters and characters who fall all along the spectrum. And representation is not just about gender or sexuality. We need more characters of color, more Kamala Khan’s and Miles Morales’s. We need Nyota Uhura’s and Zoe Washburne’s and Toshiko Sato’s. We need Jane Villanueva’s and Jessica Huang’s. Cassian Andor’s and Bhodi Rook’s. We need more movies like Moonlight and Hidden Figures, shows like Atlanta and Master of None. We need to let actors of color play characters whose central trait isn’t their race. We need to stop white-washing Asian characters. We need John Cho as a romantic lead, as an action lead, as a period drama lead, as…you know what, you can make John Cho the lead of anything, please and thank you.

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It is 2017, and with the world more diverse than ever, we need to acknowledge that the straight, cis, white Protestant is not the default person. So in this season of resolutions, let’s all try to expand our views of others. Let’s read and watch and listen to and elevate stories that aren’t our own. Let’s strive to see people as complex beings. The more diverse our media becomes, the better we can build empathy for the people in the world who aren’t like us — whatever “us” may be — so that we may understand the struggles of others and stand next to them on the frontlines of resistance. Let us build the modern canon so that it actually looks like the world today. The best thing about world building is that your world can be free from the socio-economic-political-racial-sexual-etc. divides of reality. You can make your own rules. And what comes out can be beautiful.

Pics via: LoquaciousLiterature; Fox; The CW; Hypable

3 thoughts on “On Representation in Pop Culture

  1. When I was a kid, I always identified with the female character with dark hair (Veronica over Betty, Buttercup of the Powerpuff Girls, etc.) even though personality-wise, I identified more with the other characters. The funny thing is that those dark-haired characters were white, not Asian, but they were the closest I could get. Thank goodness for Shelby Woo and Mulan, and beyond the fictional, Michelle Kwan.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Like

  2. When I was a kid, I always identified with the female character with dark hair (Veronica over Betty, Buttercup of the Powerpuff Girls, etc.) even though personality-wise, I identified more with the other characters. The funny thing is that those dark-haired characters were white, not Asian, but they were the closest I could get. Thank goodness for Shelby Woo and Mulan, and beyond the fictional, Michelle Kwan.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Like

  3. I absolutely loved reading your blog today! I am so proud to be your Grandmother! You and others like you will make the future better for all! We need to be accepting, not rejecting our differences. I love to quote Ellen, “be kind to one another!” I love you more. Gaga

    Like

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