Mirror, Mirror: Representation In Media

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You guys said that instead of Flash Friday, you wanted to see an essay on something near and dear to my heart. So here ya go, loves. Let me know what you want to see in 2 weeks: flash or an essay?? Think about the last thing you watched on television. Was it a football game? A sitcom? News? Maybe you don't take commercial tv, but prefer Netflix or a similar streaming service. Did you check out the new hotness? Or catch up on an old favorite? Are you thinking about it? That last thing you watched? Now, I have another question for you: did you see yourself there? Were you represented in the show? How about the commercials? Were you there?

Unless you're a cisgendered (your biological sex and your gender match) white hetero able-bodied human with a very specific BMI and body shape, probably not.

Now, there's a very public discussion at the moment about racial diversity in film, what with the Academy Awards nominations coming out with nary a minority to be found. We've talked for years about ethnic roles in adaptations being given to white people, or transgender characters being played by cis (typically white) males. Even in female-centric films, men still have more speaking time.

There's more to diversity than race and gender, to be sure, but right now these are the issues at the fore of the societal conversation. Media--books, television, films, advertisements, toys--all have a problem. The majority of these things do not represent most people.

"Why is it important?" I hear you asking.

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Media is a mirror. It reflects our society's values, tells us what is "good", what is "bad". Media influences our thinking from what brand of cereal to buy this week at the story, to which political candidate we should vote for. Media tells us what is "normal", and what we should be in order to be a working cog in the societal machine.

When you don't see yourself reflected in that mirror, it can be damaging as fuck to a psyche. It makes you question your identity, can leave you feeling adrift and alone with no guidepost or role model. It can make you feel LESS THAN.

It's important to see a black super hero like Falcon, or a Muslim heroine like Kamala Khan, a wheel-chair bound Batgirl like Oracle, or a black Disney princess like Tiana. You want children to believe they can be more, be anything? They need to see that represented in print, on screen and in the toy aisle. They need to see themselves in positive places of power, roles with agency and control. You want a black woman to excel and become president? Show her that she can. You want oppressed people to rise up? Show them it's possible. Hell, Sesame Street understood that in the late '60s and still does!

I was excited as hell after watching one episode of Jessica Jones. Look, I'm 5'11'' and weigh over 250 pounds (thanks PCOS!). I watch an Avengers flick and I don't see myself there. I will never be the agile femme fatale like Black Widow. I'm not a soldier like Maria Hill. Though I adore her, I am too bohemian and coarse to be Peggy Carter. I have no interest in being a power CEO like Pepper Potts, nor can I personally identify with Scarlet Witch.

But Jessica Jones? While she is portrayed as skinnier and way more alcoholic than me, I see myself here. I see myself in her snark, her profanity, her "I don't give a shit if I wear the same pants for a week" mentality. I see myself in her struggle to survive the psychological abuse of Killgrave, her very real PTSD. I watch Jessica Jones and think for a moment, "yeah, I can be that heroine."

I cried when I saw The Force Awakens last month. My daughter and I were sitting beside one another while a woman took up a lightsaber in a franchise that is (historically) terrible for women. My daughter and I were there in that character. Finally. We could be Jedi. (Just for one day.)

Encouraging Stereotypes

Black roles are generally given to sidekicks. Largely they are a token role that could be played by someone white, as their race has little influence on their character. The exception being something that chooses a stereotypical portrayal of a black person, or a historical film that discusses slaves or Moors.

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Asian characters are typically martial arts gurus, fetishized, or both. If neither of the above, you're a computer expert or really good at math.

Indian? Smart character. Socially awkward. Butt of jokes. Or you work in a 7-11. If you're female, you're "exotic".

Latino/Latina? We will not differentiate between Columbian vs Honduran vs Mexican vs Puerto Rican etc and so forth, because that would mean we'd have to learn something. You're the silly friend, the drug lord or John Leguizamo who is both.

Native/Indigenous people? If we mention your race at all (without mistaking you as Latino/Latina), you're sagelike and wise. Or drunk. Or in a historical film and will likely die of cholera, small pox, or an arrow wound.

Fat? You're the plucky, funny best friend with a heart of gold. You are probably Amy Schumer or Melissa McCarthy since Janeane Garafalo go out of the game. But, on the plus side, Mattel has released a series of new Barbies with different body types. Only took 57 years.

In a wheelchair, or otherwise disabled? Yeah, the movie isn't going to be about you, but instead about how brave you are to overcome all obstacles. You can't just be a person, we have to fetishize your disability. LEGO has decided to release mini-figs with wheelchairs, though. 

Gay? You get characters now, but you're going to either share exposure with an ensemble cast, or be a supporting character. We won't focus on you, and if we do we will make it all about your gayness rather than your humanity. You will always be the snarky friend in a rom-com. Sorry.

Then there's erasure to deal with. So many parts of real people are swept under the rug or dismissed, assuming they make it on the screen or page at all.

Bisexuals? Sorry! We're either portrayed as capricious children who can't make up our minds, confused kids jumping on a bandwagon, greedy, or liars. And we'll never be the lead in a rom-com unless the plot is about how we are "forced to choose". We will only ever be object lessons.

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Transgender? You're probably going to be a male-to-female character (because we can understand a woman wanting to become a man, but can't fathom a dude turning in his privilege of his own accord to be female). You may be degenerate, a villain or a laughable parody. Or you're a blatant Oscar grab for a cis male who will be seen as "so brave" for taking such a role.

Non-binary? Good luck. If you exist at all outside of niche media, you will only be background, or you'll be in an indie film starring Tilda Swinton (the goddess of androgyny) and featuring an all Bowie soundtrack.

Mental illness? No, we just need to pop a pill or try harder. Society doesn't talk about mental illness. (I was happy about Silver Linings Playbook being a bit new on this front, but we can do better.) The mentally ill characters in media are deviants, villains or object lessons.

Similarly, the Autistic Spectrum doesn't get much love. You're likely to find someone like Benedict Cumberbatch playing it off ambiguously as part of the ridiculously smart character. However, there is a character on the popular tween cartoon Monster High. Ghoulia Yelps is a "zombie", but she is a positive depiction of a girl on the Spectrum who is still valued by her friends and treated no differently than others.

Polyamory? HA! No. We get "Sister Wives" and "Big Love" bullshit on TLC that is all but mocking plural relationships. Or articles with pictures of people holding hands behind someone else's back, implying that polyamory is adultery by any other name.

I hate this picture. Never use it again, media. Ever.

I hate this picture. Never use it again, media. Ever.

Not only is the representation in film/books flawed, it also doesn't give an accurate depiction of the world. There are more minorities than the typical blockbuster would have you believe. The reality posited by even television and print media is flawed. Your common news anchors are less racially diverse than the communities they cover. That magazine was photoshopped and otherwise manipulated to the point that we aren't seeing any truth. Reality television isn't. Print ads are distorted.

Make It Your Own.

I know I've got it easier than some by sheer dint of being white and cisgendered. There are certainly more of us in the media than, say, a trans dude, or a black non-binary amputee. But frankly, I've come to a point in my life where I'm fucking exhausted by media telling me I'm not good enough. I'm not the "right" body type. I don't have the "right" kind of job. I'm the "wrong" sexuality. My gender is "less than". I'm tired of trying to find myself in a media that refuses to acknowledge my existence.

Me. Right now. No filters, make-up. No distortion.

Me. Right now. No filters, make-up. No distortion.

I'm a curvy, bisexual, polyamorous artist who  uses the word "fuck" like it's punctuation. I'm not between sizes or trying to lose weight. I'm not lazy, nor am I unaware of my size and the potential repercussions on my health. (I have a disorder that causes problems with my reproductive and metabolic systems among other things.) I'm "fat", and that doesn't make me less beautiful.

I have one child and lack the desire (and now the ability) to have more. And I'm okay with this. That doesn't make me less of a woman.

I am bisexual and polyamorous. I am attracted to people. I am not capriciously sexual. I find a good, deep conversation more orgasmic than sex. I am not a liar, adulteress or in any way less than ethical.

I am an artist. I don't have a traditional day job. That doesn't mean I can't contribute to society, my family or the world. My joy in being an artist does not make me less worthy.

I'm tired of trying to find myself in the mirror of the media. So I've done a few things about this.

For starters, I write the media I want to see. I write diverse characters who are more than just a race or label. I write them with those things in mind, but the character is more than skin tone or sexual orientation.

Another part of that is being more authentic. Since I stared posting blogs in 2000, I made it a point to be myself. What you see is what you get. While things in my life have changed and I do keep many aspects of my life private, I prefer to be open about who I am. We need authenticity in the world. People need to see reflections of themselves, and know that there are places where their freak flags already fly. I want to be a safe place. I want to be an ally. I want to be real. To that end, I post things like this where you see me. (I mean seriously, how could I post an article about representation in media and not represent myself honestly in my own public space?)

And recently, I've started actively seeking me-friendly media. I know it's out there. I've found poly-friendly webcomics like Kimchi Cuddles, and Twitter accounts that promote bisexual inclusion. I've started collecting images on my Pinterest boards (non-binary thinking/bisexuality/polyamory here, and plus-size here - WARNING, both boards may be NSFW) that represent me, so that on days when I need a mirror, I can find one. On days when I feel "less than" I can remember that I am enough.

You are enough, too.

When popular media includes things like Donald Trump spewing rhetoric against Muslims, Mexicans, blacks, women and more; when echo chambers turn into houses of mirrors that stretch and twist reality, we need diverse media. We need representation. We all need to know that we are enough.

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