Representation matters. We need to do it right
When was the first time you saw yourself represented in media?
I saw this question going around on Twitter, and as other people’s responses came up on my feed over the next day or so, I started thinking about my own. I had so many instances I could choose from. There was Doug Funny, the shy and quirky cartoon character who kept a journal and had a crush on a girl he couldn’t bring himself to talk to; there was Calvin from the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip, who was imaginative and precocious in precisely the same way I was as a kid; there was Raphael from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who tried to hide his weakness and insecurity beneath an angry facade. But the very first time I saw myself in media was with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman, the pillar of goodwill and optimism that I had resonated with since I was three years old.
Many of the responses I was seeing, however, were a bit different. I noticed that people who self-identified as “black” shared only images of “black” characters. People of Asian descent shared only images of characters from Asian backgrounds. People with red hair shared only images of redheads. Tall people shared only images of tall characters. Short people, short characters—and so on.
What I quickly realized was that I was engaging with the concept of representation in a fundamentally different way. None of the characters I had thought of looked anything like me. It hadn’t even occurred to me that they should. For many others, however, that seemed to be not just the primary criterion, but the only one.
And all I could think was, “How limiting.”
Representation does matter. Particularly in the U.S., where our history of bigotry and exclusion directly conflicts not only with our diversity but also our founding ideals, the concept of representation can be a loaded one. There is much to answer for regarding that history, and because art is so integral to the human experience, it’s no surprise that we often focus our energies on correcting the record through art. I am enthusiastically in favor of that project. My concern is that we undercut our own enterprise if we fail to engage “representation” with the depth and nuance that it deserves.
Imagine there’s a new Netflix series starring a male, first-generation Dominican-American who lives in New York City—demographic markers that just so happen to match my own exactly. Am I “represented” in media now? What if I watch the show and discover that this character is a total asshole? What if he enjoys completely different music than me? What if he dresses in a different style? What if he has a different family dynamic? What if every piece of who he is and who I am is a mismatch, except for those superficial details that we’ve decided are the most important? Am I still “represented”? Must I see myself in this character despite our actually being nothing alike?
When we engage representation in this way, we weaken its meaning. We make a mockery of the deep human connections that art and media allow us to cultivate—across time, culture, borders, and, yes, even the identity groups we divide ourselves into. Taking this surface-level approach to representation forces us to continue glorifying details about us that are, at best, as informative about our true selves as our high school transcripts or our seasonal allergies. At worst, it causes us to reify concepts like race that we should be working to leave behind completely.
Taking this tack also inevitably raises the question, Who gets to count as a representative, and who gets to decide? This should be impossible to answer, but our stubborn insistence on answering it anyway is where we veer into essentialism and, by extension, tokenism. It can also quickly lead to exploitation and erasure, as Bertrand Cooper beautifully outlined in his piece for Current Affairs. Consciously or not, we reject true representation entirely with many of our ham-handed attempts to foster it. We say we want representation, but what we get instead are avatars and caricatures. We behave as though all people from a particular identity group share a single experience, and that no one else can have or even understand that experience. As we try to increase diversity and representation in media, we end up flattening a wide range of humanity into a single narrative, trap ourselves in it, echo it in real life, and rage against attempts by others to complicate or deconstruct it.
This is one of the reasons why the character of Will Smith on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is considered to be “authentically black,” while Carlton Banks is seen as his shameful opposite. We hang onto this falsehood so tightly that we invent terms like “multiracial whiteness” and apply what I call the one-thought rule to anyone who doesn’t fit our preconceived notions of what members of a group should think, say, feel, or be. Rather than having art and media expand our horizons, we use it to gatekeep, essentialize, and pressure others into conformity. If the goal of representation is to correct historical wrongs, it doesn’t help us to inadvertently echo them. If our goal is to broaden the kinds of stories we get to tell and the kinds of characters we get to see on screen, on stage, and on paper, much of our current approach is like quenching our thirst with salt water.
I find that there are two correct ways to answer, When is the first time you saw yourself represented in media? If taken literally, the only reasonable response for the vast majority of us must be, “Never—and unless I become a media figure, I never will.” The only way I can ever be truly represented is if I’m the one doing the representing. Each of us is a unique combination of tastes, traits, and experiences that cannot possibly be rendered elsewhere. No matter how closely a character or politician may approximate me, they will never be me.
If you consider a wider perspective, however, the answer becomes simpler, but far more interesting: Every time I have seen, read, or heard something in art or media that I deeply identified with, I have been represented. Whenever I watch a film that makes me laugh or cry, or hear a song with lyrics I relate to, or read a book with a story and characters that move me, I am represented—because I’m a human being, and in those moments I am reflecting, reacting, and responding to the human condition. There is no greater or more powerful representation than that.
So, which is it? It’s both.
A major issue with our discourse surrounding identity is that we fail to either zoom in close enough, or zoom out far enough. We spend too much of our time in this low-resolution middle, where everything is fuzzy and out of focus, and it causes us to do and think ridiculous, divisive, and sometimes despicable things. Our goal should be to seek unity and clarity, and that can only happen when we adjust our lenses.
I have no problem with relating to characters that look like us, or who share characteristics we find important to our identities. It’s a beautiful thing that today we can see all types of people in movies and television, as characters who represent the vast spectrum of human achievements, struggles, flaws, and philosophies. It wasn’t always possible. I’m glad that’s improved, and I hope it continues. What I take issue with is the subtle but pernicious implication that the superficial things we tend to focus on—a character’s “race,” gender, or sexuality—are necessary for us to connect with those characters, and with each other. There is so much more to art, and to us. Reflection and representation aren’t the same thing, and I would argue that reflection is a narrower experience we shouldn’t dupe ourselves into preferring. Complexity abounds; we should embrace it.
I eventually tweeted my own response to the question about the first time I saw myself represented in media. Superman looks nothing like me, of course, but he is me, in heart and spirit. I’ve felt it and known it since I was three years old. I was happy to share this different perspective on the question, and I invited others to join me in doing the same. Browse through the replies yourself. Look at the myriad forms that a more profound and meaningful identification with others can take when, instead of dividing and flattening ourselves, we focus on our individuality while embracing our common humanity.
It is simultaneously true that we are each perfectly unique and that we are all fundamentally the same. While these notions may seem to conflict, they’re really in perfect harmony. Art has the power to show us that harmony, if we let it. We can use it to improve upon our history, and to weave a wider range of identities, ethnicities, cultures, and perspectives into our artistic and social tapestry—all without tokenizing ourselves or each other in the process. True diversity is a strength, and we should continue to pursue it both for its own sake and for ours. But let’s not fall for the idea that someone like me can’t identify with characters in media unless we look like them. I’ve felt seen in art my entire life because art is about humanity, and human is all I’ve ever had to be.
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And I felt represented just now when I read your piece and it resonated with me. Thank you.
Love this one. A very important essay given the way so many schools buy into the need for kids to "see themselves in" literature, history, etc. Eduardo's Superman reminds me of the fact that as a kid my favorite cartoon hero was Mighty Mouse. I think perhaps because I was the younger of two brothers and my brother often lorded it over me in various ways. Mighty Mouse's small size but invincible courage anyway made him someone for me to be represented by. As an adult now, I often think of my gritty hometown neighborhood, in Norwalk CT in the 1950s, as the very essence of who I am, along with New England-America-Polish-Russian Jewish heritage. Never have seen anyone in literature or film exactly like that, which is itself only a bare-bones outline of my "identity." Guess I will just stick with Mighty Mouse -- even if he is just a mouse.