Representation: Why Does It Matter and What Are Its Limits?

Years ago I wrote about representation in media. I think I made some good points, but I also feel like it was a bit vapid. My thoughts on the subject weren’t much deeper than “representation is good, and there should be more of it”. Yes, that’s absolutely true. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve reflected more often on what it actually means. I’d like to talk about the value of representation here, as well as its limits. I want to emphasise what it means to see yourself in media, but also what it means to boil systemic issues down to this purely cultural conflict. Basically, representation is complicated.

To start with, I should probably mention some things about myself. I’m nonbinary, and I’ve been out with it to some extent for at least four years. I’m also white, skinny and conventionally attractive. I had a financially secure upper middle class childhood, but like many young people I’m closer to the poverty line than I’d like to be. I usually avoid talking about my background, but I feel it’s necessary here. My thoughts about representation are inevitably tied to who I am and what I’ve been through.

Let’s state the obvious once more: representation is good, and there should be more of it. What it means – especially at a young age – to see yourself in TV shows and films and books can’t be overstated. It can offer a profound boost to self esteem. Seeing people acknowledge that you exist, and that someone like you can be a cool interesting character to look up to. That’s awesome. It’s always gonna’ be an uphill battle, but I feel like the past several years have seen some pretty significant gains. More and more, characters from all sorts of backgrounds are allowed to just EXIST. Not as a joke, not as a tragic victim, just as a person. 

Of course, they are limited representations. Not just in number, but in diversity. For every marginalised group, you could probably find at least one crucial issue with how they’re depicted. In the end, you tend to get a limited scope. That often means conventionally attractive characters, smoothed out to be as appealing to a hypothetical white cis straight person as possible. If you don’t look a certain way, you may not actually get to see yourself in these representations.

These choices are informed by profit motives. Brands see big money in appealing to a wide range of demographics. But at the same time they want to appease what they see as ‘the average person’. To that hypothetical ‘average person’ (and often to them personally), representation is a quirky novelty. Something that’s fun and exotic, and only exists long enough to make them feel good about how open-minded they are.

To be honest, I don’t care as much about representation as I once did. Maybe other nonbinary people feel differently, and that’s fine! But it’s not a crucial factor to me. In the middle of writing this, Hasbro announced that they were going to put gender neutral branding on their ‘Potato Head’ toys. When I think about this, and when I think about stuff like Call of Duty having a nonbinary option, I don’t feel anything. It’s cool that my existence is acknowledged, but… what does that actually do for me? Why should the approval of brands matter to me?

If Coca-Cola has some twenty-something intern tweet “trans rights” from their brand account, it doesn’t undo them funding Colombian death squads. When it comes to any brand worth millions or billions, there’s always an element of shady bullshit and exploitation. It’s difficult NOT to consume products owned by massive brands these days, but less difficult to recognise that they don’t actually care about you. Woke branding is an easy way to generate profits. That’s all there is to it. 

There’s also the dangers of bad representation. The Oscars have a long standing love affair with middlebrow racial commentary. 1989 saw Driving Miss Daisy win an Oscar over Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. It’s not surprising that a historical drama with a white protagonist who’s One Of The Good Ones won out over a film that confronted racism as an actual contemporary issue. 

When I say there’s a danger, I’m talking about a couple things. Media like Driving Miss Daisy lets people believe that prejudice is a historical issue we’ve grown past. It prompts the viewer to pat themselves on the back for knowing better than the most cartoonish and antiquated forms of prejudice. 

At the same time, there’s a danger that people on the left will assume that cultural issues don’t need consideration. I do think it’s worth making fun of woke imperialism. When a blockbuster built on representation like Black Panther includes a CIA agent as a good guy, it deserves to be criticised and mocked. But some people talk about it as if capitalism has assimilated these issues. As I said earlier, representation can be purely symbolic. The cultural discrimination remains, and has real life consequences when it comes to accessing healthcare, education and housing. Marginalised groups don’t get to be equal participants in capitalism.

Of course, equal participation in capitalism is a crappy goal. It often seems like the goal of representation, and one of its most serious flaws. Even in its most pure and earnest form, divorced from billion dollar brands, representation can’t do much to make our lives better. It definitely helps to have more diverse groups participate in the media industries. But ultimately, capitalism creates the structures that cause these disadvantages. The social caste system remains, and inequality will be there as long as the structures stay the same. If we want things to be better, we need to look much further than what our TV shows and films look like. 

I think representation is good. I think seeing people’s struggles in fiction – or even just their existence – is valuable. It can provide self esteem, understanding and better opportunities in the media industries. But fiction can only do so much for reality. In the end, real world problems need to be dealt with in the real world.

Did you like this? Do you wanna’ see me write about something of your choosing? You can find me on Twitter @BristleBris. TV shows, films, anime, western cartoons, whatever you want (within reason)! Prices start at $3 per 100 words. You can find more details here

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