liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (mini-me)
[personal profile] liv
So it's fairly topical in social justice circles that media representation of "non-default" people is important. I absolutely agree that it's important and I am totally on the side of the people who want more and better representation, and have no truck with the curmudgeons who think that political correctness is ruining good stories. The thing is, though, that what the SJ blogosphere says about representation doesn't really match with my personal experience. This might be because I'm weird, because I'm not American, because my identity isn't just one thing? It might also be because the clamour for more representation is focusing on one aspect of the issue and not on the aspect that's important to me.

This came out of some conversation I was having with [personal profile] kaberett a while back, and I've kept returning to it mentally so I think it needs to be a top-level blog post. Actually I think it's probably two posts, one about being represented in stories a Jewish person, including responding to [personal profile] rachelmanija's exploration of (the lack of) Jews in fantasy lit. This is the other post :-) Though I'm sure that being Jewish colours my impressions here.

So, on one level, ok, I'm white and able-bodied and physically fairly normative in appearance. So I have lots and lots of media representation of people "like me", and perhaps that's why I don't fully understand where some of the under-represented groups are coming from. But one thing I keep coming back to is that, particularly in visual representations (more than in the text of novels specifically), the people I'm supposed to see as reflecting my reality are not very much like me at all. Like, even characters where it's a plot point that they are fat and ugly are nearly always thinner and prettier than me. Even real people, as opposed to fictional characters, on TV or in magazines and so on, are nearly always much more conventionally attractive than I am; the ones who aren't are seriously exceptional people like Angela Merkel.

It's a common item in privilege checklists that you regularly see people who look like you in the media. But I feel like I don't really have that "privilege", because I don't think of myself as looking like a typically photogenic white woman. Maybe this is partly due to the fact I don't identify very strongly with my female gender? I certainly don't want to claim that I suffer from a lack of representation in any way comparable to, say, trans* people, people with visible disabilities and people whose skin colour and features make them much more visibly racialized than me. Still, it rings false to me when people tell me that as a white and normatively bodied person I see like people like me everywhere in newspapers and on TV and in stock images and in fiction that has a visual element (which includes books too because you never see people "like me" on the cover image of novels). Even in text, there aren't a lot of people like me unless I assume that all white able-bodied women are basically interchangeable; not many scientists, not many bisexuals, not many people who approach the world the ways I do.

At the same time, I'm not actually convinced this is a bad thing. If you take white women who are also exceptionally thin, exceptionally good-looking, dressed and coiffed and groomed and made-up to a standard I could never even come close to, then ok, yes, you see lots of them in the media. Lots of real people doing publicly visible jobs such as TV presenters, lots of fictional characters who are if not the protagonist then very often the most important secondary character. Sure, women are still under-represented compared to the fact that we make up half the population of the world, as pointed out very memorably in the Bechdel test, but there's certainly plenty of images of exceptionally attractive women out there. The thing is, though, it feels to me like most of this representation is awful. Maybe awful representation is better than no representation, and many people have argued that exact case with great emotional force. For me, though, I would in many ways rather not be represented as an object for the presumed-male viewer to lust over.

The very fact that I don't relate much to Hollywood-attractive types seems like primarily an advantage to me. I don't want to think of myself as the person in the shots and costumes carefully constructed to give as good view of my breasts as possible. I most certainly don't want to think of myself as the person subjected to violent attacks constantly presented in a sexy or titillating way. Or indeed as the trophy who confers reward and status on the hero, or the person who does all the thankless emotional work to help the hero grow as a person. I am far more comfortable relating to the hero or the side-kick or any number of people who actually have an agenda of their own, and the fact that they have different genitalia and a different skeletal structure and a different endocrine makeup from me is from my perspective a minor detail. (Yes, there are some men who have genitalia, skeletons and hormones like mine, but they have essentially no media representation at all, so they're not the people I'm talking about.) I don't find it particularly harder to relate to characters with dark skin than characters with pale skin, though I appreciate this is not at all the same thing as people from ethnic minority backgrounds being forced to relate to characters with my skin tone because they have few or no other options.

I most certainly think that greater diversity of representation is highly, highly desirable. I suppose I just want more diverse stories, not just a greater range of minority identities? I suppose they go together in some way, because if you're only ever represented on the rare occasion when someone wants to tick the minority representation ticky-box, you're a lot more likely to appear in cliched and annoying storylines that are all about stereotypes of your identity. Whereas if stories were more like reality, people with various sorts of identities would have a much better choice of non-awful role models.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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