Ages ago, when I was at uni, I wrote a blog post about disabilities in the media, or, to put it more concisely, representation. I was thinking largely about autism, as I often do on my blog, and disabilities in general, but actually, this is an issue for people in any minority category. Plus women (more on that here). And since uni, I have come to realise the extent of the impact that representation – or lack of it – can have on one’s identity.
Representation in the media is easy to take for granted. We see it in the storybooks and TV we grow up with. We grow attached to the characters in them because they are supposed to represent real people, no matter what species they are, or what sort of world they live in. The more characters – and real life role models – we can relate to, the more we establish a sense of belonging in the world.
The double edged sword here is this. Fiction portrays the way the creator thinks the world should be, and no-one’s perception of the world is flawless or completely accurate. So the majority of it errs towards representing just that – the majority. And the more a real-life person fits the ideals of the majority, the more likely they are to be successful in the media.
I understand why some people are more represented than others. In the UK, most people are both white and British. Most people are neurotypical and able bodied. Most people are heterosexual and cisgender. So I can see why many fictional characters and role models in the media fit those categories.
But what about those of us who don’t?
When we develop an idea of what is the norm that doesn’t match the way we are, it emphasises that feeling of being the “other”. When we see characters that do represent us in some way, it both influences, and tells us, how people see us. If they are relatable and well rounded, that feels like a pretty big deal. If they are nothing more than a stereotype, then we have to deal with the frustration of other people expecting nothing more of us.
For me, what bothers me the most is when people roll their eyes at real and fictional people in minority categories getting the spotlight in the media, and when they supposedly don’t mind people like that as long as they’re not shoving their differences in everyone’s faces. It’s that attitude of taking for granted how represented you are, and not being able to deal with the “other” getting so much as a taste of it.
To which I say: everyone deserves to feel represented, no matter how “niche” their life experiences are. It not only educates the world, but also reduces the sense of shame that comes with being seen as different. Because people who are different – in their body, brain, race, gender, sexuality – are real. And real people from all walks of life deserve to feel heard.