Why representation in media matters and why marginal voices have to be loud

Representation in media matters. It matters a hell of a lot. Here’s a recent New York Times article on the extreme lack of diversity in children’s literature.

Perhaps this exclusivity, in which children of color are at best background characters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imaginative aspect of these books. But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost. They are threatened by difference, and desperately try to wish the world into some more familiar form. As for children of color, they recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves inside the lines.

Personal anecdote: I was really into Godzilla movies when I was a kid, not just for the campy fantasy, but the fact that for once on TV, during my childhood, there were people who looked somewhat like me having adventures with the occasional white extras or sidekicks (I’m ignoring the weird cut with Raymond Burr in the original ‘Godzilla’). In retrospect, this was hugely important to my development that, other than the overwhelming number of martial arts movies where the heroism always had to do with violence, I was getting a glimpse of journalists and scientists out to save the day. Sure, I’m actually of Korean descent, the films were usually badly dubbed, and even as a kid I could tell Tokyo was a giant model train set, but I loved every second.

Fast forward, and it’s amazing how much HASN’T changed since then, and when things have changed, the backlash is stunningly depressing.  Recently there’s been much made about two potential film properties: The Fantastic Four and Peter Pan. In the first place, we have some uproar about Johnny Storm aka ‘The Human Torch’ being played by a black actor, Michael B. Jordan. In Peter Pan, we have (an already problematic character in the J.M. Barrie book) we have a Native American character, Tiger Lilly, being potentially played by Rooney Mara, a white woman. There are a couple of arguments here, and I think they’re pretty ably broken down by actress Felicia Day, as she approaches it from both the need for roles for working actors of color, and for representation in general.

To compare Tiger Lily being cast as a white women to Human Torch or Heimdall being cast as an African-American is not equivalent, because I don’t think this issue is about violating or adhereing to “lore,” I think it’s about providing more representation. And that’s why I think that the Human Torch being cast as African-American is an awesome thing, because that move evolves Hollywood and storytelling and the Marvel universe.

While this conversation is very much current, a lot of people have talked about these issues for quite some time. Take for instance, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, 2012, Jeff Ma (who becomes ‘Ben Campbell) in 21, 2008, Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind, 2001, going back to even when actors like Marlon Brando and Katherine Hepburn would portray people of color. This problem isn’t new, and it hasn’t changed much. So why isn’t this changing? What’s the reticence?

Well, in children’s books, the author Christopher Myers refers to this stone wall as “The Market”.

I think is what they all point to because The Market is so comfortably intangible that no one is worried I will go knocking down any doors. The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way, and so the representative from (insert major bookselling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.

I’ve also heard the ‘institutionalized’ excuse, wherein moving parts in a medium such as, say, film, are so complicated that it’s better off not pointing out the baked-in racial, gendered privilege throughout. Or let’s take a look at the paucity of women protagonists in video games, as per the Guardian:

Late last year, EEDAR, a video game sales-forecasting and research firm, revealed findings that showed that out of 669 current titles that had protagonists of a specific gender, only 24 of these were exclusively fronted by women. And these games didn’t sell as well as their brethren. “If you look at the first three months with the smaller quantity of female-led games, they did not sell as well,” explained Geoffrey Zatkin of EEDAR. “The ones that were male-only sold better.”

Seems like a “just so” argument, which, upon closer inspection, doesn’t seem to hold up.

But what’s this? “Games with a female-only protagonist … [received] only 40% of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually.” Less marketing spend means fewer sales which, it seems, means less marketing spend in the future. Who fancies a quick game of vicious circle?

Even Jared Leto’s coach for playing a trans woman bought into tired old tropes about being blind to representation.

Last week, Calpernia Addams wrote an op-ed for this publication regarding Jared Leto’s portrayal of transgender woman Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Addams, a trans woman who coached Leto on his portrayal in the Oscar-winning film, suggested that cisgender (nontrans) actors should be able to play trans roles, so long as they’re the most qualified person for the job.

In doing this, Addams, like so many others, understates the frustration many trans people have with Leto’s portrayal; It’s not simply that he was a cis actor playing a trans role — but that he was a cis actor playing the same trans role the world has seen a hundred times before.

Keep in mind, I haven’t Dallas Buyer’s Club myself, but I’m just going on what the basic concept of the portrayal as well as what other trans activists have expressed about this issue. Again, there are numerous apologists who would state that there are financial considerations (bigger name actor), faux-egalitarian principles, etc. etc.

I reject the attitude of this is just how the world works. It’s a plainly bad argument and frankly insulting. The thing is, whatever existing structures one uses to excuse this lack of representation, it’s clearly NOT right. Arguments like “the best actor for the role” tend to break down when I asked which white actor one would like to see as an alternative lead in 12 Years a Slave. It’s a dodge, not egalitarianism, in order to avoid having to think about a longstanding problem. And since I know that few people change of their own accord, those of us who do care, HAVE to complain. Otherwise, the terrible representations of blackface, brownface, yellowface characters of the past, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or just about every “Bond girl” would have remained unchallenged. The squeaky wheel has to keep squeaking to get the attention of these less-than-attentive producers of content. Sorry if that bothers you, content producers and their legions of apologists, but we’ll keep bringing it up if you keep ignoring or erasing us.

Otherwise, as the U.S. continues its shift away from a monochromatic cis-male majority to an even more pluralistic society, children of color, young girls, kids growing up with differing gender identities, they will continue to have to model themselves against a norm that doesn’t look like them, or share their experiences. And what kind of ill-conceived map is that to draw for the diverse next generation to follow?

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