What Representation Feels Like

There’s a school of thought that poo-poo’s or ridicules the use of diverse characters in entertainment. Whether it’s the gender-reversal of Ghostbusters or the attempt at increasing female and minority characters in super-hero comics and their adaptations, I hear a segment of fans dismiss it.

“I just want good stories. I don’t care if the character is black or not,” goes the veiled objection.

As if having a character that isn’t a straight, white male as the lead character automatically puts the quality of the story at risk. Besides, nobody sets out to make a bad story.

One of the aspects that make stories good to an individual is the story’s relateability. If I see myself in the story, I’m going to have greater empathy for the narrative of that story and will be more likely to like it and consider it “good”. That’s because I know my own story, and when I see someone that looks like they’ve been through the same life experiences as myself, I attach the possibility of us having both gone through those experiences to the story. That may not be entirely logical or even reasonable, but it’s human nature.

Having diverse representation is powerful because it allows audience members not accustomed to seeing themselves in entertainment instantly feel recognized, empowered, and somehow seen by the world.

It’s hard for me to exactly explain why representation is so valuable because as a straight, white male, I’ve been represented by media 99% of the time since before I was alive and will continue to be represented. I see myself pretty much where ever I go, so me seeing myself in a movie doesn’t have a huge impact on me anymore. Me seeing a skinny, dorky, straight, white guy in the lead role. That has a better chance. If I had never or rarely seen me, I would have a big reaction.

This is usually most powerfully felt by kids. It’s another reason why I have a hard time putting a lot of weight in people’s objection to representation because they’re usually adults. These stories have a crossover appeal for adults due to nostalgia or just universal fun and appeal, but they’re most magical for kids.

When you see and feel how kids respond to seeing themselves reflected back at them for the first time, it’s beauty and power are undeniable. This video illustrates it more powerful than I ever could. This little girl has a prosthetic leg and for her birthday, she got a doll with a prosthetic leg.

I can’t imagine not being moved by that. The absolutely pure evolution of her response is amazing. She goes from (a) happy she got a doll but nothing too out of the ordinary when she first things it’s yet another doll, to (b) surprised disbelief it also has a prosthetic leg, to (c) in tears at the realization that it’s “just like me”. Now imagine if that doll had its own comic book, TV show or movie.

I remember the joy I had when I saw Superman: The Movie and Ghostbusters for the first time. Straight, white men have nearly every iconic pop culture thing marketed to us. If they’re going to love it to the extent that little girl above loved that doll, I gladly want them to have their own Supergirl and Ghostbusters. I still have my memories and attachment to my version, and they get to have theirs, and everyone wins.

Kristen Wiig

Kristen Wiig is seen at the Los Angeles Premiere of Columbia Pictures’ “Ghostbusters” at TCL Chinese Theatre on Saturday, July 9, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Sony/AP Images)

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