During February LGBT History Month is recognised in the UK, and in the US Black History Month is recognised. There are also several other awareness days throughout the month. With this in mind, I felt that this was the right time to approach the topic of representation in pop culture.
I thought long and hard about including this topic, so please know that these questions have been designed with the utmost respect by someone who understands the need for a respectful approach. As a bisexual disabled woman representation isn’t just important to me personally, it’s something I recognise as being important to other members of the disabled and LGBTQ+ communities, as well as other communities. It’s a topic that I firmly believe needs to be openly discussed not avoided.
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My answers for week #45
Let’s start with a broad question; what do you consider representation in pop culture to mean?
To me representation means everyone being able to see themselves portrayed accurately in the characters and communities in pop culture. The important word there is accurate; it’s one thing to have a disabled character in a TV show, for example, but if that character doesn’t accurately represent the real disabled community it does more harm than good.
What representation existed in fandoms when you were young?
I grew up in the 90s and representation was very hit and miss. Looking back at it now I recognise that there were attempts to add some diversity into pop culture, and perhaps there were even some good intentions. However, this was the period when tropes such as ‘the token black friend‘ and ‘black dude dies first‘ were particularly noticeable. There wasn’t really any representation for the disability community or LGBTQ+ community. The later appeared in the late 90s in shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but prior to that, there was no representation of the LGBTQ+ community.
Do you feel that representation has improved since then?
Yes and no. There is certainly more representation, although whether those representations are accurate is often highly debatable. Representation is also not a one and done deal where including diversity in fandoms is just checking a box. Worldwide there are thousands of people who identify as different races, cultures, disabilities, religions, sexualities gender identities, and more – and many, such as myself, have several that overlap. There’s no one size fits all, no template that can be reused for diverse characters because as the name suggestions, they are diverse.
The best example I can give is one that is personal to me; disabled characters. I’ve yet to come across a disabled character that isn’t in a wheelchair or using walking aids of some description. That’s the template, the stereotypical disabled person who is unable to walk unaided. The problem is that not all disabilities affect a person’s abilities to walk, nor do they require walking aids. Unless you’re watching a medical drama (and even then they seem to get stuck on certain conditions – anyone else recall House MD‘s obsession with Lupus?) chronic health conditions don’t get any representation. Terminal conditions do because they make for such great drama.
The lack of representation of chronic illnesses, also known as invisible illnesses or non-visible disabilities, has a snowball effect. It means that there is a lack of awareness of such conditions leading to people being accused of not being disabled enough to use disabled facilities or blue badges for parking spaces.
So while it’s great to actually see/read about disabled characters and other diverse characters, I personally feel that we’re only just beginning to touch upon representing everyone in fandoms. There’s also the connected issue of whether these characters should be played by the people they are representing. That’s a topic that we as a society are only just beginning to discuss.
Tell us about some of your favourite diverse characters.
Here are some of my favourite diverse characters:
- Shadowhunter Chronicles – Magnus Bane: As an immortal warlock Magnus was born centuries before his partner, Alec, and through the various Shadowhunter Chronicle books we learn what he has suffered as a warlock and a gay Asian man since birth. It is a long tale which as you would expect Magnus is not inclined to share with Alec at first, and part of the beauty of Cassandra Clare’s writing is how she relay’s the depth of his pain.
- Supergirl – Nia Nal: I actually didn’t realise until writing this entry that the actor playing Nia is transgender and has been a transgender rights activist since her teens. The show has done a fantastic job with this character and transgender storylines. It’s the difference between the input of someone who has been there and lived it, and someone who is just playing a part.
- Private Eyes – Jules Shade: The visually impaired daughter of one of the main characters, Jules starts the show as a sassy 14-year-old growing up fast. Although she’s portrayed by a fully sighted actress, the show has done well in their portrayal of a young woman with a visual impairment. Jules is as independent as any teenager and while her father is overprotective it’s not due to her sight, it’s just normal parental worries. She’s constantly shown to be navigating her way around anything and everything with her cane as a visually impaired person would, and she even goes off on an exchange trip to Italy – something that many shows would believe impossible for a character like her!
- Black Lightning – Anissa Pierce: As the first black lesbian Super-hero Anissa was heralded for making history. She makes this list because she is an incredible character, a spirited woman who fights for what she believes in. If you’ve not watched Black Lightning I really do recommend it.
- Arrowverse – John Constantine & Sara Lance: I’ve listed these two characters together because bisexual representation is often not shown so accurately. Both John and Sara are seen taking lovers of both sexes indiscriminately, including each other at one point, whereas in pretty much every other instance I’ve seen in pop culture it’s always implied that there is a preference.
- DC Comics – Barbara Gordon: When Barbara Gordon lost the use of her legs she was unable to return to the streets to fight as Batgirl, instead she adapted and became Oracle. As Oracle, she helped fight crime as a member of the Birds of Prey and kicked ass from behind a computer screen. Naturally, the writers had to find a way to bring Batgirl back because well, a disabled character just doesn’t compare to an able-bodied one, right? In all fairness, in a world of superpowers, magic and alien technology from a logical point of view a superpowered chip that reverses paralysis would exist. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck from a representation point of view.
- Doctor Who – Ryan Sinclair: Ryan has dyspraxia and while I don’t have dyspraxia, I do have conditions with similar symptoms. Dyspraxia has been referred to as the “clumsy child syndrome” and one of my conditions makes me really clumsy. Just like Ryan, I can’t ride a bike. As a child, I tried so hard to do learn and couldn’t. I later learned that it’s because I have problems with balance, but when we first met Ryan and watched him struggle to try to ride his bike I felt a massive wave of recognition and camaraderie with him. It was great to see something like that represented on screen.
What fandoms do you recommend for diversity?
Rick Riordan, best known for the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, has a fabulous range of diverse characters. Riordan used to be a teacher and he created his characters with the children he met in mind. The result is a wonderfully vibrant selection of diverse characters that feel real and genuine. He wanted to create characters that children felt represented themselves so in terms of diversity, it’s a great place to start.
When did you first feel represented in a character?
When I was about 10 or 11 my nan got a new set of porcelain dolls for her collection. These ones were inspired by the characters from Little Women and my nan suggested I should read it. I can’t remember if she bought it for me or if I picked it up myself, either way, I ended up with the whole series (there are four books). I was a bit of a tomboy as a kid and struggled against my mum who loved having a little girl to dress up in dresses. I think my nan knew I’d fall in love with Jo when she recommended it.
It wasn’t just Jo’s tomboy nature that caught my attention. Here was a girl, then later a woman who wanted to learn everything. To read, to know stories, to find out how things worked. She was intelligent and there was a whole world out there to explore. It was the first time I felt like someone actually understood me; Jo was me.
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Over To You
Thanks for reading today’s Seriously Geeky Sundays post and I hope you enjoyed reading my answers for week #45 Representation 🙂 Next week we’re heading to Asia for another week of Around the World in 8 Sundays. Hope to see you there!
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Image Credits: Disease photo is from Pexels, LGBTQ+ flags photo is from Unsplash, House screencap is from the House Wiki, Nia Nal screencap is from Arrowverse wiki, Samirah al-Abbas image is from the Rick Riordan wiki.