Thursday, January 23, 2014

Representation And Why It Matters

Imagine Africa. What are you thinking of?

Now you've probably never been there (and if you have you're excluded from this exercise. Shush) and you're probably thinking of the following things: starving children (probably orphans due to parents dying from AIDS) and civil wars. That, or giraffes and zebras... but ooh no they're being poached. And jungles with malaria in them! Don't forget the malaria. Ahhhh isn't everything in Africa terrible?

Well for starters: where in Africa are we even talking about here? Africa is pretty huge with over 50 countries in it and takes up over 20% of the Earth's landmass. I've found that discussions of "Africa" have this very generalised idea of the area as this one big mixing pot of poverty and war which does exist, but it's a very limited picture of the second biggest continent in the world. The problem here is that we have a continent with more countries than there are states in the USA and our ideas are based off selective media images. We've all seen the ads asking us to fund a child for $2 so they can get clean water and clothes that don't look like post-apocalyptic remnants picked off the ground and then there was that whole Kony debacle (a lengthy discussion of which we should all take elsewhere) so that's the image we get of "Africa." Of course not all of the continent is like that but there's nothing interesting to the media to show you a more complicated image of Africa because all the interesting parts involve conflict and despair. At what point does a movie go "hey, let's just show this teenager on his smart phone doing something fun with his school friends and not at all being a child soldier"? That's boring. That's too normal. Africa becomes interesting in its "otherness". It's shocking to see such extreme poverty and it's different thus it fuels news and movies set there.

So we get unfortunate things where people talk about Africa is a singular thing (I personally am actually referring to the continent as a whole not applying a single image to the continent), or people go to visit the non-war torn areas and go "wow! Wi-fi in Africa?" There are tons of videos out there of Western people encountering people in Africa and remarking at how little difference there is. They're just like us only with a different language and hotter weather (though even both of those can be completely wrong).
Oh look a map of places where English is an official language that just screwed over what I just said. See, aren't assumptions silly?

Westerners then go back feeling good that they got to learn a thing or two about a different culture that they otherwise wouldn't have known. They've had a really good learning experience.

The media is a window into the experiences we cannot have ourselves. When people don't go to Africa (somewhere in there...) they have to rely solely on these media images of "Africa" to form their opinions and ideas of it. Representation matters because without it we can fall prey to stereotypes and partially informed or incomplete opinions.

Now imagine a gay man. Are you thinking of those singlets to show off their carefully toned torso that extends to soft feminine hands with finely done nails? Short shorts and a girlish laugh? The word "fabulous" thrown around a lot? Maybe they're sassy? Now a lesbian: undercut haircut and men's plaid shirts? Gruff and aggressive towards men? These people exist and there's no issue with them existing but the problem arises when people cannot imagine the label of "gay" or "lesbian" applying to anyone outside of these images. These images become stereotypes. What if a girl wants to wear a man's shirt but she's straight? Well damn she's screwed finding a guy then because now she's the Media Image of a lesbian and then the gay guy who has no fashion sense is accused of being "a bad homosexual". Gosh, don't you know how to be gay?

See straight people (or white people) are represented so often in so many different ways that no one looks at you and goes "oh, you're straight? You must like X" because we don't get limited ideas about who they should be. Well, OK then we have gender stereotypes too but that also causes issues with queer representation because the assumption is you must exhibit gender traits of the opposite gender to what you're attracted to (hence lesbians must be butch and gay men must be feminine). When we have 2D representations of minorities people cannot easily shake prejudices towards those groups because they cannot understand them as fully functional and real people without actually meeting one. Not everyone is going to be graced with the presence of numerous multi-faceted queer people of all different kinds in their lives and so must rely solely on media representations to form opinions. They don't get the chance to meet a queer person and go "wow, you're nothing like I expected from TV! You're actually a person. I see now why there's no real justification to my prejudices and I was needlessly mean before!" (People talk like that right?) When all they ever see is gay people being the butt of some terrible joke then they don't think of them as much more than entertainment. Queer people in the media frequently aren't important, they aren't interesting, they're all the same, and there's no backlash for making fun of them because it's a socially acceptable thing to do. Without any voices or media input to challenge that it leaks out into society's behaviour, then society makes more negative representations and then the cycle of discrimination continues.

Now imagine you are queer (there's a lot of assumptions in these exercises like that you're not a queer person who likes to travel but shhh) and you're watching TV. Perhaps the ever popular Big Bang Theory and you think "oh boy a show about nerds, a stereotypically socially ostricised group, maybe they'll be nice! Finally they get stood up for instead of stood on!" and you find that not only is "hahaha nerds are losers" the joke of the show but two of these "losers" (Raj and Wolowitz) have a running joke that they're gay and they must constantly defend themselves. Gosh, isn't it funny that they're secretly gay? What about some kind of positive representation of yourself in the media? (they exist, but are few) What if you don't fit into those aforementioned media images of queer people? You have a problem. People don't respect you and it's painfully obvious that you don't fit in. It sucks when there's no role model you can look up to, there's no solace in the media you consume, and maybe you should just stay closeted because there's nothing that helps the people around you understand you or the pain of growing up queer.

Think it doesn't matter? What pain am I talking about? Well here's a message from a reader of Young Avengers (a comic with gay characters) that was published in issue #7 that can demonstrates better than I ever could why we need positive queer representations in the media:

Representation matters. There's a whole section of the population not properly being represented in the media and that should change... oh, and don't say "Africa" as a singular entity unless you mean the content.

1 comment:

HelenHardesty said...

A very interesting article on South African representations of LGBT people, especially people of color, is here, "Blacks Look Back":