What progressives get wrong about good representation

Progressives have a lot to say about what good representation in media is. Sadly, most progressives are completely wrong. Here's why:

What progressives get wrong about good representation

As a queer person, libertarian-socialist, feminist, and writer whose work is invested in tackling the politics of power, I have many things to say about representation. However, many of my opinions seem to directly contradict popular progressive rhetorics. To make it simple, it's about being forced into boxes again.

In order to address this, I'll affix to one of my lanes, provide general definitions, snag a rubric, pull it apart, and explain my position. Please note that I am aware what I'm citing is a concept that helps cishet neolibs improve queer narrative prowess. My main point is that it's a bad concept and the cishets should leave gay stories up to the gay experts.

Anyways, let's begin.

The generalized definitions:

Representation in Media:

Representation is how media texts deal with and present gender, age, ethnicity, national and regional identity, social issues and events to an audience. Media texts have the power to shape an audience's knowledge and understanding about these important topics.

Source: https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2020-03-18-the-four-pillars-of-good-representation


Socially conscious individuals with left leaning and humanist tendencies in various vectors of society, politics, and more.

Good Representation:

Hard to fully define, but let's use this basic rubric that I will pick apart for this article: Realistic, Considerate, Explicit, Respectful.

Bad Representation:

Stereotypical, Inconsiderate, Veiled, Disrespectful.

Now that we have some definitions to work with, let's get started.

First, let's analyze "Realistic" and what that means in a progressive rubric:

"[Make sure] it's a portrayal that avoids stereotypes and makes sure that the character isn't defined by their sexuality or gender."

We can ask a very simple question here: what is a stereotype?

Stereotype: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.

As I'm bisexual, let's me provide some popular bisexual stereotypes in media:

Bisexual people are cheaters
Bisexual women who center men in relationships engage in compulsory heterosexuality, and this is bad
Bisexual people are promiscuous

Via Realistic, the rubric cited suggests a bisexual character could not cheat, could not settle down with an opposite-sex partner, and could not be promiscuous. That would be "bad" representation. It would be stereotypical.

The problem here is that to request a character avoid very normal facets of Being A Person to dodge the problematic cishet media lens reaffixes the stereotype's meaning to the signifier of bisexuality.

Furthermore, this point also highlights not making queerness the center of a character's personality. It suggests a bisexual character couldn't be incredibly loud, proud, unabashedly queer—and dare I say—political. Even though for some real queer people? This is who they really are.

As the hegemonic default messaging "owns" these bisexual stereotypes—and we do not wish to carry water for bigotry—we've instead forced bisexual characters to live up to more rigorous, more inflexible standards than any heterosexual character ever created.

By drawing a box around what certain characters can and cannot do, we send an entirely different message. With media like this, we tell a bisexual person living in the world that they are defined forever by a biphobic stereotype fixed to their sexuality, when heterosexuals can do anything and it's never a native feature. This has real consequences.

You might find all this quite hyperbolic, but I assure you, this is the messaging sent when we draw binary boxes around historically excluded characters using hegemony's blueprint.

Let's move on to Considerate:

"Is the narrative considerate of past and current LGBT+ issues? Make sure characters aren't inherently bad because of their sexuality or gender. The narrative shouldn't punish a character because of their identity, even if the society that character is a part of does... How is the narrative treating this character? What is the message the narrative is giving to the player about this character and their identity?"

Yes, a bisexual narrative should be considerate, well-researched, and make good faith efforts. The narrative should be historically and culturally informed, be aware of what stereotypes exist, be cognizant of tropes, and be sensitive about real lived experiences. For an easy example of where Considerate works, a narrative should never posit bisexuals as villains simply for existing.

However, we get into a catch-22 pretty easily with this point. If the society of a story would treat a queer character unfairly (say its set in a specific place in real-time) this could contradict the Good framing.

As bisexual erasure is real and bisexual characters are erased and retconned, even discussing these facts within media could eat this rubric point by merit of being so Considerate it prevents referencing Reality.

Speaking of reality, let's raise another point: The sad truth is that intercommunal biphobia (as with every single other vector) is rampant in queer spaces, all over. If a narrative were to reference this, that could then be seen as problematic against the rest of the LGBT+ community. See how this works?

Are you starting to grasp the multi-headed hydra of Good, Bad, Comfy, Cozy Hegemony? Because it's not all so cut and dry when you really sit down and examine the goalposts.

Let's look at Explicit:

"Are characters explicitly stated to be LGBT+? Do they openly say their identity, or openly talk about their identity's experiences?
"But you have to be mindful of doing this without the character's consent -- having other characters reveal a character's identity is something you want to avoid both in games and in real life, making sure that you have the consent of that individual, that their identity can be talked about or shown. The best way to do that is to make sure the character is the one telling the player who they are and what their identity is."

This rubric asks LGBT+ characters be explicit, but what does explicit mean? Should a bisexual character sit in the front of the camera and say "I'm bisexual"? What if the story shows said character having relationships with people of multiple genders, be they good or bad? Why isn't that enough?

Because we doubt our audience's intelligence, apparently.

Not only that, but if you've been around the block a few times, you'd know that any written queer relationship these days becomes a statement about real queer relationships themselves. Yet again, all hands point to hegemonic stereotypes we have absolutely no hope of escaping. When in reality, relationship imperfections have nothing to do with sexual orientation, gender identity or otherwise.

Furthermore, the point above suggests that outing without a character's consent is off the table, when this is a Realistic thing that happens to LGBT+ people. To suggest it can't exist in a story is to be Inconsiderate of real lived experiences.

It doesn't seem like drawing lines around storytelling from the inside of hegemony's barfbag is a very good idea, does it?

Let's go to the next point; Respect

"Is the character's identity respected by the narrative? Make sure that the character's identity is never the butt of a joke. You can have these characters be funny. You can have these characters make jokes. But not in a stereotypical, harmful way. You have to be respectful of the LGBT+ community and their experiences and make sure you're not relying on those harmful things.

I hate to break it to this neolib "How Not To Make The Gays Mad" playbook, but Queer people joke about themselves often in stereotypical, harmful ways quite literally all the time. The difference here is they're queer, and so they're allowed to do this.

If the rubric says queer characters can't joke about themselves in their own language because it's problematic, this effectively deletes a lived queer experience by making hyper-precious that which a fuckton of queer people do. Daily!

Diverse characters should be able to make themselves the butt of their own jokes. Realistically, the narrative may even do that, and the smart play here is giving the characters the agency to say: this is my joke, my assumption, my stereotype and I can use it, but you can't.

That is a far braver beat to employ than pretending queer people don't use humor to reframe themselves or tweak language to cope with life under cisheterosexism. It's also far more accurate.

If it's not obvious by now, binary frameworks make it impossible to create open, self-aware, diverse narratives and characters that ask integral questions of the audience and the world, at large.

These integral questions don't exist when you prevent them from being asked.

"Good Representation" is hardly that

It assumes—inaccurately—that viewers are brain-dead passive content consumers and that all human signifiers are not only eternally-there, but eternally owned.

To quote Stuart Hall, revolutionary neo-marxist cultural theorist:

“Power and ideology attempts to fix the meaning of images and language, but the meaning is always going to be subverted. Because the fixing of meaning cannot be guaranteed, it can be unfixed. It can loosen and fray. The relative openness of meaning makes change possible. Makes language possible.”

Personally? I believe that "good representation" serves a master it desperately wants to believe it doesn't. Hegemony.

Don't misunderstand me. I don't want people to just start writing bad stereotypes outside of their lanes, nor do I want them to pat themselves on the back for being oh-so-very subversive. That is not my intention.

What I want people to do is challenge the fixing of stereotypes themselves, which requires challenging what "good representation" even means to begin with. Who defines that? And if not us, then what good is it?

What do I think truly good representation is?

It's everything

When any character can be and do anything—and this is not instantly attached to their gender identity, sexuality, race, or otherwise—then we will be at "actual good representation" which is known as "open representation." And we have a helluva lot of work to do to get there, let me just say.

Getting to "open representation" requires humanity to finally understand that Bad Trait isn't endemically attached to Signifier. This also means people must be media literate enough to realize just how irrational and hurtful that idea is.

However, this does not mean forgetting what bigoted media does and has done, what historically has occurred to the historically excluded, how stereotypes shape outlooks, and what stereotypes are. It simply means taking back power.

It means making the viewer an active meaning-maker, holding them accountable for their biases, and not letting them be a passive content consumption vessel.

It means creating the Unavoidable And Loud, not only just The Good And Safe, and it means saying the Unavoidable And Loud Is Valid & Good, Actually.

So, where are we now?

We're the same place we were nearly a decade ago. Well-meaning progressives and thin-skinned media-illiterate bigots fight wars of culture and none of us win. For the goal is not to actually give meaningful media space to complex lived experiences. The goal is to be Good, which is not enough.

We are so far from discussing the ghost of hegemony in media that it's laughable. And open representation? Not in my lifetime, not unless we can center radical OwnVoices stories that are earnest, complex and uncomfortable.

When we can do that. When we can uplift work like that. When that type of work is the norm. Then I will know we've evolved not only as creatives and fans of media, but as humans. I hope we can get there. Don't you?

K. Leigh is an ex-freelancer, full-time author, and weirdo artist. Read their lgbt+ sci-fi books, connect on Twitter, visit their site, or send them an email if you’d like to work together. 🌈 🏳️‍⚧️

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