The debate about representation is not an easy one to tackle, because the stance of everyone usually depends on their personal experience and it is harder to converge to a common point of view.
For me, it presents another layer of difficulty because my point of view about it changed over time.
I began to realize I was a lesbian quite early in my life, in a moment when I knew almost nobody like me and the only “example” of lesbians in the mainstream culture was the T.a.T.u. (European teenagers in the early 2000’s, I know you can relate). Still, I’ve always thought I didn’t handle it too badly because I never got into real trouble and I’ve lived a pretty good life, so much that a few years later, when all the debate about representation arrived in Europe too, I wasn’t really sure about what to think about it.
“Yes, it’s nice,” I thought, “But maybe not so necessary. I grew up fairly well even without it, after all.”
I understood the point of view of those who enjoyed a story with a diverse protagonist, but since I thought I did well without it, everyone could. Then, last year, I came across a book that shook the ground beneath my feet and radically changed my point of view.
The book I’m talking about is from an Italian writer and unfortunately, as far as I know, it doesn’t have an English version. It’s the story about a teenager from my hometown who is in the process of coming to terms with her own sexuality while her parents don’t understand her and her schoolmates bully her. I know it might sound like a cliché, but as I read the book, it felt like traveling fifteen years back in time.
That way of feeling different in an age where people are desperately trying to fit in, the struggle with people telling you that it can’t be, that you’re just confused, because “how can you know if you’ve never been with a boy?”, your parents thinking you’re doing it just to stand out*. The self-doubt all these words trigger in you because as much as you can hide it, deep down inside you’re just an insecure teenager and words hurt you like anyone else.
The protagonist of the book is described in a respectful and realistic way, so much that I was surprised to know that the writer is a guy in his forties whose day job is being a cop. And the book itself is much more than that because there was a storyline in there that in some way gripped my heart even more than the protagonist’s one. But the point here is representation, and so I’ll focus on that for the remainder of the post. Just know that if you happen to speak Italian and you want to read the book (you definitely should), it’s “Colpo Su Colpo” by Riccardo Gazzaniga.
As I read the book, I realized that good representation is not just a “nice to have”, but it’s something I had been missing without even knowing it back when I was a teenager. Somehow, stupid as it might seem, it is important to see people like us as protagonists in movies, books, games, etc. First of all, it’s a kind of validation, as if it told us “You see, people like you exist. And matter.”
Sometimes, unfortunately, stories feature a diverse cast only as token characters or, much worse than that, as stereotypes. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been for a gay boy my age to live in an environment where you see people like you on tv and in some movie, but they use their visibility to reinforce stereotypes and push forward an idea that sees you as “less than normal”. As a freak show. Lesbians, at least, didn’t exist in mainstream culture, and they were only referred to as a few confused/ugly women who hadn’t found the right man yet, not as caricatures of themselves.
It all made things worse because in a certain sense allowed people to think “Well, there are so many gay people on tv, why are you asking for more?” The point wasn’t asking for more, it was asking for something better. And it finally seems we’re moving in the right direction, with many media trying to picture diverse characters in the correct and respectful way. Still, the road ahead is long and bumpy: as the variety of characters increase, there are (too) many people complaining about it. “Why push this agenda forward?” They ask. They even got to the point of review bombing with 0/10 a game just released when they found out the main character was a female and a lesbian.
The outrage at tv shows, movies, books, games with diverse protagonists, to me, reveals two things. First, they’re proving the point they’re trying so hard to deny: people saying that representation doesn’t matter and then being upset when not all the stories feature a protagonist like them means that representation indeed matters. Second, much worse, it feels like they liked how it was before, with some categories of people marginalized and targeted because they don’t fit in (those are the same people that will tell you “You can’t make a joke about anything nowadays” if you see what I mean).
Diverse protagonists help to push through the idea that there is nobody inherently better than someone else because of the color of their skin, abilities, their sexuality, and gender identity. And it is so frustrating when people don’t understand this and see the introduction of diverse casts as unnecessary or as the twisted scheme of some political agenda. The only scheme here is to have people come to terms with who they are.
* To be fair to them, they’re fine about it now and love my current girlfriend. I told you, everything turned out fine.
Another side note: I have been talking mostly about sexual orientation here, but only because it’s the kind of discrimination I know best. I know very well that there are many other ways to judge people: skin color, gender identity, body weight, being disabled…Those are all things I never experienced and I thought that it was more respectful to mention them without trying to put myself in the shoes of someone I don’t know very much. If you experienced anything like that and want to share your experience, don’t be afraid of commenting below.