The Importance of Representation: Relating to Characters

Discussion in 'Discussion' started by Boy Wonder, Jul 16, 2016.

  1. Boy Wonder Dark Phoenix in Training

    Aug 31, 2008
    I've always been an advocate for diversity in media. I believe representation should be across the board and everyone needs to relate to a character every now and then, not just when it comes to cultural or sexual identity, but even experiences. Strangely enough, I've rarely ever worried about my own representation.

    I don't know why, but I assume it's because I don't really embrace any kind of identity. I am who I am and I leave it at that. I've almost never even thought about how I relate to other characters. In fact, the only time I can think of is when someone has abandonment issues with a father in media and it strikes a bit closer to home, but even that's not entirely true since I'm the one who cut ties with my father, not the other way around. When it comes to cultural identity, as a Latino, I don't really relate to Latinx characters. I've always assumed it's because of how assimilated to a non-Latinx culture I am considering I grew up in the deep South. I'm extremely detached from any Hispanic culture, my Spanish is very lacking, I've only been to my family's homeland (Dominican Republic) as an infant and don't remember it, and I definitely pass off more as White than Latino, but I don't really identify with White either.

    When it comes to experiences, many people always assume The Big Bang Theory's characters are perfect for me when...they're just not?

    Regardless, it's never really bothered me and I'm comfortable where I fit and relating to characters when I do relate to them.

    And then came this:
    Touted as Disney's first Latina Princess, Elena of Avalor will be portrayed by a Dominican-American actress. Granted, Disney has said -in relation to another character of possible Latin heritage- that their characters don't have the same heritages as we have in the real world, but are instead inspired by them. So Elena may not be exactly Latina, but her culture is inspired from actual Latinx cultures. Her actress, Aimee Carrero, is Dominican-American (like me) and was born in the exact city my family hails from (Santo Domingo). For some reason, this has given me a whole new appreciation of representation. I haven't been able to identify exactly what it is about her character that strikes me (maybe it's the fact that even though she is supposed to be the Disney equivalent of Latina, she speaks in English due to, you know, Disney) but I now see myself in a character in a way that I rarely do (even if I am a man and the character isn't).

    What do you think is the significance of representation? Have you ever had a character presumably made to represent you but you didn't relate to them? Have you ever had a character that you suddenly found yourself relating to in a way you didn't expect?
  2. Ars Nova Merry Christmas dickheads

    Nov 28, 2009
    Hell 71
    I feel where you're coming from. Technically I'm half Cuban, but you'd never know it from my face. The other half is a mash of European, of course, and I've acted like a white guy(?) all my life so it's not a stretch to call a spade a spade. But as a result I also feel like I don't... really have an identity to speak of. I have no culture, no background of note. Hell, I don't even know most of my family.

    But even from the perspective of a white man, I believe the problems with representation can be felt. It's not that I have no one to relate to. It's that I have so many characters I'm supposed to relate to, but none of them really have identities either, due to over-saturation turning them into generic cookie-cutter stereotypes of real people. It's a quantity over quality issue.

    The only times I identify with a character have nothing to do with their sex or skin color, and yet they must always, inevitably, be white men. Tony Stark's failure to reconcile with his father hit me hard. Tony Stark could've been black, and it wouldn't have changed that character arc. Even if it was a cultural thing, hearkening to the ghetto black community's issues with paternal abandonment, I could still identify with the family aspect if not the cultural one.

    People will dismiss arguments like these, on grounds that they're too "political," whatever that means. Sometimes I think that word just gets smacked on any subject folks don't wanna talk about. But I can come at this from another angle, because I'm an artist, specifically a writer, and not just a hobbyist but one who studies his craft and constantly works to refine it.

    As an artist, in any field, you want your work to reach people. Because if they can't identify, if they can't stake their claim on some small part of the work, then they won't have an emotional reaction. And by some definitions, that's all that makes art: the capacity to evoke a reaction. Representation of any form of identity—cultural, racial, sexual, what have you—is a simple, fundamental, effective method of getting the viewer emotionally invested in your work. Even the effort can garner recognition and praise, especially in today's world where the effort is so rarely put in.

    So... why not do it? Why not use this tool to the fullest? To say nothing of your worldview or your "political" stance on the issue of representation, if you know that people will respond favorably to it, that it will enrich the quality of your work, why would you not take advantage of that? Failure to do so, then, is not a sign of prejudice, nor even a statement of personal opinion, but a lack of creativity. In the best case, your work could've been so much better; in the worst, you have failed as an artist.

    There are only a few reasons I can see that people wouldn't give a care for representation. First, is that they're just not paying attention. That's unfortunate but easily solved; make them notice. Second is that they don't believe there's a problem, and well, not to be rude but if you're one of those folks then you might be in denial.

    Third is that they disagree with the premise—better representation = better-quality art—at which point their prejudice has begun to show and we can all point and laugh. Fourth is that some of their fans disagree with the premise and they fear backlash, to which I say let them lash; they would've proven impossible to please anyway, and you don't want to be remembered for staying on the bigots' good side.

    So yes, if you ask me the benefits of representation are self-evident, far-reaching, and not terribly difficult to tap into, and it takes sheer, willful ignorance or a complete disregard for other people's feelings to toss those benefits in the garbage. No one profits from a lack of equal rep, not even the people with a surplus of it, because it cheapens the traits and circumstances we're supposed to identify with. We shouldn't want that. We shouldn't fear the loss of that. Things are not O.K. as they are, so why resist change?
  3. Rhyagella Merlin's Housekeeper

    Sep 8, 2016
    A bit late to this thread but I hope that is okay?

    Anyways, to be honest, I don't really mind. If a character is relatable to me, they just are. I don't need representation of a certain gender or skin color or faith. I get it a lot from women that "as a woman I should want more women in things" and of course I do, but not like it is typically done, as I don't believe in adding something just to please the crowds or giving something to someone just because. That kind of makes me angry because I know most of them think "Oh, we have to have a woman/etc in this (instead) or we will get backlash".

    I think it is wrong to say people who disagree with the need for representation are in denial, too. It cheapens their opinion at the expense of yours*, which in the end solves nothing.

  4. Shuhbooty moon child

    Mar 12, 2007
    I do this in most media settings. Because that how I get attached, to either the book, show, movie and so forth. And here is a perfect example here. I'm 4 books away from finishing the Pretty Little liar series. And I honestly felt, at first, that I somehow related to all of the main characters. But the more I read the more I understood. I thought I was the weird goth/European fanatic Aria who likes to read, and write and knit and wants an English major. Or I thought I was more like Spencer, the honors kid that did everything under the sun to put on a college application- but also did it to impress my parents and win the race to be number one- my older sister being the other competitor. (i'm the eldest, however I feel like I have to always be number one to my other 3 siblings. and i'm not). Or maybe the almost rich jock who can only go to college with a scholarship or a paid ride vs college sports. But even though I relate well with them all.. none really represent me.

    I only relate to the small things they do, which is like. Having a friend that has more then one thing in common with. Not really someone you share 99% of, like a sibling.
  5. Day~Dream Kingdom Keeper

    Aug 29, 2007
    Exploring the cosmos
    I agree. I wouldn't want a certain character added just out of demand. I'm more about the story. If the story naturally brings a certain character that represents then I am all for it of course. If the story flows towards a certain character dying or being written off, (for whatever reason and I know this is a heated debate) as long as it moves the plot forward then I'm fine with that as well.

    Recently in Grey's Anatomy, the character I had related to the most,
    Callie Torres
    was written off (their request to take a break) and even though they're the only (that I know of) or one of the very few
    openly bisexual latina women on tv with a religious family
    like yours truly (minus the openly part) I was alright with their send off. It was sincere and stayed true to the character and has left other possibilities. Even though they're no longer on the show, I'm just happy to have seen someone like them on tv and I know it's just the beginning for that kind of representation.
  6. Krowley Super Moderator

    Jun 18, 2008
    I think it's great to have a very diverse range of characters in any segment of visual entertainment. Kids shows especially have begun to show more mature themes and openness to both sexuality, culture, and gender. Shows like adventure time and Steven universe are brought up often as being very mature because of the characters that are portrayed. They aren't perfect, they're very obviously flawed, and have distinct emotional issues that are carried over each episode. That's what I think makes good tv. Character growth and being able to fairly represent certain themes and ideas in an easy to follow manner.

    As far as culture goes, I think we've definitely come a long way since Mickey Rooney in breakfast at tiffany's. Yeah Hollywood is still pretty white washed, but tv and theatre is still getting a lot better at showing characters as Non-Caucasian while not subjigating them to a funny accent. Aziz Ansari in "master of none" was perfectly relatable because it showed the struggle of ethnic actors trying to find work, but also the difference in culture between generations of parents and children. That being said, I wouldn't want a character added just for the sake of pandering the masses and ensuring their 80% white cast has a few non-white characters. I'm Latino as well, but still want to see characters not for the colour of their skin, but their ability to accurately portray a character.

    With gender, I feel Hollywood still has a hard time giving women a fair time. Not in pay, but with roles given as well. I'm in film school currently and have studied a lot about the industry as well as the actors who looks for jobs. Woman are still used as romantic interests, and other female fill in roles. And even when portraying the main strong powerful, independent, character, they are given such little flaw that they may actually seem... Lacklustre in a way. Again, this is why I think I appreciate animation sometimes over live action. Take Katara from avatar. (Also an amazingly cultured series) still a motherly character, but motivated, complex, and adaptable.

    I guess with all that being said, all I know is that it's gotten better over time. Media still caters to the masses, but the shows and films who aren't afraid to go past what the general audience wants, are often the ones that stand out more. And sometimes just a general openness to things can sometimes benefit in the long run. (I'm really looking forward to disney's moana) "Hey what if we made the male protagonists friend a girl who he has a perfectly plutonic relationship with. Or maybe a character doesn't have to be white. What if we just decide to set in Canada?"

    I personally like variety and try to look for it as much as I can.
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2016