Why Representation Matters

Image credit: Kirsten Vangsness as Penelope Garcia,  taken by Paget Brewster

Image credit: Kirsten Vangsness as Penelope Garcia, taken by Paget Brewster

Image credit: Misha Collins as Castiel, taken by Misha Collins

Image credit: Misha Collins as Castiel, taken by Misha Collins

Why was it such a huge deal when Ellen DeGeneres came out? It impacted my generation and all of those that came before us. It was heralded as "brave." It was the moment when there was someone a vast minority community could point to and say, “Yes, I can see . . . me?”

We watch movies with characters we identify with, or ones we wish we could identify with. We read books with characters who share parts of our stories, or whose stories we desperately want to be a part of. We feel represented in the movies we like. Not just our character or personality traits, but also in what we aspire to be and what we value. Our passions are represented; our interests, fantasies, and fears. What we are is a collaboration of hundreds or thousands (or millions) of other people’s stories.

I have two fictional characters tattooed on my right forearm. Belle on one side and Alice on the other. Not just any Alice, but American McGee’s Alice. These are two fictional characters with whom I identify with deeply. People who coped with their own madness, or boredom, by escaping into fictional worlds. Some of my favorite television characters are the likes of Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds and Castiel from Supernatural. Both of those characters are frivolous with emotions, loyal to a devastating fault, and unabashedly genuine. I see myself in those characters. I enjoy those stories because I am represented in them.

It doesn’t stop with our entertainment. We even tend to connect to people who we have things in common with, or who are living lives we admire and strive towards. These outward sources help us to identify with ourselves, because we see ourselves in them in a way that is not supported by shame and fear.

When we have entire industries that are dominated by one group of people, we lose representation and identity for those who may benefit that industry. It doesn’t matter if it is a queer kid knowing they’ll make it (because Ellen DeGeneres did), or a black kid believing they could be president (because Barack Obama did). Someone has to pave the way so those who come after know that the way is possible. The world changes when we can inspire change through love and acceptance—and representation plays an enormous role in that.

It is becoming increasingly more acceptable to be openly ‘out.’ Tolerance is happening because of representation. Proud feet, beaten and often defeated, marched for our representation. They continue to march. Strong voices are yelling out, “That is my story. Why is someone who isn’t like me telling my story?” They continue to demand representation in their histories, in their current circumstances, and in their futures. The world is changing, and it is beautiful when you take the time to see how.

Lilith GearhartComment