I’m all for representation. I personally tick off many boxes in the “needs representation box” for most aspects of my life being black, Catholic, nerdy and fairly liberal in a not so liberal state. So today, we’re gonna talk about diversity, representation and the heartening, sometimes ignored, progress that has been made.
I was born in the glorious 90s. We were a paragon generation for diversity, inclusion and representation and growing up in those halcyon days of diversity, I now have a few distinct thoughts and feelings about what it means to be represented. Every action figure, poster, TV show and book included an almost comical attempt to show that EVERYONE fit into whatever particular group the plot centered on. Barbies came in every single race color available. Punky indiscriminately-aged protagonists always hung out in diverse groups residing in multi-ethnic areas. There was always a teaching moment just ahead or down the hall from a wise African-American pastor or a sweet Asian immigrant willing to tell her story of love, loss and the American dream. But because we had representation all over, I didn’t find that I longed much for characters that looked and sounded like me: most of the time they were already on the screen.
Now, it’s no small secret that despite there being plenty of characters to fit many of storylines and types: representation is still a problem. But those who claim that many series are the first and only to represent the group they are discussing are often a little misguided. Let’s take anime for example: Yuri On Ice! YoI has been praised for being one of the first depictions of many different character and personality types, different lifestyle choices and how romance looks in traditional and non-traditional ways, but history shows that many of these representations have always been made:
First depiction of a main character with anxiety? Most performance animes have at least one anxious player like K-on! or even Gravitation. First time men got engaged? Only the Ring Finger Knows was a popular yaoi centered around boys giving rings to each other. First time we saw an older male lead? Victor’s the same age as Levi Ackerman in Attack on Titan, isn’t he?
The argument that any one series is the first to do anything is often an argument coming from people who just don’t know their history, and it causes us to overlook prior advances and undercuts the overall argument. Let’s take some relatively recent happenings?
Gay characters in comics? What about Wiccan and Hulkling? They’ve been together for years in the comics and are a pretty healthy relationship.
Mental illness? Moon Knight, anyone?
An alcoholic father? Demon in a Bottle storyline with Tony Stark.
Lost a parent? Literally most comics but for the sake of argument Batman, Iron Man and the list could keep going.
Struggling with PTSD? There’s a wonderful storyline with Green Arrow and his former sidekick Arsenal about substance abuse, PTSD and how to cope.
Heroes and characters of color? Luke Cage, Icon…literally all the Milestone comic book heroes. The newest Hulk is Amadeus Cho. Our newest Ms. Marvel is an adorable Pakistani-American girl named Kamala. The seeds of change are being sown.
This does not mean that there is not still work to be done. One struggle close to my heart is the idea of narrow representation. And while as a writer, I’m empathetic to the fact that you will never be able to capture everyone’s story, as an African-American woman I struggle with finding representation in the most popular black characters of my day. I was an upper-middle class girl living in a mostly white suburb of Dallas. Most of my friends were white or Asian. We all spoke well, all came from money mostly and all were well-educated. So I didn’t exactly connect with lower-income streetwise characters like Static Shock. But he was supposed to be the character I relate to because our skin tone was the same. And that does bring up a good point, many of the Image African-American heroes are of a time not ours. Luke Cage and Icon don’t age well for many because the reflect a story of being black in a different time. Do these narratives need to be updated? Yes. Does that immediately discredit that they exist? Hell no.
It’s important to keep the conversation of representation open. The work is not done and probably never will be but to ignore the work of the past and to diminish their power because they don’t satisfy everyone is foolish. We’ve made huge strides, there’s still lots to correct, but we’ve made huge strides and we’ll make even more in the future.