R is for Representation

Liz Duck-Chong

Originally published March 3, 2016 on F Is For Feminism


I want you to think back to the first time you saw someone just like you on screen. If you’re anything like me, you can pinpoint these moments throughout your life. I remember the first woman I saw who wasn’t a sexual object, the first onscreen lesbian, the first trans character who wasn’t played for laughs. They ring true as important moments in my self­realisation, in self­discovery. In many cases, it’s as simple as seeing someone of your gender, your shape, your skin colour, or your sexuality existing in film, as fleshed out as any generic white male protagonist.

When Star Wars Episode VII came out, claims of ‘pandering’ (ie. having a diverse cast) were thrown in all directions. A surprising aspect of this was male commentators saying the protagonist Rey, a character with no known parents from a desert planet who knows how to fly and repair spacecraft, manipulate the force, and use a lightsaber to fight sith, was highly unrealistic (this is also the exact story of Luke Skywalker, but this point evaded them). White, cisgender, heterosexual men are used to seeing themselves (or idealised versions of themselves) on screen, and to see an idealised female hero was so unusual they cried absurdity. For many young women, however, we cried with recognition.

Representation (as it relates to feminism) is the ability to see people like you portrayed in a positive, affirming light. This includes but is not limited to seeing your gender, your race, your disability, your mental illness, your body weight, or your sexuality on screen, in print or in the public eye. Representation is seeing a plethora of people like you, it isn’t tokenism or a filling of quotas, it’s a diverse depiction of how varied people truly are. And if Hollywood is anything to go by it’s quite difficult.

From 2007 to 2012 only 30.5% of speaking characters in films were women and roughly a third of those were shown in sexually revealing attire or partially naked. In 2014 there were no queer characters in over 80% of studio­released films, incidentally many of which were films that used anti­gay slurs as moments of humour, and I’m far from the first person to point out that the Oscars are so white. In the (mostly white) studio world, there’s one woman to every five men working behind the scenes, and as you work your way up through power structures, it gets increasingly white and male.

Even in the world of television, where both networks and streaming show a beautifully emerging diverseness of stories and characters, behind the scenes diversity is lacking. In many cases streaming media, which is well ahead of the curve of onscreen representation of people of colour and queer folk, lags behind studios and cable for behind the camera diversity. The authors of a report released in early 2016 on gender and race representation in Hollywood wrote “The film industry still functions as a straight, white, boy’s club”, and when you see the majority of what is being created, it’s not hard to see proof of that.

The 2015 film ‘Stonewall’ is the epitome of this mindset, taking an actual historical event involving mostly queer people of colour and rewriting it into the story of the white, cis gay hero and his fight to win Stonewall through the long­lost art of anti­gravity cage fighting (or something, the plot sits so far from historical accuracy that my invented synopsis is potentially closer to the truth)! This film, like so many others that engage in cis­washing, white­washing and other negligent practises which actively harm the minorities they claim to portray. Through efforts of those brushed aside minorities the film went on to great commercial losses.

Another area Hollywood so often fails is in the portrayal and casting of transgender characters. Until recently the overwhelming majority of trans characters that appeared on screen were the butt of transphobic humour, a quick gag you could throw to for an automatic laugh, and while in some ways the trend toward depiction of trans stories is a positive move away from those portrayals, there is still a great deal of harm being done via the casting of cisgender men to play, well, women*! In a society that predominantly sees trans people as their coercively assigned sex, or who put stock in the false notion of ‘biological sex’, these portrayals give substance to damaging myths and perpetuate a self­fulfilling cycle – they can’t cast trans actors because there aren’t any famous enough, but there aren’t any famous enough because they don’t cast them!

For all the numbers in this distractingly white, cisgender, male on­screen world, representation is about far more than figures. We don’t come out of a screening of Mad Max: Fury Road, or finish a whole season of Sense8 embarrassingly fast, turn to our friends and say “that absolutely increased the percentage of overall female directors and/or leads for media released in 2015”, we totally maybe cry a little bit and say “That Was Awesome”! We see people just like us and we feel part of something bigger, more powerful. Representation gives us a vocabulary for how we’ve always felt, and tells us there are others that speak our language too.

The backlash against Rey (and Finn, and Poe, and every other character that made up the diverse new universe) in Star Wars 7 missed the wider impact of that film, what it meant for audiences old and new: a fantastical story set in a universe that so many saw themselves reflected in, a far cry from the galaxy far, far away of previous episodes. That’s really the point, isn’t it; to see and be seen. A voice that can call out and be answered. I can remember my first occasions of being represented, and my second, but I want more. We deserve more. Let’s dream of a day when we lose count of the times we see ourselves on screen.