Representation matters, so it has to be handled well.
Any proper geek will tell you that right now, popular and indie media have just started to enter some kind of age of enlightenment when it comes to representation. It’s been a real struggle from the beginning to see comics, movies, television and video games show an accurate, diverse number of represented characters. And it looks like the reign of the Straight White Male Protagonist finally seems to be threatened.
There are some genuine advancements happening across the media world right now: action movies featuring female characters, RPGs highlighting queer romances, top-selling comic titles about Muslim, Hispanic, and Black superheroes. The list goes on.
But leave it to a jaded, skeptical regular consumer to look too deeply into a good thing to notice just how disingenuous forcing representation can be. I’m not talking about real representation. I’m talking about pandering — shallow, uninteresting, stereotyped characters that explore none of what they are representing and are kind of just a feeble attempt at diversity. Representation shouldn’t be trendy. It shouldn’t be pandering. It should be genuine.
Pandering, for those who might’ve missed the buzzword on the internet during the election, basically means to fake involvement in something to get a desired superficial result. In the case of representation in geek media, pandering would be forced representation. That is catering to a specific audience group for the sake of taking their money, while not genuinely representing the group the media is claiming to represent.
Representation isn’t just about sticking a POC, disabled or queer character into something. It’s about properly conveying the realities, struggles and cultures that a represented group faces.
Examples of forced representation are placing characters of color into secondary, unimportant roles or reducing queer characters to an easily milked punch line.
But for the sake of focusing this think piece, we’ll discuss a particularly harmful manner of forced representation. It’s making a character represent something they never have before and probably never will again.
For example, Wonder Woman has been clarified recently in the comics as queer. Greg Rucka, a new lead writer for the comic series, recently clarified that she has always been queer — that is for the last 75 years of publishing.
I’m well aware that my calling this out as disingenuous is not a popular opinion. For the queer community to now be represented by the literal figurehead of women in comics is a huge step. But what makes me so bothered about this is that we’re only taking Mr. Rucka’s word for Wonder Woman’s queerness. We’re not seeing it, and we never have seen it for 75 years of the character in publishing.
A side note: she was announced as a vague definition of ‘queer,’ without a specification of any kind of sexuality and instead with a safe blanket term that requests little elaboration.
Again, I believe the point of representation is to actually represent all parts of a group. I think there is no representation to really be had in the producers of a comic suddenly claiming representation in their work without showing it, detailing it and reveling in it. It feels like an extremely disingenuous afterthought to try and fly a flag that hasn’t even been unfolded yet.
I’d like to pen this phenomenon as “Dumbledore syndrome.” Of course I’m referring to the now ancient announcement that J.K. Rowling made in 2007, after her top-selling Harry Potter series was well finished, that the great wizard Dumbledore was gay and had been the whole time. Without skepticism, most of the LGBT+ community was happy to have the representation, but if one looked at the announcement beyond the surface, they would see a great example of forced representation. The series featured no actually gay characters, and to claim that there was one the whole time (but they were just hiding) feels like some grade-A pandering.
The Dumbledore revelation was praised for being a risky move to provide representation in a world that was lacking, but to a skeptical eye it was playing representation all too safely. He was gay, but it wasn’t at any point shown, heard of or described as an aspect of the character. Of course being queer can’t be the fixture point of the character, but it’s an important enough part to at least be touched on in the media itself.
What I mean to point out with all of this is that there is no representation after the fact without being forced representation.
Queer audiences are now hoping to actually see Dumbledore explore that aspect of his character — if it really is one — in the new films. But with no confirmation or even anyone linked to the films addressing the issue, it doesn’t look like producers are going to play it any less safe than Rowling did herself.
What I mean to point out with all of this is that there is no representation after the fact without being forced representation. In the case of Dumbledore, and in the case of Wonder Woman, queerness is not a costume to just put on to attract a new kind of audience. It’s not something for creators to state as an afterthought to make a viral interview. It’s a real part of many people’s lives and deserves to be shown and not just told after the fact.
Wonder Woman’s foray into being potentially not straight is, I believe, a disingenuous grab for attention from queer readers, by taking a very popular title character and hoping to make it more popular and more representative. It’s finding safety in a well-selling title that audiences will recognize. But she is a character who’s never represented queer people before, and that in itself is dubious.
True representation is easier found in new characters who start out representing a group, made by new producers who understand what they’re representing.
It’s been a trend in comics lately.
Ms. Marvel is now a Muslim girl named Kamala Khan.
Spider-Man is now a Latino/Black American named Miles Morales.
But these are cases of entirely new characters donning the old mantles of selling superheroes: safe with title familiarity but still bringing genuine representation to the table. This is the true balance of profit and real representation, of playing it safe with familiar titles but making something new and genuine.
If you haven’t read pieces of genuine beautiful representation, do it right now. You won’t be disappointed. Perhaps producers attempting forced representation in their media can take note, too, that it’s possible to create something real and genuine without pandering, without forcing and without playing it too safe.