The Crucial Importance of Equal Diversity Representation in Media
We are talking about some REAL and IMPORTANT topics today. You, and everyone you know needs to read this.
Recently, Papa Bear & I finished reading Naturally Tan, by Tan France. It was a lovely read, and for anyone who is a fan of Queer Eye, I highly recommend it. It opened up my eyes to him as a person as opposed to just the ‘fashion’ guy. I would like to talk today about one of the many enlightening moments I had while listening to his words.
Early into the book, Tan discusses how he did not grow up seeing queer and Pakistani men on mainstream television. His main entertainment driven influence revolved around Bollywood films. And there was limited diversity (sexual orientation wise) for him to see. As a result, he felt very alone. Very, unrepresented.
And it got me thinking, as I listened to a family member speak the other day. They expressed with disapproval that a popular show on television recently introduced a transgender character. They also disliked that there was a queer supporting character as well, even in a sea of straight characters. They said: “I don’t need to see that on a normal show”.
As if characters who represent the LGBTQIA should be reserved for what? Unrealistic porn? Late night television or specific channels like HBO as opposed to mainstream and primetime slots. Because God forbid the general public be exposed to the realities outside of their own personal preferences....
Yes, of course; everyone is entitled to their opinion. If you do not like something, you are perfectly capable of picking up the remote and changing the channel. But here is where I get...angry, because small minded comments of this nature drive me insane. What I believe is not okay, nay- what is utterly ridiculous- is to hate, belittle or suggest censorship on attempts to represent for minorities.
Let’s take race and sexual orientation out of the mix for just a second.
Imagine you are a young child. You have sandy blonde hair and bright green eyes. Every evening after dinner your family gathers around the television. Night after night you see beautiful people. All with dark hair and dark eyes. You see no one like you. There are no characters to relate to. No actors or actresses that speak the way you do.
You are not represented. You may begin wondering if you are not attractive. If you are not likeable. Worthy.
Perhaps the impact of dark hair and dark eyes begins affecting the people around you. Your very own family members and peers dye their hair or shade their skin with makeup or lotions. More and more you see the dark hair and dark eyes.
And less and less of yourself...
Come and sit down on my metaphorical therapists couch for a moment while I ask you a very important question.
“How would that make you feel?”
One can argue that we’re talking about the entertainment industry here. That the people we watch on screens, and see in magazines are not crucial to a child’s development. Anyone that has seen a toddler collapse into a tantrum in the kids aisle over a Paw Patrol toy of course knows better. But let me give you a real life example of the importance of representation.
For what we consume, becomes a part of who we are. One way or the other.
Television and film were big parts of my childhood. I remember loving Disney movies growing up. Really, I loved all movies. But Disney was naturally huge as a little girl. Even as an adult woman I am not ashamed to say that I still love a good animated musical. And when I braid my hair to the side, I call it an “Elsa braid.” As did most of the three year olds in my preschool classroom during my teaching years.
For anyone taking notes, the very first Disney Princess film that was released, was Snow White in 1937. As you know, she had hair ‘black as night’ and skin ‘white as snow’. For many years after her, the Princesses and heroines depicted in Disney films were all blonde. Cinderella. (1950)
Tinkerbell & Wendy Darling. (1953)
Sleeping Beauty. (1959)
All beautiful. All fair coloured.
Then in 1989 came Ariel, The Little Mermaid. Her instantly classic, highly coveted, and just as highly unattainable, gorgeous red locks were the star of the show. Little ginger girls finally had representation, and for many of them it was a game changer in how they saw themselves.
I know, because the same thing happened for me with Belle, from Beauty and the Beast.
That film was released in 1991; the same year I was born. Naturally I grew up with both films present at the forefront of marketing. Toys, books, licensed clothing, etc. These two princesses heavily influenced my life. So much so that I dyed my hair red for many years and nicknamed my daughter Belle. I also wore a yellow gown for graduation. The impact of both films, and the joy I felt of seeing a strong female character with her love of books and brunette hair, helped guide the woman I am today.
Side note: it was not JUST the princess that influenced these two behaviours. They were reinforced by my mothers actions. She died her hair red and loved reading books as a result of popular culture references from her time. So, there you go; another reference but from an earlier generation.
Of course hair colour is NOT on par with sexual preference, race, or religious representation. It is something lower key and simple that can be easily changed with a box of dye or a trip to the salon. Not that anyone should have to change if they wish to remain in their natural self. There are a great examples of needed equal representation of course. That was simply mine.
A more recent and popular case is the Shakira and Jennifer Lopez performance at the Super Bowl half time show. I personally LOVED it. I thought it was beautiful. Sexy....yes. But so, so powerful and empowering. BUT of course there were a great many ‘haters’. All around the world, and even in my own friend group.
Those who appreciated the performance saw two incredible women - mothers- dancing their hearts out. We saw talented women of colour, commanding a giant stage far after prime years typically encouraged by their industry. We saw women celebrating their decades long careers. Their healthy, able bodies. We saw inspiration for flexibility, high energy and fitness. We saw beauty and LIFE.
Those who opposed saw... well they saw terrible things. Things I do not wish to repeat. Some felt threatened, for various reasons. Others embarrassed or triggered. I personally spoke with one friend who expressed disgust, and the desire to protect her children from exposure to the performance. Parents all around the world covered the eyes of their little girls and boys, changed the channel or panicked to shut the television off.
Meanwhile in my home, Baby Bear and I were singing and dancing right along with the performance. Papa Bear was there with us, and I was perfectly fine with him watching. I may not have the highest self esteem postpartum, but I am secure enough that I understand he is married, not dead and also appreciates the female form in its glory.
Cuz come on. The human body is INCREDIBLE and beautiful! If someone has the talent to perform that way, and it brings them joy, why shouldn’t they?
I did see the provocative dance moves, and the somewhat questionable costumes. And while I would not personally dress or perform that way, (mostly because I don’t have the lady balls to do it) I never once thought it was alright to tell these women to cover up, stop doing what they were doing or shame them in anyway.
When I see Shakira and JLo dance, I also see my little girl get up and move her body. Not because she is trying to be anything sexual, or do anything other than enjoy the music. Our kids do not know that what she was dancing on is called a stripper pole. Or that the term has negative connotations to it. Unless we tell them it does. Unless we teach them the same prejudices we were raised with.
It shouldn’t be a negative thing by the way. Anyone who has taken a pole class knows just how exciting and empowering it can be to move their body. But that’s another topic post, for another time.
In the same regard, seeing a LGBTQIA character is not a threat. It’s not going to confuse our children. It may cause them curiosity, which is a wonderful thing! In that case we as parents have the privilege of answering them. Of educating our children about things like the unique differences between humans. This can spark conversations about special needs, abilities, mental health, culture, faith. Important things.
If we all do our job to raise kind humans that respect themselves, and each other we will soon see a world where men and women do not abuse or take advantage of one another. Where humans are not sexualized before puberty. Or, at all. For we are greater than our ability to procreate.
If we raise our children to see beyond skin colour and personal preferences, the next generation can begin to right the wrongs of the past. They can create a world where our values are placed upon our energies and passions. Our inner qualities first, and our outer appearances second.
A little girl that loves to dance needed to see that performance to know she could get up there and dance one day. Maybe that little girl wasn’t you.
Maybe a woman in her fifties, or a mother needed to see that performance to feel excited about dance again. To get a reminder that her female power/ strength or physical ability isn’t limited by her age or family.
Maybe a member of the Latina community needed to feel that cultural pride after years of oppression.
Maybe a person who had just given up playing, or learning to play an instrument and needed to hear that music to pick it back up again.
Maybe there is a child somewhere that needs to see a transgender character on television to help him or her identify that the way they feel is not wrong. That they are not broken. That they are not alone.
It doesn’t have to speak to YOU. It’s great if it does! But if it doesn’t, you have two choices.
Enjoy it for what it is; entertainment, or change the channel.
What we need to stop doing, is oppress, demean, objectify and limit others simply because we do not see ourselves represented.
As a child, I needed to see a strong, female heroine with hair like mine who loved books, and also found true love. She taught me that I could have both a brain, passions, and happily ever after. (Whereas most Princess stories up until that point were about changing for the handsome prince.)
And Tan France needed to see a strong, queer Pakistani man on television. He did not get that unfortunately. But he does get to be that representation for a new generation. For today’s little boys and girls, looking up at the tv screen hoping to see the same skin colour they see, when they look in the mirror.
Every child needs to see someone- whether it be in tv or real life- that reminds them of what they see when they look in the mirror. What they see when they observe the world around them.
It is just as important that we as adults, see ourselves in the world around us. It helps us feel connected. Like we belong. It helps us feel seen.
I hope this article has either helped you feel seen, or opened your eyes. Maybe both.
If it has, please share and help spread this awareness.
-Mama Bear 🐻