Fair representation in the media has been a hot topic for the past couple of decades, often argued as a fairness piece for representing our intersectional society. The sociological and even political importance for representation is often spoken about, but I find a more crucial and less mentioned psychological aspect far more interesting. Our media is becoming rich with representations, and so now it’s time to reflect on why that representation truly matters and how representation for representation’s sake isn’t good enough.
In a recent interview, I was asked about my personal identity journey and I spoke about the importance of representation to me. Part of why it took me so long to come out to myself was because I didn’t see anyone in the media or television who looked like me. When I did start to see figures who I could relate to, I found that my understanding of myself deepened. We all have our super heroes; characters from fictional stories and video games or real-life figures and community members become heroes to us for different reasons. These personal heroes give us many things: they allow us to see aspects of ourselves, give examples to aspire to and, through their stories, provide road maps for navigating our own lives.
In particular, two series have been instrumental to me understanding myself better: Avatar the Last Airbender (2005), and Steven Universe (2013). Within both of these worlds, I saw characters who grappled with similar struggles to those I was feeling inside. Both of these shows invited me to step into my own authenticity.
For me, when I started to see the very queer characters in Steven Universe, I saw suddenly intimacy, love, support and empowerment among this community of characters. I also saw something I had been craving since I was a child, which was normalcy of experience. The characters of Steven Universe taught me that I didn’t need to be anything other than who I am, and my normal is normal. This was a very different relationship I had with these characters than other gay and queer representations earlier in my life, such as Queer as Folk or Will & Grace.
The psychological mechanism here is called identification, and it swings both ways. Have you ever come across someone you instantly hated/loved and realized later it was because you saw things in them that you were uncomfortable with or liked about yourself? Have you ever really admired someone and developed those traits in yourself? This is a very natural process of human psychology and something that we are actively doing on a regular basis. Part of this process allows us to synchronize with others through a function called social mimicry. Little babies are observed doing this all the time as they learn how to interact with the world around them. It is also true that as we age, we often tend to congregate with people who we perceive are like us. Marketers understand these processes deeply and are always conducting research on what different populations identify with and relate to, sometimes consciously and sometimes deeply unconsciously.
Unfortunately, the same mechanism of identification that can create healthy insights in some can also create the potential for dark and unhealthy dynamics in others. The reality of toxic fandom is an example of this, whereby a change in a character in any way can spurn on vitriolic responses among some fans. The recent addition of a dwarf played by an actress of colour in the upcoming Lord of the Rings television series is an example of this. So many fandoms are having to deal with this sort of restrictive interpretation of the material, even wholesome shows like My Little Pony and Steven Universe.
Often, the problem is that an individual over-identifies with a particular character or world and through over identification, their self-esteem is tied to that material. Any changes or reinterpretations of that material by other fans is met with scorn because the individual perceives a personal attack on themself. In some cases, toxic fans might even feel a loss of self as the material changes and adapts. What often occurs then is what we would call externalization of deep insecurities onto others to regain a sense of power or control. It’s not a great situation, but it is an all too human one.
An exercise I often give clients is to think about their personal heroes. Who are they? What are their strengths? What obstacles have they overcome in their stories? What do they teach us about ourselves? Often the answers to these questions bring up a great deal of personal insight within the client.
I encourage readers, if they have a spare moment, to journal about what representations have had an impact on their lives and what characters have become important to them over time. As I age, I look back on material I grew up with and find myself identifying more with other characters than the ones I did originally. Likewise, who are some of the characters or heroes out there now who could hold a key to your future self? Take careful note of which characters or individuals bring up a reaction inside and contemplate what about them you are reacting to.