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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Social Justice Bard And The Curious Case of Representation

"I know some people mistrust us
Equality haters discussed us
They can try but they'll never bust us
Cause we're here for Social Justice."
Once upon a time....

There was a cis het white dude. He liked media. Movies and books and TV shows and comics. The media he liked had a lot of people who were just like him in them (other cis het white dudes). Although our cis het white dude did not like having this fact pointed out to him. He thought that putting people who weren't straight or were gender variant, people of color, or "too many" women would change the movie into an identity movie (like a "chick flick") or was nothing more than pandering to those demographics. Even though thousands of movies with all white dudes and only one or two not white dudes were just "movies."

Sometimes people would complain about these trends using social justice warrior words that set the cis het white dude's teeth on edge like "representation" or "whitewashing." He learned to recognize these words and had many pre-constructed arguments against them. He would claim that identity politics shouldn't dictate who characters were. Against whitewashing he would say that identity should never matter. Against lack of representation he would find convoluted reasons that it very much did matter. ("I'm sorry but having people of color would be unrealistic in the dragon, zombie, and magic laden realm of  Xinthexerus.") And against all he would claim oversensitivity. He would even call people bigots for wanting to change a character since these attributes (gender, sexuality, race, and such) shouldn't matter.

Bigotry was something only bad people did and the cis het white dude was not a bad person, so clearly he could never be in any way complicit with any form of systematic bigotry. The idea that a book or movie or TV show he liked should ever have criticism for its portrayals made him very defensive. He might have to admit that some of his faves were "problematic" (another word that set his teeth on edge). It was far easier to claim the media simply did not have a problem. He didn't like to talk about these things, and would try very hard to make sure no one around him talked about them either.

Fortunately most movies or books or comics or TV shows that he wanted to consume had very few characters that weren't like him, and those media that did often placed such people in roles and portrayed them with stereotypes that kept our cis het white dude comfortable about his important place in the world. Even the increasingly ubiquitous "Strong Female Character"s would usually yield to the cis het white dude by the end of the film. It was the characters who were like him who were complicated and nuanced and important. He didn't have to think about it much as long as he stayed away from places like Tumblr.

This went on for many years.

But then one day something strange happened. At first it was barely noticeable. A character here. A plot arc there. A stereotyped expectation subverted. An incredibly nuanced portrayal that was neither a walking trope NOR a cis het white dude. And then....some of these media would change a character. Not whitewashing (which he had no problem with, of course) but the OTHER WAY (which he very much did because suddenly identity was important to that character). But it got even worse! While before, entire years would go by with nothing but blockbuster movies and great books and spectacular TV and wonderful comic books filled with mostly other cis het white dudes, now (occasionally) there would be a single show or movie or book that barely had any.

Perhaps worst of all, these were sometimes media HE WANTED TO CONSUME.  They had "STAR" in the title, and he wanted to see them. But he couldn't find himself easily represented among the vast majority of the main characters. And he became very uncomfortable, and he wanted to rage against this change because now instead of seeing himself ever where he looked, his media had begun to look more like the world at large and other people were excited about seeing THEMselves represented.

That day, the cis het white dude learned that representation did matter, and that maybe he should stop keeping it all to himself.

The End

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