As a queer person, libertarian-socialist, perpetually-online feminist, and writer whose work is directly invested in tackling the politics of power (and dismantle stereotypes), I have many things to say about representation in media.
Oddly enough, many of my ideas on the subject directly contradict modern progressive rhetoric, despite being so left leaning I've flung myself into actual hyperspace.
Though I don't believe detractors of representation in media have a leg to stand on concerning their "Forced Diversity" positions, I also don't think many progressives think through what it means to fix "good" to a static definition.
I also don't think many progressive think about what that message of "fixing meaning" says to actual marginalized people, in the world, living their lives.
In this article, we're going to explore a generalization of progressive "good representation", rhetorically analyze it, and explain why it does the opposite of what it intends to.
To do that, we're going to first define what progressives believe in, and although not a monolith, to deny this is a thing that happens is to quite frankly deny reality.
The generalized definitions:
It may be fallacious to generalize, but progressive good rep rubrics do that anyways
Representation in Media:
Representation is how media texts deal with and present gender, age, ethnicity, national and regional identity, social issues and events to an audience. Media texts have the power to shape an audience's knowledge and understanding about these important topics.
Socially conscious individuals with left leaning and humanist tendencies in various vectors of society, politics, and more.
Good Representation via Progressives:
Hard to fully define, but let's use a this basic rubric:
Realistic, Considerate, Explicit, Respectful.
Bad Representation via Progressives:
Stereotypical, Inconsiderate, Veiled, Disrespectful.
Now that we have the definitions out of the way, let's get started.
First, let's analyze "Realistic" and what that means in a progressive rubric:
"[Make sure] it's a portrayal that avoids stereotypes and makes sure that the character isn't defined by their sexuality or gender,"
We can ask a very simple question here: what is a stereotype?
Stereotype: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
As I'm bisexual and I know my own stereotypes, let's provide some:
Bisexual people are cheaters
Bisexual women who center men in relationships engage in compulsory heterosexuality, and this is bad
Bisexual people are promiscuous
Via Realistic against Stereotypes, the rubric suggests a bisexual character could not cheat, could not settle down with an opposite-sex partner, and could not be promiscuous.
Because that would be "bad" representation; stereotypes.
The problem here is that to request a character avoid these things in order to dodge the problematic, reaffixes the stereotype's meaning to the signifier of bisexuality.
By drawing a box around what a bisexual character can do, lest it send the wrong message, we tell a bisexual person living in the world and experiencing media, that they are defined forever by a stereotype unfairly fixed to a signifier (bisexuality).
They can never do X, or else it illogically correlates to their sexuality.
Furthermore, this rubric-point suggests a bisexual character couldn't be incredibly loud, proud, unabashedly queer—and dare I say—hella political.
Even though for some real queer people, this is really who they are.
As the hegemonic default messaging "owns" these stereotypes, we have asked bisexual characters be beholden to a more rigorous, more inflexible set of standards than any heterosexual character in existence.
Wanton heterosexuality proliferates in every single piece of media under the sun. You can't dodge straight sex scenes in movie and TV even if you tried.
To combat that, because we want to normalize queer people for cishet palettes, progressives have (instead of plastering queer sex everywhere) said:
Be good, be better, be less loud, be less problematic, be easily digestible, never fuck up, don't be as horny as the straights, lest you reinforce a stereotype and signal to society you are the thing Society Thinks You Are.
That is hegemonic.
Let's move on to Considerate:
"Is the narrative considerate of past and current LGBT+ issues? Make sure characters aren't inherently bad because of their sexuality or gender. The narrative shouldn't punish a character because of their identity, even if the society that character is a part of does... How is the narrative treating this character? What is the message the narrative is giving to the player about this character and their identity?"
Yes, the narrative should be considerate, well-researched, and make good faith efforts on the topic of marginalized people.
It needs to know the history of a culture, it needs to know what stereotypes exist, what tropes, and needs to know lived realities.
The narrative itself should never say, to use the bisexual example again, that bisexuality is bad because it is.
However, we get into a catch-22 pretty easily in this section.
If the society of a narrative would treat a character unfairly, say its set in a specific place in real-time, this could contradict the rubric.
As bisexual characters are erased in media, bisexual characters are retconned out of existence, even discussing that in a media text could potentially eat this rubric point by merit of being so Considerate it prevents referencing Reality.
The narrative itself cannot say being bisexual is just bad, but the setting can, and the setting can be confused with the narrative, because people lack media literacy to know the difference.
Moreover, the narrative could include biphobia from the LGBT+ community, which is a reality, and that could be seen as problematic against the community and therein shits on the Considerate vector.
When it's the fucking truth.
The progressive rubric denies reality to worship hegemony. That's my hot-take and I'm not taking it back.
Let's look at Explicit:
"Are characters explicitly stated to be LGBT+? Do they openly say their identity, or openly talk about their identity's experiences?
"But you have to be mindful of doing this without the character's consent -- having other characters reveal a character's identity is something you want to avoid both in games and in real life, making sure that you have the consent of that individual, that their identity can be talked about or shown. The best way to do that is to make sure the character is the one telling the player who they are and what their identity is."
This rubric asks LGBT+ characters be explicit, but what does explicit mean?
This rubric suggests a bisexual character sit in the front of the proverbial camera and say: I'm bisexual.
When the narrative itself may show them having relationships with people of multiple genders; be the relationships good or bad.
This contradicts Considerate, because the reality is that not all relationships are perfect, regardless of their queerness.
Any queer relationships, filtered through progressive "good rep" table-hockey, is somehow a statement about queer relationships themselves; which is stereotyping, because relationship imperfections have nothing to do with sexual orientation.
Furthermore, the narrative suggests outing without a character's consent is off the table, when this is a Realistic thing that happens to LGBT+ people. To suggest it can't exist in a narrative is to be Inconsiderate of LGBT+ struggles.
This progressive "good rep rubric" eats itself, because it's been created inside the very affect of the hegemonious, God-like default.
Let's go to the next point; Respect
"Is the character's identity respected by the narrative? Make sure that the character's identity is never the butt of a joke. You can have these characters be funny. You can have these characters make jokes. But not in a stereotypical, harmful way. You have to be respectful of the LGBT+ community and their experiences and make sure you're not relying on those harmful things.
Queer people joke about queer things in often stereotypical, harmful ways.
The difference here is they're queer, and so they're allowed to do this.
If the rubric says queer characters can't joke about themselves in their own language because it's problematic, the progressive good representation rubric deletes a lived queer experience by making hyper-precious that which a metric ton of queer people do daily.
Diverse characters can, and will, make themselves the butt of their own jokes.
The narrative may even do that, and the smart play here is giving the characters the agency to say: this is my joke, my assumption, my stereotype and I can use it, but you probably can't.
This rubric tells queer people how to joke about themselves, because it tells LGBT+ characters they don't own their own language, thus bowing again to hegemony's default without asking the audience to question anything.
By drawing a line around what must be left out, the progressive rubric makes it impossible to create self-referential, self-aware work that asks any important questions of hegemony, media, or the viewers.
The questions don't exist when you prevent them from being asked in the first place.
The progressive rubric of "good" representation is bad, actually
It assumes—inaccurately—that viewers are brain-dead passive content consumption vessels, of things with fixed meanings.
To quote Stuart Hall, revolutionary neo-marxist cultural theorist:
“Power and ideology attempts to fix the meaning of images and language, but the meaning is always going to be subverted. Because the fixing of meaning cannot be guaranteed, it can be unfixed. It can loosen and fray. The relative openness of meaning makes change possible. Makes language possible.”
I think the progressive rubric of "good representation", if it's to last into antiquity, serves a master it desperately says it doesn't.
Don't misunderstand me; I don't want people to just start writing bad stereotypes and thinking they've done a good thing by the merit of simply doing it.
What I want people to do is challenge the fixing of stereotypes, and render that impotent, by forcing another meaning.
This requires knowing the landscape of stereotypes and hegemony enough to reshape them, in art, in media.
The progressive "good rep" rubric is a part of that hegemony:
It assumes meaning is fixed by the politics of power, and only ever stays that way, and magically goes away, maybe if only marginalized groups are just so very nice and perfect in our depictions on TV, or something.
The cis het white neuroatypical able-bodied male character has none of the expectations diverse characters have just to be considered worthy of our time.
Therein lies our problem.
So what is "good representation"?
When any character can be bad and good, and this is not mercilessly automatically attached to their gender identity, sexuality, race, or otherwise...then we will be at "good representation".
This requires society to actually change for the better and realize that Bad Trait isn't endemically attached to Signifier. This requires society to be media literate enough to realize just how illogical that is.
This does not mean forgetting what media does and has done, what history happened, how stereotypes shape outlooks, and what stereotypes are.
It means taking back the power media has to foster and grow human biases against actual lived people via propaganda, by using media as a weapon in opposition to hegemonic frameworks.
To get there, this means making the viewer an active meaning-maker, holding them accountable for their biases, and not letting them be a passive content consumption vessel. This is Stuart Hall Cultural Theory 101; look it up.
It means creating the Unavoidable And Loud, not only just The Good And Safe, and it means saying the Unavoidable And Loud Is Valid & Good, Actually.
So, where are we now?
We are stuck in a loop of grasping for a moral high-ground, with both sides (well-meaning progressives and thin-skinned media-illiterate Default babies) armed to the teeth with rubrics, wrestling with "diversity in media", and trying to define what is good/bad, instead of defining "is".
That is where progressives and detractors of diverse characters stand in 2020.
They claw at each other, instead of challenging what "is" means and doesn't mean (and what has historically forced meaning), in mass opposition to media as propaganda engine.
We are not there yet.
We won't be until we require people to have a bare minimum of media literacy.
While I deftly acknowledge normalizing diverse characters is an important first step in reorienting the symbology of the affixing of shitty stereotypes to signifiers (like being queer), it is really only the first step.
And it cannot be the only "good" way of writing diverse characters.
It exists as a safe stop-gap to helping the audience, who lack media literacy, to be receptive to other stories.
It is a valuable first step.
However, we need to tell stories that are complicated and not for the hegemony to package neatly in tender opposition of it.
We need to allow diverse characters to be difficult. Unavoidable. Political. Loud.
If we don't, it's not unlike reconfiguring our diverse selves for the abusive hegemony so it won't abuse us as bad.
That's what it reads like to me as a queer person and an abuse survivor, if we get stuck here in this "good" mode.
If we just keep crafting safe media objects, that make detractor-hegemonics feel comfortable in ignorance, but never force them out of it...