Ask These Questions When Considering Representation (and A Plea to the Film and Television Industry)
A few months ago, I participated in a one-on-one creative nonfiction writing workshop with one of my favorite writers. One of the tasks was to write a 2,000 word essay on the topic of my choosing. I chose to write about the collective burden that both people with disabilities and non-disabled people can find common ground with. The general disenfranchisement that, were it the focus of more political action, would lift many of us out of harmful situations.
The workshop went well. I discovered flaws in my own writing and received excellent feedback. One of the writer’s notes in her feedback was that I used the word “blind to the situation”. Using “blind” to connote unawareness is insensitive. I know this. Yet, the phrase was so ingrained into my vocabulary that I didn’t avoid it in an essay by me (a disabled person) and about disabled people. It takes a not insignificant amount of effort to weed out insensitive language that we’ve grown with, that’s grown with us. As much as I try, I still make mistakes and learn every single day. Let’s embrace the mistakes and do better every time.
Part of that learning process is analyzing what we consume. There are many, many identities that need representation. As I am a straight, white, disabled woman, I can only speak about some of them. Wonderful humans working on/participating in other types of representation are linked at the bottom of this post. Give them a follow.
Much of what forms our biases, memories, associations, etc. is television and movies. In 2021, what should we expect of the media we consume? Are we okay with a cast of all men and expendable women characters (cough*Supernatural*cough)? What about women characters defined by their bodies? Or, worse, demonized for their bodies? Where is the line?
I am a big supporter of being critical. However, I don’t think that has to mean sacrificing our love for films/tv shows. We can still enjoy stuff and be critical.
(Admittedly, I re-watched The Notebook recently and it is a dumpster fire. Turns out, killing your darlings can also be pretty cathartic.)
Overall, don’t feel guilty for liking or not liking something. That being said, here are some questions we should all be asking while watching the small or big screen. Some of these are the bare minimum.
What bodies are portrayed?
What types of bodies are represented on screen? It’s time that we start asking more from media. I can only speak about Own Voices representation when it comes to body image, women, and disability, but I will say this: If a a film/tv show is all/mostly straight, white, cis, thin, and non-disabled, chances are I will pass. I don’t want to know what else results from that kind of lazy production. The world doesn’t look like that.
How are diverse bodies shown/framed?
Thankfully, there is more representation now that ever. For the most part, this is a wonderful thing! However, it raises the question: Is any representation better than bad representation? Personally, I would rather have people not know what my diagnoses are than make assumptions about what my life looks like. Especially if those assumptions (that have been inevitably informed by media) are degrading. I am not here for a movie with a main character diagnosed with Narcolepsy who goes around fainting everywhere (Ode To Joy). People have assumed that I must do the same thing and proceed to approach me hesitantly.
Other stereotypes to watch out for are: the ugly fat friend, the suicidal disabled person, the savant neurodiverse person, the crazy/mad genius, the the magical cure, and the demonization of disfigurement.
What Part Does Disability Play in Characterization?
It feels draining to finally see some representation, only for it clearly be for its own sake. If the only way that you can think to describe a character is their size or disability, that is tokenization. It’s a slap in the face to the disability community. It’s the industry saying that people of different sizes and people with disabilities are less than deserving of a fully realized personality.
Real Life Efforts?
As much as a production can boast inclusivity, they should be held accountable for real life, offscreen representation as well. The casting of a hearing person to play a deaf character in the recent television remake of The Stand comes to mind. There is a movement to boycott the series. People care more about accurate representation now more than ever. When an actor who isn’t/doesn’t have: a disfigurement (Wonder), Narcolepsy (Ode to Joy), Paraplegic (Glee), Autism (Atypical), etc. are hired to act the life of disability or neurodivergence, it paves the road of production with so many red flags and ableism, no matter the talent of the actor.
Obligatory Ableism Warning:
Anywhere content is being produced, ableism is often present. As I said, it is so ingrained into our lives that it can be hard to divorce oneself from. A huge reason why there is more attention surrounding the injustices disabled people experience is that we call it out. We don’t let it slide. We let companies/creators know that there is no excuse for ableism and other insensitive, often harmful representation, or lack thereof.
A Positive Note
In 2019, a group of actors took a step in the right direction and signed an open letter to the entertainment industry that calls for more accountability and hiring of actors with disabilities. The letter states that:
“At the 2019 Academy Awards, diversity and related topics such as race, immigration, and sexual orientation were explicitly mentioned on stage 38 times. We applaud the industry for elevating these issues to the world’s largest and most glamorous stage. But in the history of the Academy Awards, among the 61 Oscar nominees and 27 winners playing characters with a disability, only two were authentically portrayed by an actor with disability.”
The television that I watched in those days affected my adult psyche. For years, I was convinced that a fat, disabled body like mine was illegitimate.
We should all me asking more from the content we consume. Especially for children and teens. Media has the power to mold our biases, to draft our insecurities. All of use regardless of identity, deserve to be seen and to see ourselves represented.