written by Kate Spencer
Representation matters. I’m going to be saying that a lot, so this is to get you used to it.
Imagine you’re a little kid with red hair and freckles. Maybe you get picked on in school for it, maybe you have to suffer through tons of ginger jokes, maybe you just feel different. Then one day you pick up a comic book for a little escapism and toward the end of the comic, the superhero removes their mask and you see they’re a redhead too. They’re like you. Maybe they have to put up with ginger jokes too, but they can also fly or shoot lasers or run at the speed of sound. You can’t do all of that, but you can read the adventures of someone who can and maybe see a few more things you have in common. Maybe you start applying some of the morals and lessons of the comic to your own life because you admire that superhero, and you feel like on some level you can be like them.
Because they’re like you.
I’m writing this just a few days after I was sitting in the waiting room at my therapist’s office browsing Twitter on my phone. My feed suddenly blew up with “Tracer” and “Overwatch” tweets and retweets. A holiday comic had been released featuring Tracer which gave us a brief glimpse into her personal life, and she had a girlfriend. I couldn’t view the comic on my phone, so I had to wait another hour and a half until I was home and could see it for myself, but the news made me smile. There I was, a lesbian, about to talk to a therapist about things in my life – including being raised by a very conservative family who believed homosexuality was wrong – and I’d just read that a character from a game I liked was queer. I grinned, my spirits were lifted, and I may have let out a tiny squeak of joy in the empty waiting room like a dorky fangirl – all because Tracer had been confirmed LGBTQ.
Because she’s like me.
That night while chatting with friends online, curiosity got the better of me and I went to the Overwatch forums to see what the community was saying about the comic. I knew what I would find before I went there. I knew there would be support from a lot of people and a lot of negative comments from a very vocal minority. In the latter case, I knew exactly what I would find because I’ve heard all of those comments before. “Forced diversity”, “shoving it down our throats”, “pandering”, “I have no problem with homosexuality but…”, “over-representing a small percentage of the population”, and “do LGBT need representation?” I’ll spare you most of the comments. If you’re curious, a lot have been screencapped and posted to social media, and Blizzard is doing a good job moderating the forums and trying to keep discussion to a single thread while deleting the more hateful ones. I will share one of the more comical ones which pops up from time to time – “there’s no proof that’s her girlfriend. Girls kiss their friends like that all the time.” Um….no. No we don’t. Not like that.
Most of the comments boil down to trying to rationalize homophobia, because these days it’s not enough to simply discriminate against someone, you have to make yourself look righteous while you’re doing it. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt in some cases and say there are people who genuinely don’t understand why representation matters. And it does matter – remember?
It can be hard for some people to understand it because they don’t know what it feels like to not be represented. If you’re a white, cisgendered, heterosexual male built like a brick shithouse then comic books more than have you covered in the representation department. If you’re even one of those things, you’re still pretty heavily represented in some form of media. Mainstream creators are only just now starting to add more diversity in their works both as a way to market to a broader group and to tell stories from perspectives we don’t always see. It’s good to have those other perspectives. You can learn a lot about how other people live through representation and maybe even see some similar qualities in them. It’s exponentially more important for marginalized groups to get that kind of representation because the lack thereof throughout history has led to misconceptions at best and hurtful assumptions at worst.
I live in a country where people routinely make laws to strip away the rights of LGBTQ people. Gay people couldn’t marry who they wanted to for centuries, and even though it’s now become legal, there are still those who want to take that right away. Transgender people are ostracized and made to feel less than human by laws aimed at banning them from public restrooms. So-called “religious freedom” bills and “First Amendment Defense Acts” seek to give conservatives a blank check to discriminate against whomever they want because something is “against their religion”. The hatred is so strong that people are assaulted and killed for being LGBTQ. Those are just some of the threats that I personally face, and yet I’m still incredibly fortunate since there are others in greater danger because who they are is more obvious – whether they’re LGBTQ, a different race, or a different religion. People are afraid to be who they are!
Some of you may have seen the story several weeks ago about a comic book store worker helping a teenage girl. The girl was a fan of the Supergirl TV series and the character of Alex Danvers. The teen struggled with being gay and Alex Danvers’ coming out arc showed her she could be happy, loved, awesome and gay. The story made me cry. It made me cry again just now when I re-read it for this article. It’s tears of joy that someone who otherwise may not have found representation elsewhere found a hero in a TV series because that show’s creators decided to make that character a lesbian. And it was just a jumping-on point, because now that teen is going to read comics with other gay characters and feel represented and not alone in the world. She’s going to feel like there are others like her and that she matters and maybe that will give her the strength to brave the hardships she’ll most likely have to face.
Representation matters so so so much.
It matters because Muslim youth who will continue to face fear, persecution, and mistrust in America can pick up a Ms. Marvel comic and see a superhero who’s like them. A black teen disheartened by police brutality can see that black lives matter enough to some people that someone like them was made Spider-Man. And now a queer person feeling like the world doesn’t think they should exist can buy Overwatch and right there on the cover is Tracer, a gay woman.
It also matters to LGBTQ youth because not everyone has it figured out yet. The teen years can be an especially confusing and difficult time for someone questioning their gender and/or sexuality. Not knowing what’s going on with your brain and hormones is bad enough, but I’d also wager that a lot of teens are in school systems with woefully inadequate sex education. In sheltered environments like small towns with really conservative mindsets, someone could spend their entire childhood not knowing that “gay” is something that could apply to them. I wish I had a Tracer, Alex Danvers, Batwoman, or Jillian Holtzmann when I was growing up. First of all, I might have figured things out a lot sooner (especially with that last example). Secondly, maybe I wouldn’t have been so afraid of who I was due to all those people telling me how wrong it was. I’m so happy that more fictional characters and real life role models exist for many marginalized groups today, much more than when I was young. There’s a chance that someone can turn on the TV or play a game or read a comic book and see someone like them.
We’ve come a long way, but there’s still much more to do. There’s a lot of hate in the world, and that’s pretty evident by the pushback against any and all changes to the status quo. Going back to the awful, awful Overwatch forums, a common argument which pops up among the “I’m not a homophobe but” comments is that LGBTQ people want acceptance and normalization, but that will never happen as long as they’re treated “special” by things like the Tracer reveal. I remind you that the “special treatment” was a single-panel kiss where the character went home to her girlfriend after some last minute Christmas shopping. The comic also showed another character, Torbjörn, with who I assume is his wife sitting on his lap and a whole lot of their kids nearby. Another, Widowmaker, is seen at the grave of her dead husband. Minority representation will always be “special treatment” to these people, and it will always be too much representation because they don’t want to share their toys. They don’t want other groups to feel welcome. They want those groups to hide and not be heard or seen.
So what’s the solution? Get seen. If you’re a creator of a book, comic, video game, television show, movie, any kind of media, and you have even the tiniest idea to feature an underrepresented group in your work? Do it. Put a cool LGBTQ woman and two kickass Egyptian women in your game. Make an awesome black Spider-Man (who, in my opinion, is way more interesting than Peter Parker these days). Give Supergirl a tough gay sister who has a really well-done coming out arc on primetime TV. Take the chance on creating something different from the stock white male characters – there are already plenty of those. Open yourself up to entirely new worlds and stories by having characters from different backgrounds. If you create these characters, people will flock to them because representation matters.