diversity on television
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Does Representation Really Matter?

I don’t need to see my likeness reflected in the world because I am already both “represented” by and reflected in the richness of humanity, and more importantly, I actively “represent” a potential for others too. 

It’s hard to know sometimes how widespread some ideas are. Like everyone else, I live in a social and political bubble of a certain size and of a certain quality. In my bubble, which I like to think is on the larger side, not a month goes by when I don’t hear some version of the emphatic talking point that “Representation Matters!” Most of the time, this mic-dropping quip is whipped out to support the idea of diversity within positions of influence and to end a conversation about the topic effectively.

Absorbed and regurgitated without scrutiny (which seems to be the rule, not the exception within 21st-century American culture), the underlying message of “Representation Matters” doesn’t in actuality mean “I support diversity in positions of influence,” which would be unobjectionable and even laudable. Instead, it’s used to suggest that unless there are people of influence, in films and television, in the classroom and in politics, who “look like you” or replicate some ridiculously short list of socially constructed “identities”, marginalized groups are at a fundamental disadvantage, both psychologically and materially. This simplistic argument begs the most obvious follow-up question; What kind of diversity, in fact, matters?

I’m about as Generation X as it gets. Born in 1974, I grew up during the golden age of the laugh-track sitcom. After school and in the evenings, laying on the ground with a couch cushion folded under my chest, mostly alone, but sometimes with a sibling or parent, I’d watch Diff’rent Strokes, Who’s the Boss, Growing Pains, Webster, All in the Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Family Ties, Golden Girls, Three’s Company, Frasier, Cheers, The Wonder Years, The Cosby Show, Alf, The Facts of Life, One Day at a Time, Silver Spoons, Mama’s Family, Perfect Strangers, Mork & Mindy, Charles in Charge, Punky Brewster, Small Wonder, Mr. Belvedere, M*A*S*H*, Taxi, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Brady Bunch, Sanford and Son, Alice, and What’s Happening! As I list these television shows, I’m flooded with tiny flashes of memories of the storylines, the characters, cheesy one-liners, the unforgettable soundtracks, the sentimental moral messaging, and of course, laughing.

What I don’t remember is a single character in any of these shows, nor any television show or film to date, who has shared my particular ethnic heritage or phenotypical makeup. To make matters more complicated and damning, when there are characters who vaguely approximate my Middle-Eastern background, they are/were almost always portrayed as terrorists or villains. Am I a bad guy?

In my education, my ethnicity was not “reflected” in my teachers, with two important exceptions: both of my parents were, at one time, my high school teachers. Despite the obvious and undeniable “representation”, the ridicule and teasing from classmates surely overrode any potential benefit because of my DNA relationship with my parents. My teachers were mostly women, mostly of a fair complexion and European descent. I had good ones and bad ones. I’d say that, in the aggregate, I saw almost no one that resembled me reflected in my educators. 

It would follow, one would think, that if “representation matters” in the way it’s most commonly professed, my existence would certainly be doomed. Take this recent quote from the actress Halle Bailey who was cast as Ariel in Disney’s recent regurgitation of The Little Mermaid.

If I would have had a black mermaid, that would have been insane, that would have changed my whole perspective, my whole life, my confidence, my self-worth. You’re able to see a person who looks like you, when you’re young? Some people are just like, oh, it’s whatever, because they’ve had it their whole life. It’s nothing to them. But it’s so important.

Yet, Bailey somehow managed to become a wealthy and successful actress against the odds of having her self-worth crushed because the cartoon mermaids of her childhood were a different hue. My “identity”, by that criteria, is either non-existent or diabolical in all forms of media representation and education. Well, that sucks. Yet, somehow, with this surface-level representational deck of cards stacked against me, I have managed to move through the world in a relatively competent manner, complete a master’s degree, get jobs, build both an academic and professional art career, patent two inventions, have a family, form deep, meaningful and lifelong friendships, survive more than one mid-life crisis, the death of a parent, raise teenagers, eat well, and exercise.

One might cringe a bit from listing these accomplishments for fear that they may be misconstrued as braggadocios. But honestly, very little is exceptional or unusual about my “othered” life. I’m sure a similar version of my story tracks with countless others. This is at the heart of why I argue that “Representation Matters” is a shallow slogan that’s been weaponized and, at best, is but a partial truth. It’s not only an incomplete concept, but if believed and endorsed as intended, it has the potential to harm more than help marginalized people. 

What really “matters” is that impressionable people are exposed to various perspectives, belief systems, cultures, languages, moral frameworks, ideas, beauty, art, lifestyles, and socio-economic statuses. If, when someone stated that “representation matters,” but they meant “ideological diversity matters” – really anything more than superficial diversity – I would be fully on board. But that is simply not the case.

Back to the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s sitcoms for a moment. Those listed shows, while far from perfect or culturally progressive by today’s standards, did convey a broad spectrum of class diversity and cultural life. For me, this was formative. I grew up middle-class in a suburban/verging on rural town, but both of my parents (one an immigrant) grew up in much more economically precarious situations. When I was young, I could travel to countries to see family members where English was not the primary language and people lived in more difficult circumstances than I did.

These experiences and the exposure to the television culture of this era that depicted people with various phenotypes living through a range of working-class to wealthy lifestyles were deeply influential. For the time, certain cultural taboos surrounding gender and sexuality were touched upon, albeit conservatively and at times mockingly, compared to today. Relationships between racialized groups were explored, sometimes in much more confrontational, honest, and informative ways than I witness these days. All this to say, I learned a lot about America and the world and the way people differed superficially but bonded in other, more profound ways. 

Compare this experience to the typical progressive sitcom or drama of the last decade. Shows like Modern Family or This Is Us, both with hyperbolic and deceivingly inclusive titles, depict a certain kind of diversity that was, in fact lacking in the 1970s, 80s, and ’90s but are completely homogenous and regressive in other ways. In these shows, we often have more exploration of gender/sexuality/ethnicity but much less of class or depth of character. No one in Modern Family or This Is Us is from the working class. This is true of most contemporary television.

There is a reductionist move toward representing more superficial identity markers in lieu of, not in addition to, deeper cultural/ideological/socio-economic variation. The message is that it’s not only ok but ought to be celebrated if you are simply marginalized in terms of gender/phenotype (despite any other shallowness or flaws), but for God’s sake, don’t be poor. Yuck!

Aside from the near total erasure of a working or lower class ethos in contemporary cultural “representation,” simultaneously wealthy elites who “look diverse” chant in unison that “representation matters” (which can’t be healthy or encouraging for the very large and ignored communities of less wealth), there is another essential angle from which to examine the danger of such a reductionist idea. “Representation matters” is usually wielded in a way that suggests that the recipient of such representation is a passive actor with little to no agency. It’s as if a person must first “see” another person in the media who “looks like them” to be given the license to think hard, work hard, or excel in any way.

This is nonsense. We must encourage and cultivate agency, despite the fact that privilege afforded to some is neither fair nor equal across the board. Unless our rights are curtailed, which has undoubtedly been the case in America’s sordid history, we don’t need permission from another person, whether they literally look like us on the surface or not, to be thoughtful or ambitious. 

On the contrary, we ought to intentionally seek out ideas and behaviors that differ from ours culturally, ethnically, and socio-economically to learn and understand more about the world. We ought to be “culturally appropriating” with fervor and passion! How absurd it would be if I were to limit my exposure or potential to the ideas and customs of people who share my phenotype and/or ancestry. For as long as I can remember, quite the opposite has been the case. It is no accident that I am relatively versed in the ideologies and contemplative traditions of Zen (Japan), Yoga (India), Taoism, and Taiji chuan (China), the writings of Rumi, Basho, Alan Watts, photography and art from all over the world, worldwide religious traditions like Islam and Christianity, atheism, western philosophical ideas ranging from the ancient greeks to existentialists to post-modernists. And I want more, not less.

In the immortal words of hardcore punk artist Henry Rollins, “Gimme, gimme, gimme. I need some more. Gimme, gimme, gimme, Don’t ask what for!” I don’t need to see my likeness reflected in the world because I am already both “represented” by and reflected in the richness of humanity, and more importantly, I actively “represent” a potential for others too. 

I’ll end with a short story. In 2006, my family moved from Los Angeles to Orange County. I moved from a “blue” county to a “red” one. At the time, several of my friends in Los Angeles were confused and judgmental that we would move, as liberals, behind the conservative Orange Curtain. My immediate thought was not that we would be absorbed by a fixed culture where we weren’t “represented”. Instead, it was clear that by the nature of our deliberate act, we were diversifying the neighborhood. We were not passive prisoners of a conservative fortress. We were actively breaking down the perceived homogeny of our community by our mere presence, backgrounds, values, and traditions. Representation matters, right? 

I mean, don’t get me wrong. It would be really cool if someone made a sitcom, with a laugh track, of course, about someone “like me”. I would want it to be called, So What.