I’ve never really seen myself on television.
Framing the thought that way makes it sound pretentious, but it’s actually an important statement. I don’t see a lot of characters in mainstream media that really speak to me as a person. I think if I dug deeply enough in my blog history, I could find a checklist of characteristics that separate me from the norm of lived experience, but the specific details aren’t really what’s relevant right now. What’s more relevant is that, when I turn on most stories, what I find is people I don’t really like or don’t really understand, and by extension people whose problems don’t really matter that much to me. It makes participating in a lot of media a bit strange.
This isn’t to say that nobody on the tube looks like me, but it greatly reduces the odds that any given show is going to have one, which is itself a limiting factor in how much television I seek out. Most of the characters that do remind me of myself are animated, and most of them are intended for a younger audience, which is itself a weirding factor on narrative. That, however, is a subject for another time. For now, what matters is that the closest I get to seeing a self in the mainstream media is Twilight Sparkle and Pearl, with possibly Princess Bubblegum as a close relative. If you don’t recognize those, I’d highly recommend going and checking out MLP:FiM, Steven Universe, and Adventure Time, respectively.
Even for as close as they are, though, they’re not that close for a number of reasons. First, to be blunt, they’re animated, and while anybody who’s read the bio in the back of my books or over on Prisma’s who’s-who probably suspects I don’t quite think of myself as human, I am still embodied as such. Beach City may be on an Earth, but it’s most definitely not this Earth, and Equestria’s got a lot in common with Earth, but it’s not here either. They don’t have day-jobs that involve them working in fields they don’t really like but which they can’t afford to leave. If they’re philosophical outsiders to their communities, it doesn’t seem to bother them, or at least they don’t show it.
I was talking recently with Emanate, comparing notes on alienation and childhood. I know a number of people who have extremely odd upbringings. One friend lost a mother to cancer when he was twelve. One grew up a Seventh-Day Adventist. I grew up self-identifying as a gay male Objectivist in Texas in the 1980s, and I’ve only gotten more removed from the norm the older I’ve gotten. So many conversations about morality, ethics, and politics die on the vine when one party to the discussion naturally falls outside of the group’s Overton window. Simply put, it’s really hard to talk about whether Superman or Batman is better with somebody who only reads Marvel.
Believe it or not, I am trying to make a point. Representation in the media is important, for a great many reasons. People who see themselves reflected in the popular culture have an easier time feeling integrated with that culture. People who don’t see themselves — or who only ever see themselves depicted as sidekicks, buffoons, and villains — have a legitimate complaint that they’re being misrepresented or erased. Their struggles aren’t seen as real struggles. Their problems aren’t treated as important. Our problems aren’t treated as important. Simply put, we’re not equal because we’re not treated as equal, because we’re not seen as equal.
Casting Laverne Cox, a transgender woman of color, to play the part of a transgender character in Orange is the New Black has been incredibly empowering, not least of which because Ms. Cox has incredible talent as an actress, but admittedly because it breaks new ground in showing both what characters an audience will accept, and what actors can fill those parts. Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir has been made into a critically-acclaimed sitcom, in part because it does such a good job of showing a breadth and depth of personality for its characters, all of whom are Asian-American. Amazon’s own original series, Transparent, has met with astounding success, because it’s opened new vistas of what lives are possible to depict, even if it didn’t go as far as I would have liked and chosen a transwoman to play the lead role. Much like Obama’s election to the presidency, these shows aren’t just good. They’re public redefinitions of what’s possible, what can be discussed and considered and explored, in a way that no animated series can actually do.
You might wonder why, if this whole post was about “not seeing myself on screen,” I didn’t reference Maura Pfefferman or Sophia Burset. It’s fair that transgender characters are an incredible development in the last few years, but again, remember the laundry list I mentioned, even if I don’t want to go into its details. Being transgender is a component of my identity, but it no more defines me as a person than being an IT professional does. It’s a fact of my existence, and an important one, but the set of all transgendered people in the world is more like a granfalloon than a karass. So, too, is the set of all liberals, the set of all people on the autism spectrum, or the set of all people in Seattle, and even the set of all the people who moved to Seattle because of the culture that they assumed Seattle would have.
If there is a karass to which I believe that I can know — a concept that Bokonin himself says is impossible — then I would like to think that it’s the community I’m building and helping maintain. I’d like to think it’s the set of people who see identity as a tool and a process, who see the sexual as an innate part of life, who see magic in the everyday, who see play as a skill not to be forgotten.
One of the things C. Hope Clark said in her book is to know your audience. My karass is my audience, whomever and wherever they are. I write because I want to see myself reflected in the world, and I rarely do, so I make worlds in which I can. I write because, frankly, it would be too painful not to write, and because I hope others who read what I create will some away feeling like they’ve seen a piece of themselves, even if I never find out.
When you look out into the world, when and how do you see yourself looking back? In whom among all the characters you know from all the stories you’ve read and heard and seen do you see parts of yourself?
Is silence like a fever, a voice never heard, or a message with no receiver?