I feel as if I could write a post on issues surrounding representation in popular culture at least weekly. This isn’t too shocking given that I spend most of my time thinking, writing, and presenting/teaching on this topic. We’ll call this post the early summer 2017 edition of why we need to see more representation of diverse identities in popular culture. There are a few catalysts that keep sparking this for me: Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, Marvel’s Black Panther, and Roxane Gay’s Hunger. Each has generated a plethora of think-pieces, social media reactions, and criticism (some incredibly fair and some downright bizarre).
Even before Wonder Woman came out there was a ton of buzz from excitement to controversy. For this film scholar, the weirdest and most infuriating were the pieces that said what a big gamble the studio was taken on Patty Jenkins as a director. Jenkins directed the film Monster (2003) for which Charlize Theron won the Best Actress Oscar, so it is not at all a gamble, which to be clear many studios have taken on a hell of a lot of male directors without ever actually calling that a game. Given that DC seemed to put absolutely no marketing behind Wonder Woman, it left a lot of me very worried about how well the film would do overall but also that the film would be bad, which would mean we’d not see a woman-directed superhero movie again for a long time. Many fans (mostly women) had a great deal of [guarded] optimism and a large amount of hope riding on this film.
The experience of watching Wonder Woman was absolute joy. I, like many women film-goers, cried throughout the film, especially during the battle on the beach watching the spectacular real-life superhero women playing Amazons and during Diana’s solo stride across No Man’s Land. After I left the theatre I have spent a lot of time thinking about those tears. As many have argued, those tears were, first, a reaction to seeing strong and brilliant women on screen and not framed by the male gaze but framed as subjects…as heroes. I have seen the movie a few more times in the theatre and have thought a great deal about those tears as they have rolled down my cheeks each time I have seen the film. What I realized is that the tears I was shedding grew out of the power of representation. The film highlights women being powerful, flawed, covered in scars and wrinkles, while their thighs jiggled visibly on screen, which is a stunning departure from the air-brushed perfection of most celluloid women.
But more than that literal visible representation of complex and complicated women, these two moments felt like stunning metaphors to the life of a feminist scholar/activist. For me and many of the strong feminist scholars I know, we work in isolation on our campuses, communities, and workplaces because a great deal of American culture is hostile to feminism and social justice activism. When we are very lucky, we find feminist and social justice oriented communities in which we can work. In my experiences those communities are built online, at conferences, and at conventions, where we discover other folks who “get” our work—who challenge us to strengthen that work and our commitment to it. When we can be with our community of Amazons, we are stronger, more powerful, and unbeatable, but we often must leave that supportive intellectual environment to return to our day-to-day worlds, in which we are Diana “going first” on our campuses/workplaces often understanding that we will have to dodge the proverbial bombs and bullets of making our campuses/workplaces safer, more open environments. There’s a moment when Diana is charging across No Man’s Land alone because no one else will take the risk and Steve Trevor exclaims to the others “She’s drawing all their fire.” It is only after this that the men spring in to battle. This line could be utter in so much of the social justice work that I see happening. Certain folks on our campuses/in our workplaces draw all the fire, as they push for equity and justice. In my experience, this burden falls predominantly to marginalized groups of people, especially Black women, Latina women, people of color, queer folks. As I have thought about the film, I continue to be struck by how important this film is at the surface representation on screen level and these deeper philosophical levels. Wonder Woman has flaws, especially in how it dealt with race and the erasure of Black women and women of color. A brilliant conversation between Valerie Complex and Robert A. Jones, from Son of Baldwin, maps out this erasure, which I would encourage everyone to read. I hope that any sequel that is made will redress that lack of racial representation and be more explicit in representing queerness, which is a key aspect of the Amazonian culture and of Diana’s character. The film though was a powerful example for me of why we need more complicated and nuanced women in our media.
Just as Wonder Woman was about to hit the theatres, Marvel announced (May 17, 2017) that it would be ending its Black Panther comic book series. This move was utterly baffling, as it is a great series, which has not had enough of a run yet and is penned by the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates. Black Panther/T’Challa has long been one of my favorite comic book characters and the entire country of Wakanda is fascinating with all the scientific and technological innovations. For me, the most intriguing part of the Wakandan world is the Dora Milaje, an all-female group of warriors who act as protection and advisors to the Wakandan leaders. We briefly had the ability to dive deeper into the world of the Dora Milaje in the World of Wakanda—written by Coates and Roxane Gay—but in an infuriating move, Marvel announced on June 12 that it would end after only six issues. The timing of these two cancellations is bizarre, especially knowing that the Black Panther film is set to hit theatres in February 2018.
In the midst of all of this controversy, the first teaser for Black Panther was released (June 9, 2017), and it was amazing. I’m so excited for this film and had some tears for this as well because seeing bad-ass Black women kick ass is precisely what I need. This film features some of my favorite actresses, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, and Lupita Nyong’o, as well as just an overall amazing cast. Seeing such a strong cast of Black characters and actors is a revelation for issues of representation. The joy of the Blerd community specifically and the Black community generally over the trailer reminded me yet again how important that representation on screen and in our entertainment is. With just a one minute and fifty-three second teaser trailer, Black Panther indicated to viewers that they should be prepared for director Ryan Coogler to take them on a thrilling adventure with excellent acting. Though we know little about the overall plot of the film, we’re in for a really great experience.
This summer has been a bit of a revelation about the importance of representation across a broad spectrum of identities for me. With the release of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay, a plethora of commentary has been whizzing about, covering topics of sexual violence, bodies, and fatness/obesity. I was struck reading Hunger by how frequently I found myself wanting to just write the word yes with a lot of exclamation points after it. This book was strikingly personal and all too familiar. Though I often think about the lack of representation of women of size in media, I hadn’t really realized how much this erasure really impacted me until I was reading the book. Many folks have pointed me toward This is Us as a positive representation of a woman of size (character of Kate Pearson). I will admit that I could not stick with that show after a few episodes because of the storyline of Kate. I absolutely stand behind the spectacular Chrissy Metz, who is a beautiful and wonderful actress playing that role with a lot of heart, but the writers did the character a disservice, meaning that I only made it through three episodes. Gay’s exploration of her challenges of being a woman of size, the struggle to lose weight, and her on-going battle to accept and love herself is profound and necessary. I needed this conversation, but I also discovered that I want more of this conversation and more representation of people of size and not in the exploitative Biggest Loser way.
Moreover, reading Gay’s narrative of the aftermath of sexual violence was stunning for me. We see sexual violence used as a plot tool in media all the time, but we never see the core ways that it impacts a life forever after the assault. We see fiction and film writers taking the easy way out all the time of using weaponized sexual violence of women to give male characters “development” or female characters a reason to be violent, but we rarely see someone struggling with the trauma in ways that alter the very make up of their being. How many times have survivors, violence prevention experts, fans, and scholars asked for media to stop using sexual violence as a plot device? I have lost count at this point, and yet, it continues with new examples all the time (I’m looking at you new The Mist adaptation on Spike). Gay’s book is a memoir and, therefore, compels a deep exploration, but it also reminded me precisely why I need media portrayals of sexual violence to be more nuanced.
These three examples of media from this summer remind me just how crucial representations of all identities are. To see oneself reflected through media is to see that you can…you can survive…you can be successful…you can be a hero, a scientist, a leader, a badass-ass-kicking-warrior woman, a scholar, and so much more. That is what representation does. This is why art and media matter.