On the Effects of Media Representation

This post is not going to be centered on the reassurance that people get from seeing someone like themselves in the media, although I’d argue that that’s one of the most important of representation’s effects.  This post is also not going to be about how media representation can serve to create or reinforce harmful stereotypes, although a discussion of that is important too.  This post is about some of the secondary positive effects that media representation can have for marginalized groups — that is, what else it is capable of, in addition to providing solace to those who are too often ignored, and how else, in our daily lives, it can be of practical use, in a more roundabout way, via reaching people outside those groups.

Although “media representation” is a broad category, this particular post will focus to some degree on fictional characters within narrative story arcs.  It will also focus to some degree on the issues of the asexual spectrum, even though the concepts articulated here are applicable to any group often misunderstood and maligned.

Ace representation, though existent, is scarce, which is why it’s a frequent topic of discussion among the ace community.  Fiction is powerful, and to deny that it can influence us is to be naive.  That influence naturally extends to perspectives on sexuality, so in a world where asexuality is uncommon enough that many aces won’t meet any other aces but for the internet, media’s overt absence of acknowledgement creates the impression that we don’t exist — or worse, that we’re not supposed to exist.

“This is why so many aces have a difficult adolescence. We know we’re different, but so often we don’t have the words for it, and no one understands when we try to explain. And then we finally recognise ourselves in a character on TV and… and they’re a serial killer or an alien, and a lot of people go ‘well no, they’re actually probably totes gay’.  Media told me that — just because I didn’t feel like dating or having sex — I didn’t have the right to consider myself human.  I am still — more than ten years on — dealing with the venomous headspace that created.”

–pippin, asexuality in fiction

Intentionally or not, fictional narratives in which human asexuality does not exist contributes to the impression that it can’t exist by failing to dispel the notion of compulsory sexuality that is supported elsewhere in the mainstream media and that goes uncontested among much of the rest.  That’s where people’s worldviews are shaped and formed, creating implicit support for their assumptions — but at the same time, fiction is also the place where the introduction of new ideas won’t be met with as much resistance or criticism as they would elsewhere.  Far more so than individual ace voices and ace-centric awareness events, inclusion in popular fictional media offers a powerful platform for correcting ignorance of asexuality on a larger scale.

As a prerequisite to understanding my case here, you’ve got to have a thorough understanding of my philosophy on stories and storytelling, which is a bit more complex than “it’s entertainment” or even “it teaches meaningful life lessons”.  Both are true, but to leave it at that would be an oversimplification.  It’s not just a setting and a plot and a deck and sails, that’s what a story needs, but what a story is… what a bundle of fictional characters really is… is a kind of emotional communion.   It’s an opportunity to relate and to humanize, to see yourself in someone else, to feel like you’re taking part in their struggles.  Following the storyline of a fictional character isn’t just a way to waste a few hours.  It’s an exercise in empathy.

In that light, aggregate representation is a way for cultural forces to demonstrate which groups they deem worthy of that empathy.  Challenging a lack of representation means challenging those forces of prejudice.  When people ask for media representation, what they’re asking is for stories that confront viewers with the truth of their humanity.

You will not understand if the same basic acknowledgement has never been denied from you.

Although a single instance is not going to turn around a whole cultural history, the secondary benefit of fictional media representation, in the best case scenario, is that it allows outsiders a chance to get an intimate look at a member of a group and their experiences without necessarily exploiting the privacy of an actual person.  This is effect is possible for all conceivable groups, and it is always positive, because it encourages us — in the most practical, immediate sense — to think of humans as human.

We may say that we do this already, but there are always spots obscured and omissions to correct.  Prejudice is not something you can simply opt out of.  It was taught to you in many forms before you knew what it was, and you have to learn, with help, how to see yourself in the humanities you’ve been taught not to recognize.  Sympathetic media is crucial to that process because it takes the abstractness of truth and makes it something representable.  There may be people with minds closed toward awareness efforts who wouldn’t take the time to listen or seek out educational materials, people don’t care and won’t devote the time to it, and fiction is a way around that.

It’s not always a matter of overt resistance, though.

Sometimes, allosexuals aren’t malicious, they’re just confused; they’re willing to support us, but they still just don’t understand.  One of the frequent responses to the asexual spectrum, besides the various insulting ones that deny its validity, is the question of “how it works” — a question that many people of gsrm identities are familiar with.  Even if they don’t mean to be rude or ridiculous, allosexuals sometimes have a very difficult time understanding how a person can be asexual. So did I, when I first came upon the AVEN definition, because at the time I still thought I was some weird variation of straight.  No matter how many times we repeat what asexuality means, even some well-meaning allos don’t get it, and that’s not because of some deficiency of the definition.  No matter how clear the language of the terminology might be, it’s not that they don’t understand “how it works”; it’s that they don’t know what it looks like.  The definition alone is dry and technical, and by itself it cannot show them the stories.

It’s the stories that paint that picture and develop an understanding, and outside of specific discussions of asexuality, allosexuals don’t usually hear those stories.  That’s why they grapple with the simple concept of asexuality with such difficulty.  The culture has trained them, with the repetition of myths and generalizations, into thinking that sexual attraction, libido, and sex organs all cannot exist without each other — thus the inane inquiry, “If a person has genitalia, how can they be asexual?”  They’ve been taught that the way it works for them is the only way it works.  The teaching of all aspects of sexuality as inherently intertwined has not been combated in their favorite stories.  They’ve never seen openly-out asexual characters in their movies or books who weren’t somehow less human.  Storytellers have rarely written characters like us or asked their viewers to empathize with us without framing asexuality itself as a problem.

A lot of this (or something similar) goes for many marginalized identities, not just those on the asexual spectrum.  The only thing that makes aces any different is that we’re one of those groups most people haven’t even heard of; and that’s not to say that we have it worse than anyone else, but that it shapes our particular challenges.

One of the things we need right now is a well-known, mainstream, confirmed ace character whose asexuality isn’t a point of ridicule or a way to make the character “creepy”, deficient, or less human.  We need this not just for personal reassurance — although finding that solace is a huge deal, to the point that a post as simple as this one gets thousands of notes, which you can take as indicative of our exasperation — but also so that allosexual people will have had some exposure to asexuality before the moment we come out to them.  If they’ve seen an asexual character before and already have a passing familiarity with the concept, then coming out won’t feel as much like an uphill battle against centuries of sex myths.  So when they express inevitable confusion, we can say something like, “I don’t feel sexual attraction to anybody, just like __________ from ____________.”  And they will nod and understand, because thanks to a popular fictional character, we don’t have to be the first to tell them that it’s possible.

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One response to “On the Effects of Media Representation

  • Calum P Cameron

    I tend to use Sheldon Cooper and Sherlock Holmes (although that latter got more confusing when they made it into a TV show and Moffat claimed in an interview that he wasn’t) as my examples. Or the Fourth Doctor if I’m talking to a nerd. Or “God” if I’m semi-joking.
    Or I just cut out the middle-man and direct them to the Tvtropes.org page for Asexuality.

    But still, better (and more explicit) representation would be nice.

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