Take out your notebooks and sharpen your pencils, boys and girls and variations thereupon, because I am about to teach you a thing about representation — what it means, and why it matters.
Representation. What It Is; What It Isn’t.
When Jurassic World was released last summer, there was uproar in feminist communities about the lack of representation of women in the film. One stupid-ass answer that tried to refute that complaint actually suggested there were more women than men in the film due to the fact that all the dinosaurs on the island were female. Clearly, not everyone understands what representation means. Animals do not count, dammit! My dear friend Oxford defines representation as follows:
the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way
This is the Cenozoic era, people. Representation of dinosaurs is not so important, and if it were, gender wouldn’t be the issue, but the fact that those velociraptors, despite being confusingly adorable, did not sport feathers. Look it up.
Now I know, dinosaurs are awesome and I would love to write more about them, but I’d rather not go so far off on a tangent I’m no longer in the same quadrant. Right. Back to the topic at hand. Representation.
Get inside your TARDIS, or join mine, because we’re going to 2012. Yep. The new Hawkeye comic has just been released. Let me introduce you to Anthony Smith — he’s a lifelong comic fan, which isn’t a hard feat when you’ve been alive for all of four years. Fun fact: Anthony Smith is nearly completely deaf. In 2012, he refused his hearing aids and told his mother that superheroes don’t have blue ears. So what did she do? She wrote to Marvel, and asked for any comics that might be about deaf superheroes. Marvel dug deep and found Hawkeye comics from the eighties and also very kindly created Blue Ear, a superhero who needed hearing aids. Little Anthony — to his mother’s relief — decided to start wearing hearing aids again.
Media, in whatever form, has certain representations of gender, sexuality, race, class and disabilities. As the comic book form of media becomes increasingly popular with every film adaptation release, it’s important to consider what effect this medium will have on its readers.
Anthony Smith went from refusing to wear his hearing aids, to having a superhero he could relate his deafness to. He went from believing that the deaf couldn’t be heroes, to having Hawkeye and Blue Ear tell him that yes, they could.
All good teachers start off with a short story
(I happen to be an okay teacher, so this might be a bit long-ish.)
Let’s get back in the TARDIS and head forward two more years to 2014. Somewhere between mineral-craving goats are memes and $55 000 being raised to satisfy one man’s need for potato salad, I picked up a comic book called Ms. Marvel #1.
Let’s go even further back, and do a quick introduction of yours truly, Professor Chacko, PhD in Verbal Diarrhoea . I’m a twenty-four-old woman of Indian ethnicity, born Swiss, and raised Canadian. I hate those assholes who don’t turn off their cars in traffic. I perk up whenever I hear the theme to Hockey Night in Canada. But I speak Malayalam when I get home and eat Indian food at least once a day. I am an amalgamation of all three cultures and yet I belong to none of them. I am what I am. I don’t fit in a box, you’ll likely find me hopscotching from one to the other.
You’ll likely find Ms. Marvel hopscotching with me. Kamala Khan — as she’s known when she isn’t in costume — is a sixteen-year-old Pakistani-American girl, a huge fan of Carol Danvers AKA Captain Marvel, and a superhero in her own right. In fact, and SPOILER ALERT: she’s an Avenger now. But what I want to focus on, is one small bit in the first arc of the story. Kamala receives her superpowers, and what does she do? Kick some bad ass, obviously. How does she decide to do this? By using her appearance-altering powers to change herself so she could go fight looking like Carol Danvers — white, blonde Carol Danvers.
It took me a while to realise why this decision made my skin itch from the very beginning, and it wasn’t until Bruno, Kamala’s friend, asked her why she couldn’t just be herself, that I understood.
I am a writer. I started off writing fanfiction when I was a kid. I still write fanfiction, but I’ve also expanded. I write articles, poetry (really bad poetry), lab reports (so many lab reports) and original fiction. But of all the characters I have created, I realised last year that none of my lead heroes have ever been people of colour. And that’s coming from me, a woman of colour! So I had to ask myself this: “Merin, what the !@#$ is up with that?”. Why would I, a woman of colour with multiple anxiety disorders, decide in the back of my noggin that heroes had to be rich, able-bodied-and-minded white men?
Short answer? Because that’s what the media has been trying to ram into my head for as long as I have been immersed in it. And as someone who’s been — on and off — part of the comic book fandom since I was six, the comic book world has had a large impact on my life. Like the fact that until I was about eleven, I had seriously believed Wakanda to be an actually country in Africa. Don’t judge, look at the map and point to Burundi.
world_map.gif (Caption: It’s okay. I couldn’t either.)
Judging aside, the point is that somewhere in the back of my mind, I still believed that superheroes were rich, straight, white men. And I’m not saying they can’t be, but that even in my own writing, I was doing what the Big Two and most of the small comic book publishers had been doing for over 75 years — whitewashing the world. Despite my love for progression in the comic book industry, even I myself seem to be having trouble with accepting diversity in heroes, simply because it’s what I’ve been seeing the most in this industry.
There are many comic universes to focus on, but a) I’m lazy and b) I know more about Marvel so you’re stuck there with me, and we’re going to go New York City, Marvel Universe (616, if anyone’s confused). The CIA estimate of men to women ratio in the real world’s New York City is 53% female to 47% male. In the Marvel Universe? According to Walt Hickey (2014, October 13), the ratio is 25% female to 75% male. So either Marvel Universe’s New York City is some alternate universe where half the population of women were wiped out or kidnapped by aliens, or the reason the ratio doesn’t translate to the superhero population is because Marvel writers are sending out the indirect message that men are more likely to become superheroes. Women seem to be the exception rather than the rule.
Creators are gods of their own worlds, and thus have a right to do with their worlds as they please. However, as Wasko (2001) said in her fascinating book Understanding Disney:
Creators of popular cultural products may have admirable, nonracist goals, but we are left with their creations, not their intentions.
Comics are popular culture products, it’s not the 1990s, people, it’s mainstream. And with the recent emergence of digital comics, the number of readers are only growing. Comics are becoming a more prominent type of medium.
Obviously, that means that it becomes more influential in the way our worldviews are shaped, and clearly, even those of us who are proud of our critical thinking hats won’t remain completely unaffected. The long term media representation of communities can and does affect people’s opinions and views of the world. So in a way, media representation doesn’t simply reflect or mirror reality, but serves to re-present the world.
Writers are futurists.
Martin Cooper was inspired by the Star Trek communicator to invent the cell phone. After you take a moment to thank him for eventually giving you the ability to prove your bullshit with a few simple finger swipes on your shiny smart phone, consider the sheer gravity of this fact. 75% of the world own a cell phone. A modern device that three-quarters of people on the planet now uses on a constant basis was created because of something that someone saw in a work of fiction.
I gave you a happy thing. Now I’m going to do the sad thing. I want to consider the portrayal of mentally ill people in comics. Batman comics are particularly notorious for the portrayal of the mentally ill as villains. Shall I explain? I think I’ll just say Arkham and leave it at that. So when I turn on CNN and another mass shooting has happened and the blame doesn’t go to the person, but to the ‘fact’ that he was ‘mentally unstable’, I’m furious, but I’m not surprised.
That is not representation. Yes, we have multiple characters with mental illnesses. But they’re misrepresenting the community. And humans are notoriously bad at accepting that which is different so if the only glimpse a person has of that community is that mental illness equals evil evilness, that is very much not a good thing. I understand that we, as humans, like to put people into groups of “them” and “us”, and that’s okay, because it is a coping mechanism to deal with terrible events. It helps us separate ourselves from the tragedy and comforts us with the idea that we are different from those horrible people. But blaming it on mental illness? Still wrong.
Living with a mental illness is hard enough without having to hide it from your close ones because you’re afraid of their reactions. Harder still is when that stigma hinders people from ever even seeking out the medical attention that they need. The last thing comic books need to do is further this problem. We are desperate for superheroes with mental illnesses. We need more comics like Tony Stark dealing with his addictions, and John Stewart suffering from PTSD.
Writers are futurists, and so need to be careful with our words. Yes, comics are meant to be entertaining, and I do read comics to be entertained, but I want the stories to have substance. I want to find myself in them, and if not that, at least, find the kind of hero whom I hope to be.
Tell me a story
Comic books, as other forms of media, have one goal. And that is to tell a story. Humans have been telling stories since before writing was invented. Psychologist Pamela Rutledge (2011, January 16), says:
Stories create genuine emotions, presence (the sense of being somewhere), and behavioural responses.
Immersing ourselves in the stories of protagonists in fictional universes results in genuine emotions, I’m with you there. It also creates presence. Every story I’ve read is an adventure I’ve experienced. I’ve felt the scorching heat of Mount Doom on my face, I’ve laughed with Fred and George Weasley, I’ve fought Loki with the Avengers and I’ve mourned Lord Morpheus at his wake.
The kind of universe that is created in comics have a huge effect on the reader’s subconscious view of the world. As I noted earlier, in the Marvel universe one in four characters are female. So in this world, either there are only one woman to three men in the whole population, or women are simply less heroic that men. And that’s the message my brain keeps running even as I weave my own stories.
The secret ingredient to a hero recipe
This is Oxford’s definition of a hero:
A hero, is a person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.
(I’m going to ignore the ‘typically a man’ part, and use the term hero to refer to all genders. Although heroine is the traditional female equivalent, I’ll be using hero as the gender-neutral term.)
There are three secret ingredients to being a hero and they happen to be courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. No, not all comics are about heroes, we have tons of indie stories but they all do one thing, and that’s tell a story. And when protagonists, the heroes of our stories, are frequently portrayed as white, straight, cisgendered men, some part of our noodle is going to accept that as the definition of — a hero.
But it’s not. And it most definitely shouldn’t be. Individuals of every majority and minority have the capability to be heroes. They have the right to be heroes, to be inspired and touched by stories that validate their life experiences, too.
And that starts with telling stories about everyone. It’s about a little boy who starts using his hearing aids because Hawkeye does, and it’s about a woman who’s bouncing between three cultures only to find a home in Kamala Khan’s world. I want people of every gender, sexuality, race and disability to be represented, to feel validated, and have the hope that they too can be more. That they too, can be heroes.
- Hickey, W. (2014, October 13). Comic Books Are Still Made by Men, For Men, And About Men. Retrieved December 18, 2015, from http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/women-in-comic-books/
- Rutledge, P. (2011, January 16). The Psychological Power of Storytelling. Retrieved December 18, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/positively-media/201101/the-psychological-power-storytelling
- Wasko, J. (2001). Understanding Disney: The manufacture of fantasy. Cambridge, UK: Polity.