Representation of marginalized identities in media is very important to me. I’m very passionate about it, specifically about having representation that doesn’t further harmful stereotypes and tropes and is well developed, well thought through, and respectful to the actual people it affects. That’s what I call good representation.
Some years ago I thought I wanted everyone to write a diverse range of representation regardless of how the author identifies. I wanted books to become more diverse, more realistic, and honest. But as time passed I became disenchanted by the fact that it often lead to bad representation.
What I mean with bad representation
I don’t mean that it included villains or that those characters could not be flawed. I mean that when not thoroughly researched, through ignorance and in many cases through lack of actually caring about the people it affects, marginalized characters were often written with their identities as simple tags that could be forgotten once introduced. In other cases they made use of tired stereotypes and not allowing them to be fully developed.
It’s not that I want to discourage everyone from writing anything other than ownvoices, but I do want to highlight that people need to stop writing other people’s stories. Some stories simple aren’t yours to tell.
Let people tell their own stories
Some stories have either not been written that much before have been written poorly. When this keeps on happening, people knowingly and unknowingly have this portrayal pour into the collective conscience as truth. Especially marginalized people get this treatment in terms of representation because often we aren’t allowed to tell our own stories.
Are you trying to write a story which could be described like what I just described, than this isn’t your story to tell. It needs to come from within the community. It needs nuance you cannot provide.
You’re not the only writer in the world. Publishing favours people who offer them the white gaze. They want something that they think will make them big bucks, but this turns into some f*cked up sh*t when most of the industry has its cogs and gears smeared with white supremacy.
Ownvoices books aren’t the epitome of representation and they’re not the only thing to fight for, but in many case we do need more of them. We need more stories told from the right perspectives. We need our truths out there. We need our mirror books and we need the window books which let us peer through the right windows instead of giving us an eyefull of friggin’ blackface presented as authentic storytelling.
It’s not a setback though
That being said. Write diverse worlds including marginalized main characters! Just… do me a favour and everyone else in the world and put a serious effort in making sure your representation at least isn’t bad. That it doesn’t do harm. Hire sensitivity readers and ask for consults if possible. As appropriate beta-readers or critique partners to help you out.
I know plenty of especially white writers complain about being scared to make mistakes but do realize we all share that fear. We all have to put in the work. Plus, let’s face it, privilege allows people second chances plenty of marginalized people aren’t given.
Complain about cancel culture all you want. It’s got horrendous flaws, but it also has its merit. The more privileged you are, the less you’ll be affected by cancel culture. That’s just the truth of it.
And don’t think there are any loopholes
Don’t think you can find a loophole in “easier” identities either. Writing bisexual character isn’t easier than writing lesbians. Writing mixed race characters isn’t easier than writing a black character. Writing a character with an invisible disability doesn’t mean it’s easier just because you can’t see it on the outside as well as not having a romance doesn’t automatically mean you wrote a good aromantic character.
Then what’s good representation?
Good representation to me is a portrayal of a character which makes me feel seen. They don’t have to be exactly like me, don’t have to share all my views, but they feel real. Authenticity comes in many shades and shapes. There’s diversity everywhere and that should be allowed in representation as well. Just don’t go empowering harmful stereotypes and feeding the stigma beast.
Of course there’s also a whole lot of space between good and bad representation so, what that means is we have room to learn and grow. We have room to explore representation in complex ways (as long as it’s ours to do). We don’t all have to be pure innocent angels. We can all be villains. We can all be protagonists, best friends, mentors, rivals, and a whole lot more.
I do however think bad representation is worse than no representation at all. So if you’re unsure, get the right help, or write something else. I’m done with people excusing away harm done through sloppily written representation and them not taking responsibility for the caused harm.
It’s not just shitty glares and enforcement of shitty biases, in some cases it actually costs us real lives. Keep that in mind next time you want to argue how a book handled representation with a person directly affected by said rep.