Representation on TV

Television is A Cultural Constructive Tool: Why Representation Matters

Representations both reflect and construct the world they are produced in
(Douglas M. Kellner, 1995)

When discussing fandom, many people often deny the importance that a plural and diverse representation on television shows can have on society’s views on humanity. Those same people will later talk about how television corrupts people and how it shapes and twists the ways in which we perceive the world. Indeed, representation is not only about reflecting what humanity looks like in reality, but also about constructing it.

Let’s put some examples. If a viewer gets used to seeing heroes being attractive and smart, they will think that they cannot be powerful or relevant in society without having those attributes. If they get used to seeing a chubby dorky kid get bullied on television, they will end up believing they need to lose weight and become popular in order to succeed in school. In that sense, television works in a very similar way to advertising. If a commercial shows very thin, tanned and beautiful women wearing swimsuits and asking the audience whether they have “the bikini body”, women will believe that they have to look a certain way in order to be socially accepted while wearing a bikini. Whatever the format might be, the power that television has in creating stereotypes and molds in viewers and consumers’ minds cannot be denied. That’s why I find so strange that, when one demands to see more diverse representation on television, people who are against that idea will say that “it is not television’s job to define society”. Maybe not, but it still does.

Television, as any other cultural element, works as a mirror to what society is. And it works both ways: humanity also tries to mirror what they see on television. If a little girl grows up surrounded by male superheros and damsels in distress that need to be rescued, she will prefer to play a princess in kindergarten and will grow up thinking that she will always be in a weaker position than men. In the same way, if a closeted homosexual boy grows up watching a show about a homosexual superhero that is accepted for what he does and not for what he is, he will feel more confident to come out of the closet than if he was surrounded by heterosexual heroes who think that being gay equals being not “manly enough”. Be it identification or empathy, the truth is that representation on television offers certain viewers the possibility to make meanings of their social identities and to feel more empowered. Furthermore, founder of the Cultivation Theory George Gerbner once said that “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation”.

the 100 - clarke and lexa - the daily fandom
The 100‘s main character, Clarke, is not defined by her bisexuality

Things have slightly changed, though. We are starting to see some queer characters in some action and science fiction shows, but we’re still far from unquestionable equality. Simply presenting a queer side-character and counting that as “representation” is not enough for several reasons. One of them is the fact that these queer characters are always presented in a second stance, hence implying that they are not “normal enough” to appeal to the general audience as the main character. While the lead character will always be relevant just because they are the protagonist, side-characters usually have to work harder and justify their place in the show in some way. To guarantee that, these side-characters are usually granted a series of characteristics that will make them stand out from the rest to secure that they are still relevant. We find “the smart one”, “the goofy one”, etc. Making a side-character gay is one of the ways of making this character feel different from the others. Because of that, the queer side-character will be constantly showing the audience how gay they are because their whole personality is reduced to their sexual orientation. Homosexuality is rarely ever seen in lead characters because they “don’t need it” to stand out (remember when Chad Kennedy said that he would support bisexual Dean Winchester “if it served the story”?)

Actor Jordan Gavaris, who portrays main character Sarah Manning’s gay brother on television series Orphan Black, stated the following during San Diego Comic-Con 2015:

“We like to be reductive in life sometimes. I don’t know why. It’s a social construct, whatever you want to call it, we reduce people down to sexuality, or their diseases, or their race, or their sex, or their gender, or whether or not they like Game of Thrones. But that is not who people are. People are complex”.

It can no longer be denied that television helps defining and shaping what we perceive as “normal” or as the “standard human being”. In this day an age, a cisgender heterosexual white man is still “the default human”, which is somewhat understandable since that was the type of human being that had more rights in history until recent times. But things have changed and so should television because everyone deserves to see themselves in their favourite series as well, and not just as side-kick character or as a stereotyped running gag.

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