Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Seeing Myself: The Importance of Representation

Every year it's the same problem: I go to pick out a new cosplay only to realize once again that anything I pick out I'll have to bend to fit my demographic. Rick of Rick and Morty becomes Fat Non-White Rick. Harley Quinn becomes Fat Boy Non-White Harley Quinn.

The only costume I could pull of with my ethnic traits and body type is Mario.

What Is Representation? 

Representation is the ability to see similarities in the characters one sees in media and one's own self. This can be anything, including age, gender, race, sexuality, religion, language or even personal experience. A person can enjoy a character even if none of these traits are apparent, how many people after all have bought Baby Yoda and Baby Groot merchandise without being a big eared alien or a tree? But when a majority of human characters look the same (i.e.Caucasian males between 16 and 25 with trim beach-ready bods and perfect hair whisking their equally athletic blonde love interests into the sunset, it's hard to not eventually take it personal.

The Street Rat

The first time I ever saw someone who looked like me playing the hero was in Disney's Aladdin. The titular hero has tanned skin, and while I am not from the Middle East, that one trait was enough to let me know that I wasn't alone in the world and that people of my own color could be heroes. After that Disney came out with a small pile of heroes I understood, like how Beast had a temper like mine when I was a kid, or how Quasimodo felt like a monster, a problem I faced most of my life since I feel like I look like a Mr. Potato Head that was left out in the sun. Being able to see myself, even partially, was valuable to me because it validated my existence as a person to see other people like me.

When Representation Goes Bad

Fast forward several years, the MCU is at the height of popularity, though unfortunately full of the white Caucasian slim-fits that were as alien to me as Drax. Spider-Man: Homecoming enters theaters and my friends all tell me that there's a character that reminds them of me down to a tee. Curious and excited I see the film to see the character they were talking about-Peter Parker's fat Filipino-American nerd friend. I wanted to be insulted. This. This is what my friends see me as. This is how I get represented. As a comedy character sidekick. This character is in the list of characters I could pull off in a cosplay, and it hurt.

I don't want it to come across that I thin the character shouldn't be there. He is fun and makes for a pretty good audience surrogate, but my issue is that he's the only person who looks like me in film. I want to be the hero, or at the very least get to be part of the action rather than delegated to a computer lab helping the hero save the day.

This sadly is not the most insulting comparison that's been made with me. One of the most offensive pieces of media in the last several years (in my humble opinion) is the TV series Big Bang Theory. The show portrays four geeks who follow every piece of geek stereotyping: Social ineptitude, obsession, oblivious to fashion, even portraying stereotypes long since thought to be overcome, including Jewish, Indian and people on the autism spectrum. While the show was on the air and in its hey day I was constantly hearing comparisons between myself and the characters, to which I would become legitimately insulted. I felt like my interests, my personality and the things I hold dear were being exploited for entertainment, and it made others think of me as the same joke character as these people were.

Onward and Upward

With as many missteps as are taken over the years hope still abides. This week Disney released a film celebrating geeks all over and giving them the proper Disney treatment. Chris Pratt, famed comedian and actor, plays Barley, a large nerd who enjoys life. From what we've seen of the trailers Barley is not portrayed as useless but more of following his own drummer, and while his skin tone is bright blue I am very pleased to announce that he is a more hefty fellow, calling back to Pratt's body shape before hunking up for Guardians of the Galaxy.

It's important for people to see themselves in films, even briefly. Onward has caught online slack for featuring Disney's first in-canon LGBTQ character (though I would dispute that with Le Fou from the live action Beauty and the Beast but whatever). The character, a background cop with one line indicating that she has a girlfriend. Some picture the damage it could cause children to see this character, but I imagine the person struggling with their identity seeing a character like them, even if it's just one line in the background, and knowing that they are not alone in the universe, they're not a freak or a monster, they're a person.

Incidentally, I haven't seen the movie yet, but I am the proud owner of a large stuffed Barley. We play video games together.


Also check out our review of "Onward"

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