As many of you might have noticed, last week was Convergence, the annual sci-fi and fantasy convention at which the Skepchicks run their own science/skepticism track. As per usual it was oodles of fun, and also as per usual it left many of us with lots to think about.
One panel in particular struck me with how clearly it illustrated the need for increased representation of minority groups in media. How We Change the Stories We Tell About Disability focused primarily on what the panelists and audience members wanted to see in their media when it came to characters with disability. Some people said they didn’t want disability to be the focus, they just wanted it to be one facet of the character. Others said they didn’t like being a plot point. Still others wanted the disability to be recognized as having benefits, like allowing a character to use their assistive technology to beat the bad guy. And some people wanted stories to focus on what it was like to be someone with a disability, the particular struggles that came from that.
If you pay close attention to all those desires, you might notice that some of them contradict each other. Disability should not define the character or be a plot point, but also write stories in which the struggles of having a disability are addressed. It’s confusing enough to make your head explode.
Is there no right way to write characters with disabilities? Should authors just give up and not even try to have representation in their books, because no matter what they do it will be wrong to someone?
Of course not because parity and social justice are never that easy.
What does become extremely obvious from this kind of panel is that representation isn’t the only thing that matters. It’s not enough to have one or two pieces of media doing a good job representing a type of person, or having just one token individual representing all of a minority. No piece of media can be everything to everyone, which is why when we say “representation matters” we don’t just mean we want one person.
We mean that we need a plethora of representations. We need physical and mental disabilities represented. We need people who are strong and weak, who happen to have disabilities. Good guys and bad guys. People whose lives are focused on disability and people who barely notice it. Just like we need women of all colors, shapes, and sizes, from different backgrounds, who relate to being women in different ways. Just as much as activism needs to be intersectional, so should media.
Instead of just saying representation matters, it might be helpful to realize that representations matter. All kinds of them. There’s no one right way to be or portray minorities.
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
–Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie