Representation Must Be Intersectional

Representation Must Be Intersectional

I spend a lot of time looking into the statistics of representation. I know things like 15% of all queer characters are played by openly queer actors. And even if you don’t have handy statistics at the tips of your fingers, I bet you can look at TV and point at some of the obvious areas where intersectional representation is lacking.

Visible Representation

It’s easy to spot that PoC representation of queer characters is pretty bad, if you’re not on Pose. It’s similarly easy to count the number of visibly disabled characters you see on television. Just as we have actors playing roles outside their own ethnicity, we have a large number of non-disabled actors portraying disabled characters.

And when you draw the Venn diagram of disabled actors playing disabled queer characters, the numbers are even smaller.

By the Numbers

As of August 2019, we have 378 queer actors playing 589 out of 3800 queer characters. There are less than 5 disabled characters this site, only one two of whom played by a disabled actor. If we tracked queer men as well, that number would be three. (NB: I was corrected, we had two characters played by disabled actors, however it remains true that neither are played by queer and disabled.)

The numbers are outright appalling, especially when you reflect on the numbers in our lives. I attended the Disability Panel at SDCC and learned that 20% of the total population identifies with one of the 13 types of ADA recognized disabilities. However, only less than 5% of TV characters are disabled. Of those, the numbers of disabled actors playing disabled characters is even smaller.

And at the intersection of all that, queer disabled actors playing queer disabled characters?

We don’t have any listed.

“Normal” Representation

Have you ever heard someone ask why we need to have a queer character on every show? Have you ever been told that having one queer character on one of the myriad Law & Order shows is enough? Have you ever listened to people complain that having a queer lead on a TV show is pandering?

They can be pretty exhausting to refute, but a fact all queers know is that seeing ourselves on television is often a rare occurrence. We grow up seeing aspects of ourselves and projecting the rest of our attributes on non-representative characters. We ship straight people together because, for many years, we had no viable alternatives.

We’re told over and over to be normal and that what we see on TV is normal.

All that does is reinforce the feeling that normal is what everyone else is, and what we are not.

Normal is Intersectional

We hear a lot about ‘diversity’ – forced or otherwise – to explain the nature of inclusivity. But as Shonda Rhimes says, that’s the wrong word.

 I really hate the word ‘diversity.’  I have a different word: normalizing. I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal way more than 50 percent of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary. 

Shonda Rhimes

The reality here is that the normal we see on TV, at least on non Shonda-land shows, isn’t actually normal at all. It’s a thin slice of pre-processed American cheese that isn’t representative of the world around us at all. We are, all of us, more than one small thing. We are a complex cross-section of all the things that make us unique.

This figure illustrates some of the factors which can intersect with sex and gender. Six oblong shapes of differing colors overlap and fan out. Each oblong has two identity factors written on it. The top oblong has “sex and gender” written in a larger font. Starting below sex and gender and going clockwise, the additional identities identified are: geography, culture, income, sexual orientation, education, ethnicity, ability, age, religion and language.
Credit: GBA+

Seeing ourselves on TV is more than just seeing the one lesbian or the one non-binary character. It’s seeing the one who dropped out of college, who moved around, who has depression, who isn’t Christian, whose parents are divorced.

Without seeing all those things, we cannot see ourselves. And not seeing ourselves is incredibly harmful to us, in our formative years and later on.

Normal Responsibility

At the end of the panel, the moderator asked two questions that linger with me.

  1. What role does fandom play in advocating for better representation?
  2. How does disability identity affect someone’s participation in fandom?

The fan work collective, An Archive of Our Own, won a Hugo this year. Fandom is, and has always been, a legitimate way to express the love we have for a story or a movie of a TV show. This website itself is a labor of fandom love.

One of the responsibilities we’ve taken on is to document representation for queer female, non-binary, and transgender characters on television. By doing this, we hope that we make it easier for people to advocate for change. We make our systems available for researchers and teachers to educate others, for reporters to write articles on the growth of change (or lack there of), and for everyone to find themselves.

It’s our responsibility as fans to represent the normal world. And its our hope that this site will help in that.

About Mika A. Epstein

Mika has been deep in fandom since she could say 'Trekkie.' With decades experience in running fansites, developing software, and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife and their cats in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.

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