By Ashley Griffin
Representation in fiction and media is what we all fight for. We boycott whitewashing, and we celebrate characters that deviate from the normalised, cisgender, white boy. We empathise with characters with anxiety and depression, because we know how it feels. But the thing about representation is that it has to be done right.
Too often is representation used in a way that slanders or demonises mental illness, gender, sexuality and race. Too often is a character used as a trope to represent depression and nothing else. Too often is a character thrown into a story to fill the role of the gay best friend.
If you’re going to portray a particular group of people, whether it be regarding gender, sexuality, race, or mental health, there’s a particular way it needs to be done.
Any of these parts of a character’s identity cannot be their entire identity. You can’t put a character in a story just to use them for their depression. Nobody is just their depression and anxiety, but when that’s all a person is boiled down to in media, it creates a huge impact on people who see themselves in these characters.
Fiction and media cannot demonise or vilify any of these groups based on those parts of their identities. This in particular happens far too often, and in fact, one of the biggest movies of last year vilified mental illness, and was still one of the greatest box office hits of the year.
Night Shyamalan’s 2016 film ‘Split’ antagonises dissociative identity disorder (DID), poisoning perceptions of the mental illness. DID, more commonly known as split personality disorder, is a mental illness where a person has more than one personality or identity. The antagonist of the film kidnaps three girls and keeps them against their wills, clearly making him out to be a villain.
This film is an example of poor representation of mental illness. ‘Split’ demonises people with DID, reinforcing negative stereotypes and prejudice towards people with the disorder. This is not just bad representation; it is dangerous.
Representation can be powerful. When done wrong, it can create misconceptions. However, when done correctly, we see hope and education.
In recent animated films like Disney’s ‘Moana’, we have a Polynesian female lead character. Moana, as well as Tip from Dreamworks’ ‘Home,’ and even the multicultural cast of ‘Big Hero 6’ are all characters that children look up to and see themselves.
Representation in animation is especially powerful. Many children’s shows are animated, and as animation becomes more and more progressive and representative, children can learn about the world around them.
Rebecca Sugar’s ‘Steven Universe’ is an animated show that airs on Cartoon Network, and is credited for amazing representation of same-sex relationships, and also has a non-binary characters.
The characters in these films and TV shows demonstrate wonderful and progressive representation. They educate whilst not creating false stereotypes and prejudice. On the contrary, it creates positive ideas, as not only do people see themselves in the heroes of these stories, but they also see others. They see that the world is not ‘us’ and ‘them’. There’s no difference between people based on gender, sexuality, or race.
Representation matters. But, it has to be done right.
Done wrong, it can create prejudice towards certain groups of people, based only on parts of their identity. It can create negative stereotypes and promote incorrect information, the consequences of which are dire.
However, if a group is represented not as villainous, or used just to represent a trope, but as real people, it would make the world of difference. It would make the world different.
If fiction and media reflected what we see when we walk down the street, represented every person just as they are in the real world, the results would be enlightening.