The Importance of Representation

You can know a thing and not really know it. I knew representation was important. I knew it’s important that Doc McStuffins exists and that baby dolls come in all colors. But I didn’t really get it until it changed the way I thought about myself.

This week I was teaching a unit about genetics and in doing so was discussing the meaning of the word “generations”. I did this on two different days. The first day, my slideshow featured these images:

Generations 1

There were no unexpected or unusual comments as we discussed the meaning of the term. The next day as part of a review, my slideshow featured these pictures:

Generations 2

In two of my classes there were comments from the male members of the class. “Where are the boys?” they wanted to know. One student even went so far as to say, “Hey that’s discrimination.” He was joking, but that’s hardly the point. The boys noticed when they were absent. They noticed when there were people in the pictures who didn’t represent them. They noticed, and they complained.

The girls, when looking at similar pictures, said nothing. They did not think it was strange to look at pictures representing a term that should include them but didn’t. Their absence or lack of representation was not a new or unusual thing.

I thought about writing a post like this after I watched the first few episodes of Girls, starring Lena Dunham. I loved the awkward and uncomfortable way she portrayed sex. But after the first few episodes I realized it was more than that. I loved watching a woman with a less than pencil thin body being portrayed as a sexy and sexually desirable being. The character of Hannah Horvath is in many ways an awful human; self-centered, narcissistic, etc. But one of my favorite scenes involved her riding her bike down the road in her bikini. When one of her friends suggested she put on some clothes she dismisses the idea, claiming that she’s in a beach town.

The humor in this scene doesn’t come from the fact that she’s hanging out of her bikini six different ways. It comes from her own delightful lack of self-awareness and social mores. It’s funny because she doesn’t care. I didn’t realize how much I liked watching someone with an actual human-looking body on TV until I saw it. I’m embarrassed to admit how much watching a TV show has made me feel differently about my own body. And I’m equally embarrassed to admit how much I didn’t really get about the importance of representation until I did.

There’s a fantastic organization in the kidlit world called We Need Diverse Books. I’ve followed their progress in social media but now I understand their mission in a new way. It’s not called “Diverse Books Would be Nice” or “Diverse Books Would be Helpful”. There is a need for diverse books because of the way representation can fundamentally alter the way we see ourselves and envision our future. If seeing Lena Dunham parade around in her altogether can change the way a 40 year old woman thinks about some very entrenched ideas about body image, imagine the possibilities for kids seeing themselves in the pages of books and on TV as doctors, lawyers, ninja super heroes, rock climbers, athletes, professors, and so on. The possibilities are truly infinite or at least they could be.

 

Advertisements