By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
‘Representation’ is one of the buzz-words which have become much more common in the last decade. These days, the fact that Hollywood films and TV shows often resemble a sea of white faces is something that is openly discussed. If a movie is set in Hawaii and the mixed-race main character is played by Emma Stone, it no longer escapes comment.
Like most buzz-words, I find ‘representation’ a bit of an irritating term. While it’s an incredibly worthwhile concept, the word seems to imply that people should find an identifying label, ‘Asian’, ‘Black’, ‘Gay’, ‘Disabled’, etc, etc, and stick to it. Once you’ve found a label, you are duty-bound to fly the flag on behalf of the community for as long as you live.
It should go without saying that human beings are more complicated than that. Even if we are limiting this philosophical conversation to TV shows and movies and laying aside the matter of human dignity, featuring a variety of human stories is an effective way of creating interesting and powerful entertainment.
When people discuss the importance of representation, it often comes back to the idea that seeing someone who reflects your own identity on the silver screen, can help you rethink what’s possible in your own life.
When Whoopie Goldberg was nine years old, she turned on the TV and saw a woman of colour on the original 1960s series of Star Trek. Nichelle Nichols portrayed Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, the fourth in command on the Voyager. Goldberg apparently ran through the house, excitedly calling out to her mother because she’d seen a black woman on TV who wasn’t playing a maid. Nichols once met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr at a civil rights event, and he revealed that he was an ardent admirer of Nichols’ work and a ‘Trekkie’. When Nichols said that she might leave the show in order to come march with King, he encouraged her to stay, saying “We look at that screen and we know where we’re going!”.
I think many inspiring role models don’t think of themselves explicitly as such. They get on with their lives and show through their actions that they aren’t defined by their circumstances or the prejudice that’s thrown their way. That’s why I don’t think the word ‘representation’ sufficiently covers it. I was mulling over how I would put it instead, and settled on ‘visual manifestation of inspiration’. Would Whoopie Goldberg have pursued acting if she hadn’t had that first spark of inspiration from seeing Nichols on her TV? And in turn, I’m sure many women of colour felt empowered to pursue acting after seeing Goldberg in Ghost or Sister Act.
I don’t want to speak on behalf of cultures which I am not a part of, but I think it’s safe to say that that no one appreciates being exploited as part of a tokenistic gesture. It’s painfully obvious when a TV show or movie includes a character purely for the sake of winning ‘diversity points’.
I recently stumbled across a handful of European shows which have been illuminating examples of what the complete opposite approach can look like. Elite, made by Netflix in Spain, Skam, a Norwegian web series, and WTFock, the Belgium remake of the same show. It’s probably no coincidence that all of these shows were produced on an online forum (although interestingly, the Norwegian series was funded by a national broadcaster).
All three shows follow a group of senior high school students. Skam and WTFock share a number of characteristics with Skins, which gained cult status for its raw and unpatronizing depictions of the lives of a group of teens. While I couldn’t access the full episodes online, I was able to watch excerpts reposted to a YouTube channel for international audiences. The third season of Skam is focused on the character of Isak (played by Tarjei Sandvik Moe), and the corresponding season of WTFock on Robbe (played by Willem Herbots).
The major story thread of Skam is sparked by a meeting between Isak and the handsome and charismatic Evan (played by Henrik Holm). The two start hanging out as friends while dating girls in the same social circle. As the episodes progress, they fall in love. Complications arise as Isak confronts his sexuality for the first time and Even experiences escalating manic episodes as part of his bipolar disorder. The story pans out in much the same way in WTFock, after Robbe meets Sander (played by Willem De Schryver) while on a camping trip with friends.
In both cases I became completely absorbed in the unfolding love story. It took me a little while to work out why exactly I found this story arc so refreshing, especially considering that I am a fairly heterosexual person who didn’t experience anything similar in my own teenage years. I realised it was the compelling flow-on effect of simply giving the story of two teenage boys falling in love, all the dignity and nuance that a heterosexual love story is almost always given in mainstream media. (I haven’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard Call Me By Your Name had a similar effect on audiences)
Both pairs of actors portrayed their characters with an incredible degree of naturalism and easy-going chemistry. Their scenes weren’t awkwardly cut short or censored with one-second kisses. Their story wasn’t framed as ‘alternative’ or ‘edgy’ in any way. Of course, parts of the story were devoted to Isak/ Robbe coming to terms with their sexuality, whatever label they ended up identifying with. But the relationship was not framed as only being important because it was a ‘gay’ love story.
If this was so compelling for me to watch, as a young person who hasn’t had to struggle with the prejudice which comes along with these issues, I can only imagine how it must felt for young bi/gay/queer teenagers to see themselves portrayed so masterfully onscreen. (I mean, I really can only imagine. A term that was bought to my attention on this particular topic is ‘allyship’. ‘Allyship’ refers to the practice of being a supportive ally to communities you are not personally a part of, with an open mind to experiences outside your own life. One striking point I’ve read on the topic of being an ally, is to “acknowledge that while you, too, feel pain, the conversation is not about you.”)
My final point: the positive power of media representation has been proven in studies. A good example is another show I have been devouring recently, The X-Files. It is a fantastic show in so many ways: entertaining, skilfully paced, kooky and mysterious… The relationship between FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully is all the more lovely and modern for all the things that are shown, and not explicitly said: the respectful space for disagreement between the two, the fact Mulder never questions the validity of Scully’s ability or ambitions, the mutually complementary nature of their partnership.
For those unaware (please, do yourself a favour and check it out for free on SBS On Demand), Dana Scully is brought to life on The X-Files by Gillian Anderson. As an FBI agent she is intelligent, cool-headed, relentlessly thorough and utterly dedicated to her job. Not only is she great in an investigative officer, she has a medical background which all but makes her a fully qualified doctor. Scully’s presence on The X-Files (airing from 1993-2002) had a particular effect on audiences:
Women who watched The X-Files regularly were 50% more likely to work in STEM fields, and nearly two-thirds of the women surveyed who now work in STEM considered her a role model. Geena Davis Institute CEO Madeline Di Nonno writes, “In the case of ‘The Scully Effect,’ it shows that when, in media, we have non-traditional roles for women and girls it helps them envision these pathways for themselves.”As quoted on the fantastic Facebook page A Mighty Girl
So there you have it. Despite being nicknamed ‘the idiot box’, television shows have the ability to genuinely inspire as well as entertain. Speaking of which, I’ve got some Netflix foraging to do.