Reflections on representation

Karen Pollock explores what LGBTQ+ representation means


A mirror can contain the reflection of the whole universe, a whole skyful of stars in a piece of silvered glass no thicker than a breath.” Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad

What does it mean to see yourself represented in the world? Even the very word “representation” suggests one trying to stand in for the many, which makes nuance impossible. A representative speaks for those who cannot speak, or whose voices are too weak to be heard. Representation also suggests a movement away from the actual. This drawing represents a kettle, but you cannot use it to boil water. It is less than the object in the world, it is a place holder, a representation.

So, representation is a slippery word, a slippery concept. If we accept it as lesser than the actual thing we are hoping to be represented, does it have any intrinsic value? If it does, who confers that value? If it does not, why do LGBTQ+ voices cry out so often for better representation in various media?

It strikes me that perhaps the dominant idea of representation is an imposed one, imposed by those in power, and in the majority. The idea of one role, depiction, or character embodying the entirety of LGBTQ+ experience seems to come from non LGBTQ+ people. When voices are raised for diversity we are constantly referred to previous representations, as if one can indeed stand in for all. This game has a bisexual character, so why are we complaining about gaming? One movie wins Oscars so Hollywood declares itself “representative”.

What does it mean to see yourself represented in the world? Even the very word “representation” suggests one trying to stand in for the many, which makes nuance impossible.

These thoughts have been prompted by a series of arguments around representation recently. The inclusion of a gay character in Beauty and the Beast has led to the biggest outbreak of dummy spitting that has been seen for some time, with calls for boycotts and bannings. Discussions have also swirled around Bioware and trans characters. Then, in the last week there has been the justifiable anger around the removal of LGBTQ+ content from restricted mode on YouTube.

Each of these, from the fool in a Disney movie, to videos produced by queer people for queer people, is about representation but not in the same way. Individually, no one representation matters. One gay character in a Disney film here or there will not represent everyone – even if Hollywood executives think it will. Seeing yourself in the world is not about seeing only yourself, or exactly yourself, but a sliver of yourself.

Queer representation is not “why is there nothing identical to me” but “why is there nothing which reflects an aspect of me”. This is perhaps the difference between queer and not queer ideas around representation. When a character like Le Fou is created there is a fear it seems that by seeing one LGBTQ+ person an entire rainbow of possibilities is opened up. It’s the idea of infectious queerness which I explored. He is presented as the “representation” of all things queer. Thus the cishet world avoids charges of tokenism and erasure in the very act of being tokenistic and erasive. “Look!” they cry, “we have represented you, in this one character, praise us for our openness”. The queer observer however, sees not themselves but one sliver of the universe reflected. It is better than a blankness, an absence of any aspect of ourselves being reflected, but it should not be seen as the end point to be celebrated.

The idea of one role, depiction, or character embodying the entirety of LGBTQ+ experience seems to come from non LGBTQ+ people. When voices are raised for diversity we are constantly referred to previous representations, as if one can indeed stand in for all.

It is why, in many ways the censorship of the multiplicity of LGBTQ+ content matters more than whether a few bigots boycott a Disney film. Yes, it is a step forward that children may see more representatives, more slivers of the universe onscreen. However, we were marrying the teapot off to the candlestick long before Disney thought of the fool, and literally no one thought Ursula was not queer. As I have argued before, we will be queering the narrative, infecting your world under your very noses. However, when we produce our own content, when we move from being the representative of all queerness into the thing in its self, the active agent not the passive object; then we encounter the blocks to being heard.

It seems that representation must be translated, that non queer people must stand between the queer character and the world. I am reminded of the advice around eclipses. We are always warned not to look directly at the sun, to avoid permanent damage. So, the eclipse is viewed through the medium of shadows and projections. It seems for the representation which is allowed and that which is censored when we are represented as, reduced, then we are found to be acceptable. When we are represented; by which I mean when the cishet world sums up the entirety of queerness in one character, one kiss, one moment of brief “diversity ” we are allowed. When we represent ourselves, present ourselves without the intermediate of cishet translation we are censored.

The queer observer however sees not themselves but one sliver of the universe reflected

Youtube claim the removal of LGBTQ+ content is minor. Others claim now we have LGBTQ+ characters across our media we should be happy, we are represented – but until we are the active agents of our own representation then a queer character is not enough. That active representations  can only be achieved when queer content ceases to be about one being representative of all and instead becomes judged by the same standards as cis het content.

Follow Karen on Twitter (@counsellingkaz)

Picture Credit By Wing-Chi Poon – self-made; at Observation Tower, Shark Valley, Everglades National Park, Florida, USA., CC BY-SA 2.5.

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