Friday, April 29, 2016

GUEST POST: What Representation Means to Me by Alexa

Recently, I've noticed that people in the book community have been talking a lot about representation. As a young black female, I think it's cool that these conversations are going around, but at the same time, representation seems like such a broad, vague term that I wonder what exactly do people mean when they say it? Do they have a concrete definition? A special standard? Some sort of instinct they're going by? Honestly, I have no idea, which is why I want to propose the question: what does representation mean to you?

Image courtesy of tiramisustudio at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The first standard for representation I think of is the Bechdel test. For anyone who doesn't know, basically, if you have two women in your book and they talk about something other than a man, yay you! You've just passed the test for representing women. And I mean, that sounds great and everything, but in theory, one could have two women come on the page for about two seconds, talk about magazines and makeup, and that would technically pass the test. Obviously, that's a kind of out-there example, but it does show that, while the test is a nice idea, it's not quite as solid as it could be.

The next one that comes to mind is more of an informal guideline that has to do with non-white characters. Often, people seem to feel that as long as they have one character that isn't white they've done their job of representation. However, many of the black characters I've come across—certainly not all, but many—are either slaves, comic relief, or they act kinda ghetto; seeing as I'm a 21st century girl living in the suburbs who, according to some people, is not all that funny, when I see these characters, I don't feel real represented.

So again, what does representation actually mean? It's gotta go beyond simply being featured and it's gotta be more than having a single conversation in an entire work of fiction.

Personally, I think representation is going to mean different things for different people. Because, if the definition of “representation” is to take someone, create their likeness, and then say this is who they are, with so many people in this world, each one so gorgeously different, I don't see how any work can propose to do that with only a handful of characters. Now that's not to say that including minority characters isn't important or that authors shouldn't try to generate more diversity in their work, but because people are so different and there is so much to us, what's representation to one person might not be representation to another, and I don't think that asking authors to attempt to actually represent a people is fair.

So when I look for reading material, I'm not looking for “representation.” I certainly appreciate it when I see it, but all I'm actively searching for is an engaging story, characters that are intelligent, interesting, and inspiring, people who feel human and real. If they happen to be my gender or color, awesome, I'm thrilled. But I'm also not going to write off the story for not “representing” me in it.

In the end, I'd say that representation is definitely important, but being such a broad term attempting to cover an incredible amount of people, I don't know that it actually works. I don't know that you can expect every author to somehow produce a work of art that adheres to this indefinable, lofty idea. Personally, I think the most important thing is for authors to create the art of their heart and populate it with the smart, strong, relatable characters that make sense for their story. If those characters happen to be of color or they happen to be women, awesome. If not, I can still enjoy it, because I'm not looking for characters that represent me as a black person and I'm not looking for characters that represent me as a women; I'm looking for stories filled with fascinating, lovable characters who show me something about what it means to be human. Characters in whom I can see my heart now and who encourage me to be better in the future.

So of course I have to ask, what does representation mean to you? Do you have a certain number, a standard you're looking for? And is it a deal-breaker for you if you don't find it? Can't wait to discuss this with all of you, and thanks so much for having me, Heather! :D





I'm an aspiring author and a beginning blogger. Find me weekly at Summer Snowflakes and Verbosity Book Reviews.

14 comments :

  1. Hmm... I've noticed that recently, you have brought guests to talk about diversity. And I have enjoyed these posts.

    Representation? I don't know what that means to me in terms of literature. I'm a black teenager with Nigerian parents living in Ireland. I have read books that feature black people but not people with African surnames or African first names. I haven't read about lot of characters that are like myself. Well... appearance wise. I have read stories that feature shy introverts like myself. I guess that counts as representation.

    Do I have a standard? I'm not sure I can afford to have a standard xD So it is not a deal breaker if I cannot find it. I would prefer if not EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER was white though. I'm not talking about countries where POC are rare but countries such as America and the UK. I would also like if more POC wrote about non-white protagonists.

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    1. *nods* Fair enough. Though I don't think that you should have to feel like you can't have a standard. Just that you should decide what representation means to you, how much it means to you, and why. Personally, I don't need a standard, because all I'm looking for are good characters and it doesn't seem fair to me to ask everyone to write my story, especially if it doesn't fit theirs. :)

      Also, I don't know if you're a writer or not, but like I said to Shar, I'm big on the idea of "writing the story you want to read." So if you're not seeing yourself represented at all and you do want to, maybe you'd consider writing about your experiences. :)


      Alexa
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      verbosityreviews.com

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  2. I love this post, Alexa! I agree that it is impossible to represent everyone, and expecting authors to have a character exactly like you is not going to happen. And good stories don't need representation to be good and relatable and express something we didn't even know we didn't understand. BUT. I still think there is something to be said for accurate representation considering the world and the readers of the world are not all old and male and white. I'm not expecting there to be a book about a half-indian half-kiwi TCK who lives in India and goes to a fancy international school and has three siblings. But I would love more about indian cultures or third culture kids or big families (not that big) or dogs. Anywyay, this was super interesting as usual :) (P.S If you haven't seen Gungor's video 'God is not a white man' you should go and watch it on YouTube because it is freaking hilarious.)

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    1. Thank you!

      *nods* That's fair. And I'm not trying to say that accurate representation and diversity isn't important, but that writers shouldn't feel forced to try to "represent" if it doesn't make sense for their story and they shouldn't feel like they have to change their story or write a different story so that attempted representation does make sense. They should just write their story, whichever one inspires them, and let that be that. :)

      Also, even though finding it already written is fantastic, I'm a strong believer in the idea of "writing the book you want to read." So like if you were to write more about your culture, I would love to read about it. :)

      (I haven't seen that video, but I will definitely watch it and let you know what I think!)

      Thanks again!


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbosityreviews.com

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  3. This is a really great post! I guess I've never really thought about having a certain standard or something with representation. You're totally right, though, it's impossible to represent everyone with a handful of people (which is why I think so many female characters are often criticized, because sometimes they're the only female character (like in the Hobbit with Tauriel)).

    I think with representation that it's important to try to reflect the world the most accurately that you can. So it doesn't make much sense to have a Thai/New Zealand girl living in northern Canada with the Inuits. But an Aboriginal girl living in Central Queensland does make sense. You shouldn't try to write the Thai/NZ girl because representation. But yeah. I kinda lost track of the argument I was making there. Anyways, great post!

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    1. Yes, Tauriel was one of the people I was thinking of when I wrote this post! Like she's not my favorite character, but I think she and the story got way more flack over that than they deserved.

      No, you're exactly right! Reflect the world accurately and use only what fits your story. That's all we as writers should be trying to do with that. :)

      Thank you so much!


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbosityreviews.com

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  4. YES YES THIS YES. Good realistic characters should be able to represent anyone, even though it's really good to include marginalised groups because they're part of society too! I was talking to my music teacher about this, because we had concerts last week at school, and the majority of the composers were white men from West Europe or the US (there was also an Indian and an AFrican Song, and we played Katy Perry) Anyway, he said that gender politics have nothing to do with how good music is. To which I say: so if the place where a person is from/their gender doesn't matter then shouldn't we play pieces from all groups instead of perpetuating the idea that only white men can compose music. The same thing totally applies to books. To me representation is important, but not the MOST important thing. I guess my general rule is to appreciate empathy and be empathetic to people from wherever who look like whatever and make whatever life choices. I loved this post <3

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    1. Thank you so much! And yes, that's exactly what I meant: representation is important, but it's not the most important and if the characters are written well, empathy will be inspired no matter what. :)
      Glad you enjoyed it! :D


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbosityreviews.com

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  5. Really great post! I feel the exact same way. I really have nothing to add, haha. Off to tweet about it!

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    1. Haha, glad you agree! :) And wow, thank you so much! :D


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbosityreviews.com

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  6. Very interesting post. I'd been hoping you'd do a post like this since I wanted to get a POC's perspective.
    I recently did a post on diversity and how diverse personalities are more important (at least to me) than diverse skin colors.
    I come from a very white region of the US, so white in fact that I never met a black person until I was in my teens. I think this causes me to notice diversity more when I travel or read about it since it's different to me. (It also leads to me being rather afraid of saying something politically incorrect since I didn't even know the n word was seriously offensive until I was in my teens.)
    In many modern books, there seems to be something off about the diversity, at least to me. Maybe it's just my upbringing, or maybe it's because I can tell the author's trying to add it. (If you want to see older sci-fi with something that feels like organic diversity, try the Ender's Game books.)
    When it comes to how I feel about my own representation, I find very few characters like me. Sure, I'm a white female, which is pretty common in YA, but I'm also a formerly homeschooled country girl who lives on a ranch. I don't often feel like these parts of me are represented often. In Dark Life, the main character was a guy, but he lived on the ocean frontier. This was a character I really related to, because like me, he hated cities and liked his farm/ranch. When it comes down to it, gender and race are pretty minor issues for how I relate to characters. Their personalities and choices are much more important to me. If I see myself in them, I'll latch on, no matter the race or gender.
    When it comes to gender, I'd prefer there to be no female characters than end up being "represented" by one of those shrieking wimps who can't stay out of trouble for five minutes.
    I think maybe the reason so many POC end up being sidekicks is because the author wants the main character to be white, but they want to have some diversity, so the second or third most important character gets to be a POC. The sidekick, regardless of race, is often comic relief, so the two things get combined.

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    1. Thanks! And I'll have to check that out. :)

      Yeah, I know what you mean by that. I don't know if I'd say many modern books, but I've definitely read ones where the "diversity" felt very token.

      Ah, I've read Dark Life! And I wouldn't personally say that gender and race are minor issues, but I think who the characters actually are beyond that, their actual humanity, is the most important thing.

      Haha, yeah, I can understand that. Those charries can be very annoying. :p

      Well, that might be, but that doesn't really... make it okay, you know? I mean, I do believe that authors should just do whatever is best for their story, but if they just want to have a non-white person in their story just to say that they wrote a non-white person in the story... I think that's when the characters come off wrong to readers. Honestly, I'd rather have an all-white cast than a random, clearly-token POC when all the white characters are actually interesting, well-rounded humans. Not to say that all goofy side characters who aren't white are tokens, but if such were to be the case, I think the story would probably be better off with nothing but white people. Because, if the character is nothing but a flat token, can it truly be said to represent even a tiny portion of the human race? Even a sliver of what it actually means to be human? Personally, I don't see how it could.

      Thanks for commenting! I'm glad my sharing my opinion was helpful. :)


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbosityreviews.com

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    2. *facepalm* Oops. I deleted the weird comment as requested, Alexa, but it deleted Jessi's reply.

      Very Professional Patchup Job:

      The flat token thing does need to go. Part of it might be because the writers who don't know POC are basing their POC off characters they've read about, so they end up with a trope.
      I have a theory that a quick litmus test for this issue would be to imagine a book with all the characters being one race and one gender. (Cut out romance too, of course) If you do that, you'd be able to identify anything that was a token since the character wouldn't be quickly cut if they were the same as everyone else. (A good older example is Princess Leia. If she were Prince Lee, he'd still be a necessary and unique character)

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    3. Haha, thanks, Heather!

      Hmm, that does sound pretty interesting, Jessi. Because like, it would tell you what the character's role in the story was, besides romance, and whether or not their actions made sense, if they actually need to be there, etc. Hmm. I'm not sure it would work across the board (have to think on it a little more), but it's definitely a cool idea and a great starting point.


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbosityreviews.com

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