Representation Matters

     There is a, now better known, story told that after the
first season of the Original Series of Star Trek. The actress Nichelle Nichols,
who played Lieutenant Uhura, planned to leave the show to pursue a career on
the stage. When he heard of this, the civil rights leader Doctor Martin Luther
King came to visit her in her studio one day to ask her to reconsider. He
encouraged her to reconsider, saying that her role made Star Trek the only show
on television in which Americans could see a black women in a position equal to
that of a white person, respected for her expertise, and treated as an equal. Nichols
later reported that King had called her role vital to young black people and
young women all over the nation and that “once that door was opened by someone
no one could ever close it again”. She decided to continue the role and Star
Trek went on to conduct the writer Roddenberry’s vision of a future of greater
equality for generations afterwards. Some female astronauts have credited Nichols
as their inspiration, notably physicist Mae Jemison.
     Compare this to the role of Princess Leia Organa of Star
Wars. Despite the sexist past of many of the tropes that surround and make up
her character, actress Carrie Fisher succeeded in making the role powerful and commanding.
In the original Star Wars film, Leia reverses her rescue attempt by Han Solo
and Luke Skywalker, taking the vacant leadership role and rescuing them from
their mistakes. The character’s conflicting romance with both characters is
resolved by herself and her own choice. Throughout the films she is often shown
as a lone voice of wisdom, a leader, and a warrior. Thanks to the commercial success
of the film’s merchandising, Princess Leia action figures were among the earliest
in American toys to depict a women in an action role. Recently, the actress
Carrie Fisher revealed that Leia’s escape from Jabba’s slave chains was
entirely her choice. Director George Lucas had left the resolution of Leia’s
capture open and Carrie Fisher reports to have asked that Leia not be saved by
anyone but herself, moreover, killing her enslaver with the chain restraining
     Representation is important in nerdy media and it is
important to more than just the audience that is represented.
     Firstly, inclusion of oppressed groups and depicting their
struggle, either directly or metaphorically, strengthens support of that
struggle and helps privileged classes understand the suffering of that group. Class
differences, once quite stark in America, still exist, but too often are only seen as the a graph or set of data. Instead, class
and class conflict are made aware to young adults (and adult fans) through
fictions such as Avatar: the Legend of Korra.
      I find the development of society within the Avatar universe
between the Last Airbender Series and the legend of Korra series to be
historically profound. In the Last Airbender, the world is set in a pre-industrial
feudal/tribal social system. The three surviving nations are lead almost
completely by royalty and a warrior aristocracy, most of whom are benders, just
as our world was before the Enlightenment and Imperial eras. Class is cemented by the martial bending abilities. The only world leader
who is not a bender is the Earth king, who is depicted as ineffectual and weak.
However, in the Legend of Korra, society has undergone an industrial
revolution, science and a single world government has made war less important. Industry
and invention has made bending immaterial in gaining wealth, which is a far
larger indicator of class than bending ability. This mirrors the class shift
underwent by many countries in our own world; industrial and scientific
advancement make the martial aristocracy less crucial in war and politics. The underprivileged
classes struggle to be represented. This is shows as the Equalist movement in
The Legend of Korra, a revolutionary group willing to use violence to make
political advances for non benders in society. Though they are depicted as an
antagonist group to the bending main characters, their points are consistently shown
to be valid: non benders are bullied by the bending powers of the police, non
benders are not given representation in the council of Republic City, and in
the end (SPOILERS) their movement is shown to have led by a manipulative bender
who cares nothing of their struggle. These storylines inspire audiences to
reconsider their notions of good and evil, as antagonists are shown to be the
victims of injustice, and bringing violence to them does not resolve the
conflicts they represent. Scenes of non benders protesting and being beaten by
the police mirror images on the news of Occupy protests. Depicting antagonists
as victims of oppression offers privileged viewers the chance to identify those
oppressed in their lives – people with whom the viewers would not normally identify.
      Representation of the underrepresented is also very
important in inspiring members of those groups and including them in geeky/nerdy
culture. I have already given an example of inspiration arising from including
under represented characters, and I invite readers to fill the comments with
their own stories. If we hold these stories to be true, we must have accepted
that such inspiration is possible, but how is it possible? The answer, I
believe, has a lot to do with depth. There are well rounded underrepresented
characters, and then there are characters whose minority status is their only defining
feature. Pacific Rim’s Morri Mako is a well rounded character, unique because
of her experience and drive. Smurfette’s only defining feature, on the other
hand, is that she is a woman. Such characters as Smurfette serve only to
support the presumed non female audience’s external views of women, in the same
way that the characters on “Meet the Jeffersons” often served only to support
the presumed white audience’s external views on African Americans. (And the Big Bang Theory only exists to support stereotypes about us. -Ed) Such characters
are not generally inspiring, they tell the people they represent to keep their
head down, don’t challenge stereotypes, accept being an outsider. Deep and well-rounded
characters give normalcy and sympathy, allowing these characters to inspire us with
their heroic actions. Welcome to Night Vale’s Cecil may help homosexual fans
feel safe and accepted, because the character is not defined by his homosexual
feelings or relationship, and thus those parts of him are not shown as “other”.
     But to be accepted in the “Other” cultural group of nerds can be be very valuable.
Too many of white, male, heterosexual, and Cis-gendered geeks take this
inclusion for granted. (Just in case there’s some of you out there who don’t know this term, “Cis” means comfortable in the gender you were born with, basically. – Ed) Such folk have almost always felt a part, of this
culture at least, and do not consider how our culture could be exclusive. Female,
nonwhite, gay, and trans geeks are often
excluded, especially by being underrepresented in Nerdy fiction. Full, rich,
and three dimensional characters of these types counteract this exclusion in
two contrasting ways. Firstly, these characters help underrepresented geeks
feel welcome and accepted. Appropriately, the second reason is that these
characters normalize such groups to “mainstream” geeks and
influence the latter to accept the former. In essence, diversity and cohesion
of deep and multi-faceted characters in media creates better acceptance and
cohesion amongst audiences. This leads to a stronger social group in nerdom,
better writing as audiences become creators, less infighting, and happier
     Finally, representation in geeky/nerdy media helps the “mainstream”
understand the relationship they
personally have with oppressed groups, as well as the advantages they enjoy as a
member of the majority or non-oppressed group. This is often called “Checking your
privilege”. When people understand the privileges they take for granted, it is
easier to be aware of these factors as they relate to fellow geeks who cannot
rely on these privileges. Those who do not
understand privileges they enjoy do not see the systems that give them this privilege
(such as white audiences having so many protagonists to which they can relate),
and react negatively when those systems are challenged (such as when nonwhite
protagonists become more popular). Because the power dynamics that divide us
are so variable, it is rare to find someone who does not enjoy SOME privilege.
Rather, Privilege is when you are INCLINED to think thus, having no experiences to the opposite
     Being white, I enjoy considerable privilege, despite how
liberal the area I live in is thought to be. Specifically, I live in a predominantly
Asian neighborhood, where I am a minority. That minority status can provide
disadvantages (such as getting servers attention in certain restaurants) but in
most cases, my skin color puts me at an advantage. For instance, while walking
down the street, no matter how crowded, if my Asian American neighbors can see
me, they move out of my way. I just have to indicate where I intend to go, and
they will yield to me. It’s incredibly frustrating, but I can’t very well blame
them. People who look more like me than like them have made their lives
difficult in this country for over a hundred and fifty years. Over time, I
imagine, the laws, behavior, and assumptions of white people have made
confrontation with white people not worth the effort for the ancestors of my
neighbors, and that attitude may have been passed down culturally. The root causes
are subject to research and debate, but the effect is quite real before me: I
am given deference in my walking space because I am white. I point this out
specifically, because I cannot say I would have noticed this for sure if this
situation was not copied almost movement for movement in the books of my
favorite author Terry Pratchett as he used fantasy races to model real world
racial tension. The plight of nonhuman races in the predominately human city of
Ank-Morpork, written as if they were real people and not forces of the environment
with which the human protagonists much contend (as in certain fantasy books
that shall go unnamed), broadened my thinking when I was younger. Other books
depicting the disadvantages of characters that were not just like me in every
way allowed me the insight to understand my own privileges.


     As flame wars and game room debates rage across geekdom over
the bigoted nature of this or that comic book, the racist depiction in such and
such movie, and/or the sexism inherent in myriad industries, further awareness
can only help ease these tensions and resolve factions. Representation of underrepresented
groups in nerdy media does wonders to bring this awareness, as oppression and
the struggle against oppression is revealed in these works. Self-awareness and
actualization can be achieved by geeks excluded for their various outsider
statuses as they are inspired and given confidence through new role models.  Conversely, those on the other side of the
divide are given avenues to sympathize with and understand their counterparts
through exposure to these characters. Such characters are not only important,
but are important to me and have changed my mindset completely.
Jarys Maragopoulos
Jarys Maragopoulos grew up in the suspiciously isolated Ojai valley. Having acted in about a dozen plays as a child, including radio comedy routines, Jarys escaped with a College acceptance letter they had forged out of a hallmark card and octopus Ink. They rode the trains and learned the way of the hobos until arriving at the idyllic city of San Francisco, home to Jarys' dreams. At the University of San Francisco, where they won a Bachelors in History from the Dean in a Kung Fu match, Jarys met their two best friends and stopped blushing when they told people their favorite movie was “Return of the Jedi”. Since that time Jarys has earned their teaching credential (without resorting to thaumaturgy), collected a small library, learned Sumerian, and fell in love.
That list is not causal, they promise.

[Jarys is Genderqueer and, consequently, uses they/their/them pronouns.]

One thought on “Representation Matters

  1. Pingback: Overwatch publicly reveals first LGBTQ+ character! | Ace of Geeks

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