Monday, June 9, 2014

Celebrating Progress in Diversity and Representation in Fiction

I have been noticing a troublesome pattern in the discussions of representation lately. It seems that every comment made about a particular film or television show doing something well is met with an onslaught of attacks about what it did not do. This is most prevalent currently in discussions revolving around The Fault In Our Stars, but it is far from the first time I have picked up on this.

The Fault In Our Stars is receiving quite a bit of well deserved praise over its representation of teens living with cancer. I touched on this in my Feature Friday post last week. For once we have been given a story that revolves around sick characters but does not reduce them to their illnesses. Finally we have been given a story about sick people that does not exploit them so that the other healthy characters (and arguably the readers) can learn valuable life lessons about living every day to the fullest. And even more than that, the story (the book more than the movie) openly criticizes the way society tends to think about people like Hazel and Augustus, the way we tend to consider them cancer patients first and people second.

For once children living with illnesses have characters they can relate to and see themselves in. 

The Fault In Our Stars is a great step towards improving both the way sick people are represented in our stories and the way they are thought about in our society. And there are testimonies from kids and teens living with cancer explaining just how well the story portrays what they are going through. My personal favorite is documented in an article about John Green that was recently published in the New Yorker:

""Hi, I’m Brittany. I’m fifteen and I had the same kind of cancer Gus has, osteosarcoma.” John reached out his arms to give her a virtual hug. Brittany reached back and said, “You did an amazing job of capturing the fear, the humor, and the real pain of being a teen-ager with cancer.”" (source)

The Fault In Our Stars is a victory for representation. And yet, more often than not, whenever anyone tries to celebrate this bit of progress, there are 10 others waiting to tell them it can't be considered a victory because it didn't represent x, y, z. 

I want to be clear about this: I am not saying we stop constructively criticizing a story for its representation (or lack there of) of Group A simply because it did well in its representation of Group B. However, telling Group B that their victory is invalid because Group A isn't included is something we cannot continue to do. Being critical of representation does not mean we ignore the victories as they come. There is a difference between being content with a given representation and acknowledging and celebrating progress.

Social activists, we need to stop fighting each other. Every word we spend arguing with each other is a word lost. We are all on the same team, or at least we should be. This is not a race to see who reaches equal representation first. Every one of us who belongs to an underrepresented group wants to have more characters we can see ourselves in; one group's victory should not be treated like another groups loss. Yes, please, by all means lets talk about the lack of racial diversity or LGBTQIA representation. But those conversations cannot be allowed to happen at the expense of another group's celebration that finally, finally they have characters they can relate to. If your criticism of a story simultaneously stomps on another person's celebration of their being represented in it, you need to take a step back and reconsider what you are doing.

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