I’ve been seeing discussions about this going around, and figured I’d throw my opinion into the ring. As a disclaimer: I am a queer cisgender white woman, so while I can speak to some aspects of diversity in media, I obviously can’t speak to them all and hope that y’all seek out the voices of other minorities to get their thoughts as well.
Diversity in media is so, so important. Growing up, I did not see many lgbtqia+ folx in books or movies or television shows. I lived in rural New England in a small town and heard slurs thrown around as insults on a daily basis. Even at a young age, it was clear to me that being gay was a Bad Thing.
I was so sheltered in my exposure to lgbtqia+ information that I didn’t understand anything about the fluidity of sexuality. Even as a child, I knew that I wasn’t straight because I liked girls. But I knew I wasn’t a lesbian because I liked boys. I spent years lost and confused, thinking I was some kind of freak of nature. In middle school, I met someone who identified as bisexual and it turned my entire world upside-down. I still remember the sense of relief that flooded through me–there were other people out there like me, and there was a word for what I was feeling.
Even today, living in a city and surrounded by lgbtqia+ friends, my heart skips a beat when I see an indication that someone may be Like Me. When I see two women walking down the street holding hands, when I see someone with a rainbow bandana, when another woman casually drops the word “my girlfriend” into a sentence. Butterflies fill my stomach and I feel giddy and a smile blooms on my face. I feel less alone, I feel relieved, I feel right in the world.
Growing up in rural New England, I didn’t get to see any of these things. Sure, I had a handful of lgbtqia+ friends, but we were a minority. Most of us were either not out or were getting called slurs behind our backs if we were. Even if we weren’t. Sometimes kids just sensed there was something different about us, and those slurs were the only thing they had to pin to us.
One of the only things that made me feel better was seeing people like me in media. Seeing lgbtqia+ people on TV shows or in books was like the ultimate Where’s Waldo. I was starved for representation and would take any scrap I could get. Most of the media I took in reinforced negative stereotypes, queerbaited, and/or depicted lgbtqia+ lives in an overwhelmingly negative light (tragedy everywhere!). I had to make do with what I could.
Today, I feel a lot luckier. The world is a little more open, I live in a more accepting place, and it’s easier for me to find representative media. But there’s still so much missing! It’s still difficult to find “popular” media that doesn’t reinforce negative stereotypes or depict lgbtqia+ folx as living these sad lives. We deserve happy endings, too. We deserve realistic, healthy representations.
This doesn’t just go for lgbtqia+ representation, either. All underrepresented groups deserve this kind of representation. We all deserve to see ourselves as belonging to the world. Without that, it’s easy to feel lost.
I’ve seen some people say that it’s not necessary to intentionally seek out diverse media. I wholeheartedly disagree. While “popular” media is growing somewhat more diverse, it isn’t just going to happen on its own. Coming from a not-so-diverse area, a lot of my social circle is comprised of white Americans. So a lot of the media I’m exposed to is white, American media. In order to diversify my worldview, the onus is on me to seek out media that provides representations of groups of people I may be less familiar with.
I’m not saying we need to force ourselves to read things we don’t like. But if you like YA fantasy, maybe find a list of YA fantasy featuring people of color. If you like historical fiction, find historical fiction featuring lgbtqia+ main characters. The beautiful thing about bookish communities is that a lot of people love to give recommendations! If you can’t find a list of diverse books that fit your specific interests, put a call out asking for recs or use some google searches or consult a librarian. There is certainly diverse media out there that you will enjoy, but it’s unlikely to fall into your lap in large quantities. If you want to consider yourself an ally to any group of people, you need to do the work to support and understand them.
I also think it is a necessity to emphasize Own Voices in every way. Find Own Voices books, read Own Voices reviews. If I read a diverse book that talks about something I have no experience with, I try to look for Own Voices opinions on it before I write my review and before I form my final opinion. You may think the representation is fine, but maybe you’re not picking up on something that deeply hurts the people within that group. And that’s not your fault, but the opportunity to learn more is still there.
Authors writing about communities they don’t belong to can walk a fine line at times. I agree that it is not fair to expect perfection–of anyone–but if you are attempting to write about something you have not yourself experienced, you need to work to ensure that you are writing proper representation. Research is important, but I think having Own Voices folx provide feedback before you finalize your work is important as well. If you are writing a book about a bisexual woman and you’re straight, get the opinions of some bisexual women! Obviously no one person speaks for an entire group, but getting a few opinions from people within that group can be the difference between a flimsy caricature and realistic representation.
I don’t think I’m anywhere near perfect when it comes to reading diverse books (and that’s something I need to change) and my opinions are not the end-all of this discussion, but these are just some things I’ve been thinking about lately. I think it’s easy for people in positions of privilege to say that diversity is too overemphasized, but take a minute to imagine what it’s like not to see yourself anywhere. It’s easy to feel broken and like you don’t belong, like the world is saying “we don’t care if you’re here or not.”
Anyway, this got way heavier than I was expecting! If you made it this far, I applaud you. I guess my take-home here is really that diverse media has always been and continues to be important to me. Whether or not you feel it impacts you directly, supporting diverse media supports marginalized communities, both by making them more visible to the world at large and by making you, specifically, more aware of them and of their struggles and achievements.
Thank you all so much for reading. Please, please, please feel free to comment letting me know what your thoughts are! This is something I’m passionate about, but as I stated earlier, the discussion doesn’t end with my opinion.