I have been catching up on ‘Game of Thrones’ lately and I realised one of the main reasons I find the show so engaging is that there are oodles of women in it. Not only that but there are many different types of women and they are all fully realised characters – each three dimensional with their own strengths and weaknesses and hopes and realisations. While the show certainly has many problematic elements this is something that it does well and that has made me think about representation generally.
If there were as many representations of women, or people of colour of people with disabilities or queer people and all the intersections between them as there are of straight cis hetero white dudes then we would not have to evaluate each and every sparse representation to see where it falls short. When there are so few people of colour on television each person of colour that exists needs to represent all people of colour, something that is impossible. It is unsurprising then that tokenism begets criticism. If Cersei Lannister was the only woman on the show I would probably be sad as it would be yet another representation of a woman who is twisted and vindictive – just another bitch queen. As it stands however Cersei is complex character who is imprisoned by her circumstances and has many reasons for acting the way she does. She is beaten down by patriarchal norms and has found her own ways of making the best of them. There are other female characters on the other hand who have chosen a different path when shown what the society in which Game of Thrones is set offers women. These diverse reactions to circumstances are very realistic. Women are not monolithic and having a range of representations reflects this.
Often when marginalised people are represented in pop culture we are told the same story about them over and over and over again. To the point where it begins to be accepted that all people from that marginalised group act that way. It is not surprising that the media we consume reflects the racist, sexist, abelist, homophobic norms of the society it mirrors. However allowing this to continue only reinforces those negative values as normal and true – they are treated as being value neutral when in fact they are deeply damaging.
When I see people of colour always being portrayed as villains in pop culture, this damages me. It makes me believe that people like me can only ever be seen as negative, nasty, and evil. However if sometimes people of colour are villains and sometimes they are heroes and sometimes they are anti-heroes and sometimes they are powerful and sometimes they are week and sometimes they are saviours and sometimes they need to be saved. It allows me to dream bigger dreams. Wider representation only makes our culture richer. It enables greater empathy and understanding and it allows its creators to have products that speak to a much larger range of people.
Star trek voyager was the first time I had ever seen an Asian character with a regular speaking role on television. It was something that shocked me, until that point as a child I had not realised that asian people were even allowed to be on ‘western’ television. When I was five, I wanted to be an actress, but when I stopped to think about it, I could not think of a single actress who looked like me on english language (the only language I speak and understand with fluency) television or in movies, so at five years old I quietly put that dream away realising that it was not for people like me.