Representation Is Heavy (But It Matters)

[Featured image by: Menellaos]

Several weeks ago I had the singular pleasure of substitute teaching for a course in the California College of Arts M.F.A. in Comics program. Yes, you read that correctly. There is an M.F.A. in comics. Where was this X number of years ago when I was on my Higher Ed journey?

The students were wonderful and were producing some interesting work. What struck me were the — for lack of a better/more accurate phrase — identity representations in most of the work. The queer student explored queer issues. One woman was writing and drawing romantic comedies. The lone Black student addressed blackness. But the white men told stories.

One was a horror guy, the remaining few created in either Sci-Fi or traditional superhero spaces. There didn’t seem to be a need or desire to represent whiteness and maleness. Maybe because whiteness’ and maleness’ superpower is that it is as transparent as it is omnipresent. It is the cultural default. It is akin to oxygen. We talked a little about this, but ran out of time to dig as deeply as I wanted.

On the way home, something was nagging at me. I wasn’t able to articulate it until now. I want to pose a question to you all:

Do marginalized creators owe anything to their fellow marginalized?

It is a heavy burden. Having to represent a body of (similar) people is some of the heaviest social lifting one can do. How can one person, and their art, represent all of the myriad dimensions, concerns, and intersections of what amounts to a kind of nation of people?

I know I’m a proponent of diverse media and feel strongly that representation matters, but I’m increasingly having trouble with the idea that an artist has to carry “their people” on their backs. It skates too close to the idea, by some illogical leap of imagination, that people are somehow a monolith. But this gives me pause.

On the other side, why wouldn’t one use whatever means and power they have to represent and speak to their people? In my case: Where in the history of the popscape have you seen/read/heard about a 6’1” tattooed Jamaican/Puerto Rican father and husband, a black belt in Judo, proficient in JKD and Kali, a tech enthusiast, AfroGeek with advanced degrees?


When I create, shouldn’t I represent that demographic? Well, at least the black and male and geek-y demo, as the other stuff is probably a bit too narrow. Geek culture is so overwhelmingly white, that it feels like an obligation to develop a strong and inclusive counter-narrative. But does this obligatory feeling dilute our creations?

All of us, whether explicit or not, create from our social and cultural positioning. All of the values, mores, traditions, language, hell, even the foods and songs we were raised on find their way into our work. But does trying to adhere to some cultural standard affect our work in ways it wouldn’t be affected if we were allowed to just tell stories?

If you’re white and straight and male, you get to tell stories. Since society has already set you up for success in multiple ways and consistently reaffirms your existence at every level, you get to write about heroic men doing heroic things. But as POC, or as women, or as Queer folks, there is another filter through which we have to push our art. But the question remains, do we have to? Should we have to?

I want diverse media, of all kinds. I want to see POC in comics. I want movies with loving black fathers who are still with their spouses and not the stoic single father that is so prevalent (shout out to Benjamin Sisko) — but I want those images, too, as we hardly ever see loving black fathers in our mediascape.

The Emissary of the Prophets.
The Emissary of the Prophets.

But I also feel for my artists on and in the margins.

The burden of representing for your people is nearly impossible. How can you represent something that has more facets than any gem? But we try. We try because we know that we have a voice and we have means and we have access and if enough of us do it, we just might become the new default and the burden of representation will be eased.

Your thoughts?

10 thoughts on “Representation Is Heavy (But It Matters)

  1. Love this blog and love this post. I don’t think I have much else to add besides agreeing with the sentiment. It is already difficult for artists of color to have their personal art out there for everyone to judge, I don’t know that it is fair to also ask them to represent the rest of us. I would love to see a panel on this topic because I am sure there are many artists who have an opinion about it.

    Thanks your work on this blog. All the various contributors are fantastic but I relate most to these types of posts.

  2. specifically included means the audience gets it. hinted and subtext means the people who get it are told they are incorrect.

    it is about respecting the audience one seeks to draw.

    Back in the 1990s, I was part of a group who did a human rights complaint against Statistics Canada… being counted and included matters and we told them that if they were not going to count us, then at least they had to put in the report that they did not, so we were included by exclusion. which is messed up.

    and Next Gen.. Ricker and the planet of androgynous lesbians was just sad. the Trill almost made up for that.

  3. You’re not the only black person to chafe at the idea of having to be all things to all black people, or being a role model. I think this too, is a theme that a lot of PoC struggle with.
    Is just being yourself and doing what you do enough, or do you have to put certain words and ideas out there (or not) because people might be looking up to you. How much do you owe (your people)?

  4. balance. if you are an artist you have more than one story to tell. you can write two stories for example. do they both have to have white male protagonists? do they both have to ignore social issues you personally may be facing? write from your heart and soul, write the story you want to tell but if race/gender/sexuality truly isnt an issue to the plot then why not take that white male and make hime an asian woman? a gay latino? again you have other stories you can write not tackling social issues, one wouldnt hurt. i’ve been writing since i was 12 and i’ve only ever once touched on race cause i created this character that was a bigot (homophobic and racist) but my stories are always diverse, usually teen super heroes cause thats my cup of tea and no one says “lets talk about race before we save the world”. all white justice league doesnt do it, why shouldnt my all poc team do the same?

  5. Very intriguing post. Exploring issues of race, gender and sexual identity are important, especially in this day and age where some think the work is already done, but telling a good story with characters who are POC or female or gay or transgender is equally important. Showing that a POC or a female or gay or transgender character can do everything the cisgendered, hetero, white male can do is vital, I think.

  6. Consider that telling a story about a superhero/adventurer/whatnot is just a story, but the experience of a black/queer/female/whatnot hero simply has some differences based on who the person is…IF you are talking about a protagonist in our current “society as is” world.

    A queer/black Flash Gordon, for example, wouldn’t need to address issues of race and sexuality on the planet Mongo, for example, because to the Mongo folk, he (or she) is just another “Earth person” — they wouldn’t know or care about the various identity politics of Earth, and the hero would be more concerned with the simple issue of survival and exploration of a strange, new culture. Is this doing a disservice to the people the character represents (blacks and queers in this example)? No…because it’s at least giving the represented an example of a protagonist to whom they can relate and hold up as a fun hero, rather than just another same-old white-male-straight dude (of which we have a gazillion).

    But if your black superhero is, say, fighting crime on the streets of the present day U.S.A. a good story is probably going to address some POC issues because those issues are still part of the POC experience at the moment. I don’t think it’s a REQUIREMENT to do so, but it adds an additional layer to the storyboard…not just “can I save Mary Jane from the Green Goblin” but ALSO how does my black family react to me dating white Mary Jane in my (non-hero) identity. Peter Parker has to worry about paying the rent…Jamari Parker has to worry about that, too, but also has to deal with potential harassment if he forgets his press pass when he shows up late night to photograph a crime scene. Ignoring these things is possible, but it’s missing an opportunity that doesn’t come easily when working with the “traditional white dude” character.

    So, no, you (marginalized artists) don’t HAVE to address the issues that come from marginalization; i.e. I don’t think there’s some inherent responsibility you have. BUT, depending on the setting, your stories may feel disingenuous (or worse…boringly “same old same old”) to folks who read your comics. Especially if the people drawn to your marginalized heroes are marginalized themselves.

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