Some of my best friends are white males

In my Twitter journeys this morning, I happened across an article from Todd VanDerWerff in which he recommends USA’s new show “Mr. Robot” as an alternative specifically to viewers who have put up with enough from “True Detective.”

“Men are forever defining themselves against some weird, hidden code of masculinity that supposedly their grandfathers had access to but they can’t seem to crack,” writes VanDerWerff. “So let me suggest something else: Literally everything fans say they want from True Detective is being done much better by a ridiculously titled show on the USA Network about a computer hacker: Mr. Robot. The show, which airs new episodes on Wednesdays and is available on Hulu, is one of the best in years about what it means to be a man in modern America.”

The article definitely got me on the hook to finally go watch “Mr. Robot” (though I didn’t read the whole thing because spoiler alert). But it also tapped into a concept that’s been crossing my mind lately: I am inherently more interested in “other” stories. And white male protagonists have to prove themselves to me.

I’m not trying to be here for tokenism, but I am tired of “unbelievability” being the basis for centering stories on white, male (and usually cis, straight, well-off, etc.). “Boyhood” won me over, but had its protagonist been a woman or a black kid coming up in Texas it would’ve been infinitely more interesting.

The double-edged sword is because stories from those who don’t see themselves reflect in the media are always inherently politicized. “Boyhood” had the comfort of not having a thesis; of meandering through its hero’s adolescent development. But a black kid? A woman? A trans person? Not so much. They’re victims of what I once heard described as the “Sailor Moon principle.”

Picture of Sailor Moon See the titular Sailor Moon, in her every day life as Usagi, is far from the elegant anime hero you’ve seen on backpacks and comics in the ’90s. She’s lazy, she loves eating, she’s unabashedly in love, and honestly? She’s kind of a ditz. If you dropped her character in an otherwise all-male cast, she would get dragged. No one wants her to be the representation of womanhood. But because her title is chock full of strong women, each their own individual with their own shortcomings and strengths, she’s a much more successful character.

In many ways I suppose this philosophy circles back a lot to my sincere belief that representation in the media matters. But it’s also just true that the inherent politicization extends far beyond the media we consume; if you don’t fit into a societal norm that area of your life is always more heavily politicized, whether you like it or not. It’s a pain to live with. But it’ll always add another degree to your story that will make it more interesting than it would’ve been with a run-of-the-mill white male protagonist. (One of my favorite Tumblr ideas I can’t find the link for is to swap out all white male protagonists for old Grandmas to make a story instantly more interesting. “Ocean’s 11,” “Goodfellas,” you name it)

Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark and Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 2, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Annette Brown/AMC“Friday Night Lights” won me over by the end. But “Friday Night Lights” with women in the lead roles? More lesbian subplots? Here for it. I’m currently watching through “Halt and Catch Fire,” and though I’ve loved Lee Pace for a while, this show is a lot more interesting to me since I found out it’s (spoiler alert) setting up a finale where Cameron and Donna start their own company. As I muck through the early episodes, I’m a lot more interested in the casual subversion of “Halt and Catch Fire” if it’s leading to leaving AMC’s classic anti-hero arc behind for greener, women-led pastures.

I’m still interested in the way our culture explores and builds masculinity. Like I said, VanDerWerff makes a compelling case for “Mr. Robot,” despite it being focused on yet another white male. But I’m not as interested in giving these stories an automatic greenlight anymore.

We should all be exploring diverse voices. Especially when women and people of color can’t even use theirs without being policed.

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On Glasses and Half-Moon Spectacles

This is Lorelai Gilmore.

Lorelai-Gilmore-image-lorelai-gilmore-36522287-1024-768She’s the eventual owner of an inn, mother at 16, and lead of the acclaimed drama “Gilmore Girls.” The show, which started in 2000 dabbles a lot in the nature of families, class, privilege, and growing up, and follows her and her daughter Rory through the ups, downs, and coffees of their lives.

This is also Lorelai Gilmore.

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Across the entire seven year run the show never really mentions Lorelai’s eyesight issues. Occasionally, often out of the blue, Lorelai will come on screen for a scene or two and be wearing a pair of glasses. It’s not frequent, but not unexpected either.

The thing is, Lorelai’s glasses got more presence than Dumbledore’s sexuality did in the entire Harry Potter series. And it struck me, on my most recent rewatch of “Gilmore Girls” (thanks Netflix!) what a great example this was of representation.

Representation in the media is a map for identities and people. It’s the way the media portrays groups, communities, experiences, ideas, and so much more. A sort of funky funhouse mirror, media representation both represents and re-presents images of folks–particularly marginalized peoples.

Despite what some people say, media representation matters. Even simple roles like Lt. Uhura in the 1960s “Star Trek” have led to people like Mae Jemison becoming the first African-American woman in space, Whoopi Goldberg deciding to become an actress. John Cho cites seeing Sulu on “Star Trek” as one of his earliest memories seeing himself in his media. 

I didn’t see any Asians on television. And you turn on Star Trek and there’s this Asian guy not chopping anybody up. He’s honorable, a helmsman of a spaceship, and it was a big, big deal for me to see that and have a role model. -John Cho

You see, identifying with characters in media is reassuring; it communicates a sense of belonging. Which is probably why studies have shown that white men feel a rush of self-esteem when they watch TV, unlike everyone else.

The problem with stereotypes and erasure is that it promotes the idea that there’s a normal, and worse, that there’s an appropriate age for realizing you don’t fall into that category. Most people can remember nuggets from their childhood that foreshadowed where they’d be later in life. Whether that’s realizing you’re a writer, that you’d collect bugs, or that you’re attracted to all genders is fairly inconsequential; kids don’t necessarily have a sense for where this will take them.

By limiting exposure and examples of gay characters like Dumbledore, leaving their sexualities to be just an afterthought that never found its way onto paper, producers of media are not just contributing to the heteronormative culture we’ve built up. They’re taking away a chance for kids to know that growing up “different” can mean many things, including that it’s not the main act of your life. Nobody is just one thing. You’re not simply your gender, race, sexuality, class, favorite Nic Cage movie, or any other marker you may carry with you. When J.K. Rowling assumes that she has to find a way to “work in” Dumbledore’s sexuality it furthers the notion that she’d even need to.

Representation isn’t after the fact. Representation can’t be just a quick quip to be confirmed by filmmakers. And representation doesn’t have to be the main focus of a character. Sometimes it’s as simple as slipping on a pair of glasses–half moon or otherwise.