Representation Matters

Relationships in our lives are essentially circles of energy. Expanding, contracting, shifting and moving circles of reciprocation. Relationships falter and fail when the flow of energy does not mesh, sometimes that flow can be aligned and sometimes that circle will diminish so others can thrive. It is important to expand your circles whenever possible, to discover new ways of viewing the world to help you examine and refine your own. What am I talking about & why am I telling you this?

Well I was watching Captain America, the Winter Soldier recently with my family, we are working through the entire MCU set of movies before my daughter watches infinity wars. Anyway, whilst watching it, something that has been building broke through & you know what, I finally get it, I finally understand just how much representation matters.

When we are watching Captain America it is not he who steals the show in our house, but just like in the Avengers it is agent Natasha Romanoff played by Scarlett Johansson. My 12 year old daughter, a fierce, intelligent, natural born feminist watches and simply declares with absolute awe in her voice, “she’s awesome”.

It was in that moment that I got it, my daughter saw a woman being powerful, being equal, being awesome. She saw someone that she wanted to be like, she saw someone that the world had tried to pretend didn’t exist. It was amazing and life giving & I am so grateful that despite all the terrible things going on in this world, I get to raise my daughter in a time when seeing such things is not only possible, but is slowly becoming normal.

It’s funny, I had expected to have a moment like this when we watched Wonder Woman, yet whilst my daughter loved the movie, she also wanted to know why Wonder Woman’s uniform was essentially swimwear? It bothered her, why couldn’t Wonder Woman be a superhero in jeans instead? Now I don’t 100% know the answer to this, I haven’t researched it.  I don’t know if there is some sort of lore that explains why, but I suspect it was because a woman super hero would still need to be “sexy” to a man in order to sell to the intended (likely male) audience whenever the character was originally invented.

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So I didn’t get it before? Well no, not fully at least, let me try and explain why. When the Black Panther movie was coming out last year, I had two initial reactions oh another Marvel movie I’ll have to watch if I want to stay caught up for the next Avengers & also who the heck is Black Panther? Prior to last year, if you mentioned black panther, my mind would go to Forest Gump apologizing for having to fight in the middle of a Black Panther party. My knowledge of anything black panther related was limited to either the animal or something to do with American civil rights in the 60s.

Fortunately, despite being a white, I guess middle class & middle-aged dude (how did that happen), my circles are not nearly as tight, or as limited as some of my peers. Yet sometimes, you just don’t know something until you are told, or you see it. Or maybe eventually, despite being told & seeing, the light switch finally goes on. I was raised in the north of England, in a little pocket of Leeds that was a beautiful multicultural melting pot, this was normal to me, our family embraced it. Yet I could only ever embrace it from my point of view, the struggles of my Afro-Caribbean friends, my Indian friends, my Chinese friends were foreign to me. Then again, I was just an innocent kid with really no clue about the world.

I grew up with Superman wallpaper, I thought Christopher Reeve was the greatest actor ever, in my little kid heart I truly believed that Superman was real, even though it was “just a film” and that one day I might get to fly with him. I dreamed, I fantasized, it was never about anything more than Superman, it wasn’t race, it wasn’t color.

Yet what was the message being sent, at a subconscious level at least, by all these media products that always played to the cultural stereotypes of the time? To me at some level, the messages indicated that the impossible was not out of reach. To others, maybe the message was that the hero is always the powerful white man, the one that helps the damsel in distress. The woman would need saving by the strong man, the hero would be well you know the Superman looking guy.

None of this was cause for concern for a white kid in a good home living safely, really nor should it be. I don’t necessarily hold fault with the movie and tv makers, we are all immersed in our cultures and we become what we are taught to be. We are molded by those who control the narrative, the powerful, the rich, in modern times it is the media (and their backers) historically it was monarchies and the aristocracy. In Europe and America this has of course for centuries been white men.

One of the main beauties of the internet age for me, is the removing of control from those who have traditionally been able to manipulate the narrative. No longer must we ordinary people accept what is told to us simply because we are told it is fact. We have at our fingertips the vast majority of human knowledge gathered throughout centuries. I can look up Greek philosophy, African folklore, native American history etc etc.

With the gift of free knowledge, we have been given the gift of writing our own narrative. This is why you are seeing so much change happening so much faster. Previously what was taught was to be accepted as fact, even the research opportunities were carefully curated in your local libraries to corroborate the narrative. Now you have the ability (if you choose) to decide for yourself based on your own research. You have the capability of connecting with people the world over to discuss issues, not just people in your physical local community who you may or may not have anything in common with past geography.  This is why the narrative on things like “the great empires” and “manifest destiny in America” is transitioning from success stories to be celebrated, into historical atrocities to be mourned and learned from.

So anyway, back to Black Panther, when that movie came out I remember reading a review on it that was written by a friend of mine. We became friends as our circles collided and adjoined through video games. It is interesting, when you meet people and begin a relationship with them, you find yourself caring about what they care about. When a friend is passionate about issues, you will likely become passionate about them too.

At the same time as this article there was a crescendo of other articles, tweets, media bites etc, all proclaiming, not only the greatness of the film, but the cultural importance and significance. People of color of all ages proclaiming how wonderful, emotional and empowering it was for them to see this movie. I had never considered it before, but it makes total sense. Yet while I understood the view point from a mental point of view and I love the film and everything it stands for, it was still somewhat distant. The concept hadn’t fully penetrated my brain, because well if I’m honest, it’s hard for a white person to really understand the implications. It is hard for it to become your personal struggle when it simply isn’t. That is not to say that we should not adopt the struggle in order to make the world a better place, but the struggle does not, at least initially, become intensely personal.

Representation matters in movies, because when we do not portray a world that is representative of the reality of this beautifully diverse planet that we live on, when we do not present the possibility of impossibility to all; we deny people the opportunity to dream and to project. It is not simply the narrative that we lead people to believe, by giving them this historic line that they are some how less than, but it is also the lack of possibility that we deny people, by reducing their capacity to dream.

Sometimes you just don’t know something until you know. As a result, you perpetuate the myths, the problems, because you just don’t know. When my daughter was younger we watched the Disney princess movies, because that’s just what you do. She liked them, but it wasn’t until the Princess & the Frog, with the strong and confident Tiana that she really loved the movies.  In my ignorance I would have raised her as the princess, the Lois Lane, smart, but always looking for her prince, her Superman. Now her favorite movie is Hidden Figures & we are both super excited for Captain Marvel next year.

Through the gift of my daughter’s natural tendencies, my wife’s strong will and her own struggles with the inequalities of this world & an amazing group of relational circles; I am a better person, I am a better father & at least on some small scale, I finally, really get it. No one forced it on me, I was open to it through relationships that matter.

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An afterthought: Was I ignorant or simply innocent?

To me innocence is not knowing, ignorance is knowing and not caring, there is a difference. There is a great swelling of ignorance in the world, caused in large part by the fear people feel when it comes to change. Yet even ignorance can be helped, in much the same way as innocence can be. You can judge people by their innocence or ignorance, or you can lovingly open their eyes.

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Random afterthought on the marvel movies & fiction in general:

Despite the growing movement for equality and representation in movies, the age-old status quo remains in the message; that all problems can only be resolved with violence. I suppose this is a different philosophical conundrum to be pondered at a later time

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