Representation is Important

_96965516_doctor_1

So Jodie Whittaker has been announced as the 13th Doctor. For those of you unfamiliar with the greatest TV show of all time, Whittaker will be the first woman to play what has traditionally been a male role and so, unsurprisingly, the bottom half of the internet has exploded with equal parts joy and vitriol.

This post isn’t altogether about Doctor Who (although for the record I’m all for a female Doctor and have nothing but good vibes towards Jodie Whittaker and the production team. Go for it!). However, reaction to the casting highlights something very important: representation is important. The last couple of years has seen a lot of controversies around representation: controversies over women-only showings of Wonder Woman, over a black Storm Trooper, over there not being enough white dudes in the trailer for a new Star Trek show. All of these stem from a status quo that’s overwhelmingly white, male and straight. While some of this is due to the age in which major entertainment franchises were born, the fact is pop culture has a representation problem.

Imagine what it’s like to never see yourself on the screen, or to always be the sidekick or the comic relief or the first person to be eaten by the zombie. Imagine all the leads being ripped white guys. Imagine being told that films starring heroes that look like you wouldn’t sell. Imagine characters that look like you always being sexualised. Imagine characters that look like you being killed just to drive forward the hero’s journey, imagine characters that look like you being omitted from playsets because someone somewhere figured that little boys wouldn’t play with a girl action figure.

Imagine being cast as the new Doctor and seeing someone comment that the show should be renamed Nurse Who.

Some are quick to write this stuff off as the stuff of ‘political correctness’, but it sends a message, a message that women aren’t important, that LGBTQ people aren’t important, that people with disabilities and people who aren’t white aren’t important, aren’t interesting enough, aren’t lucrative enough.

Imagine if Jesus kept getting portrayed with blond hair and blue eyes.

Imagine all that, and think about what’s being erased.

These are the messages that are filtering through to children, and that’s heart-breaking. You’ve only got to see the reaction of kids to meeting their heroes, or even just meeting cosplayers, to see what it means to have an awesome character that looks like you. This isn’t just disposable, meaningless entertainment, this is pop culture mythology, this is the building blocks of imagination, this is a reflection of our world, both in reality and in potentia. That’s why Leia kept showing up on placards at the Women’s March on Washington. That’s why people were crying as they got to see Wonder Woman. It’s why I want both kids and Jodie Whittaker to read this post by Susie Day.

It’s not just about representation either. It’s about seeing the heroic, the aspirational, the awesomeness of someone who doesn’t look like you. As a kid I always thought Han was the coolest; now I’m glad that Leia’s been established as a general and a leader. I’m glad that my kids can watch The Force Awakens and not comment on how none of the three new heroes are white men. I’m glad the Doctor is regenerating into a woman because the things that make the Doctor – intelligence, compassion, eccentricity and bravery – aren’t male qualities, they’re human qualities that can be embodied by anyone.

And this isn’t just about what’s on the page, on the screen. It’s about who gets to create. We need more diversity among writers and directors and actors and producers and artists. We need more perspectives to be turned into stories, we need more experiences to be documented, we need talent from all quarters to enrich the culture around us, and we need avenues to make that happen (check out Arts Emergency and We Need Diverse Books). We’re all in this together, so let’s see that echoed in our stories.

We’re the product of the stories we tell. And we need to see ourselves in those stories, and I hope a new Doctor can be another step in a journey that’s already been too hard and too long. But let’s keep working at making our stories bigger, more expansive, more diverse, more human.

Advertisements

Learn From The Stories Of Those Who Flee

storytelling

It’s July, and writers and storytellers walk across south-east England, telling the tales of those who fled to this country to escape war and persecution and tyranny. A journey about journeys, Refugee Tales is a pilgrimage of sorts, all about migration and detention, a welcome mat laid at every stop, a salt-circle safe-space established against tabloid hysteria in which people can sit and listen to the stories of refugees and those who work with them, can sit and think about movement.

Because we need to think about movement. As long as the bombs fall and the tyrants rage and the planet warms, we need to think about movement.

Storytelling is at once a spiritual and a tangible practice. How we use words and language and sentences and punctuation shapes our narratives and defines and moulds the stories we live by. There are ‘big’ stories that drive nations for good or ill, manifest destinies or cries of ‘two world wars and one world cup’; there are also smaller stories, quieter stories, stories that emerges from the margins to supplement our uber-narratives, or to challenge them, David standing before Goliath armed only with a sling and the hope of justice.

Sometimes those quieter, rarely heard stories are an inoculation against terrible things and furious words. That’s why we need to listen to them. That’s why we need organisations like Migrant Voice, an organisation that helps promote the voice of refugees and migrants, or the Museum of Immigration and Diversity at 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields.

Wait, an inoculation? Maybe, or a shield:

“At the core, what we’re involved in when we’re trying to make positive changes in our communities and in the world is a battle of narratives or a battle of stories, and that the corporations and different parts of the government tell us are stories that they use to cement their power and legitimise their power. Those of us who are angling for positive change need to tell another story rooted in our lives, and that’s the core of social change movements, it’s fighting between stories.”

So said organiser and writer David Solnit on the Iconoclast podcast in June, and he’s got a pretty good idea of what’s going on. That’s why it’s important to leverage whatever influence we’ve got to allow refugee tales to be heard, and to make the time to sit and listen to those tales.

But how we listen is important too; we should first listen not to fix but to understand. It’s through understanding that we will be formed by these stories, and recognise the humanity of those behind them; that’s not to be underestimated in a media landscape that routinely uses words like ‘swarm’ and ‘horde’ to describe refuges or migrants. Through listening we also learn, and one of the most important lessons we can learn is that we’re not so different.

A while back, the New Yorker published a piece entitled ‘The Refugee as Cassandra in the Shining City’, which highlighted the importance of hearing the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers because they can see and recognise things that the rest of us often can’t. We like to think that It Can’t Happen Here; refugees know that it can happen here, and by the way, here are all the warning signs you’re missing.

(So often Western countries see themselves as cities on a hill to which people flee to, but we can’t picture ourselves as places people could end up fleeing from. That’s a failure of imagination that leaves us vulnerable to authoritarianism.)

(Maybe this is also why people who leave, say, Pakistan or Mexico are called ‘immigrants’, while people who leave the UK are called ‘ex pats’.)

But perhaps most important, refugee stories are an assertion not just of humanity but of identity and individuality.

And amidst all these unique stories, there will be shared experiences and flashes of recognition, and through those moments of familiarity relationships can start to emerge, and with them community and appreciation; through moments like this, we make ourselves neighbours, find ourselves family.