A bit of background for you:
Back when I was still in school, I took speech and debate class. It was the only class that I can truly say I enjoyed. Giving speeches was like a drug. It was horrifying in the best way, like a roller coaster or a horror movie but so much more addictive. However, because of my constant absences, I was only present for a small handful of speeches. My speech/debate teacher was more than willing to exempt me from the presentations I didn’t have ample time to prepare for, this being one of them. The prompt she gave us was “write a speech arguing a point.” I came back the first day of presentations. Everyone had had a week or so to prepare their speech outlines. I was buried in make-up work from other classes, so I was planning to sit this one out. While I was in the back pretending to listen to speeches about Hillary Clinton belonging in jail and why you should sleep without a shirt on, though, a boy stood up to give his speech, which he clearly had not prepared at all. He stood up there for three minutes and gave a poorly-planned argument about how the media was turning men gay and gay men are weak. It was after hearing his speech that I decided to give my own.
From my anger came this speech, hastily titled “Representation in the Media Fiction”, as the eraser on my pencil was work.
I know it doesn’t show at all in the transcript, especially given how much of it I’ve forgotten over time and how much of what I do remember was made up on the spot, but this was by far the most emotional and the most successful speech I’d ever given. My biggest regret is that I didn’t record it.
I’ll be honest, my voice broke towards the end.
If you ask a child who they want to be when they grow up, there’s always a chance they’ll give you an answer like “Princess Elsa” or “Superman.” While most of us realize that we cannot, in fact, be princesses or super heroes, it’s no secret that we hold our favorite characters on a high pedestal. Young people in particular often look up to the characters they love as though they are real, tangible human beings and not just the products of someone’s imagination. In addition to being brave, loyal, and kind, however, these characters often have a few other characteristics in common. The majority are white, although African American and Latino characters have become more commonplace in recent years. They are also well-built, physically and mentally capable, and heterosexual. Even among the majority, certain characters are typically given certain roles. For example, redheads are often super villains or annoying, tag-along younger siblings, and blondes are depicted as shallow or unintelligent. In the real world, not everyone is light-skinned, able-bodied, and mentally stable. This is why representation of all groups, not just the majority, is important in fiction.
Firstly, people tend to like characters more who remind them of themselves. People can relate more to characters who share certain traits with them, such as gender or race, and the unique struggles that come with them. For example, someone who’s lost a limb might relate to Edward from Fullmetal Alchemist; a young girl who watches Teen Titans would probably prefer Starfire, Raven, or even Tera to their male counterparts.
In addition to just liking certain characters, children often look up to and are almost raised by the characters they see on TV. They turn to Blue and Steve for help solving problems, to Doc McStuffins for morals. When these characters all follow a certain formula, it creates a sort of cookie-cutter effect, where only certain types of people can be heroes and any deviation from this formula is wrong or bad. Transgenders, for example, are usually either the butt of a joke or villains, such as Cassandra from Doctor Who. Never do you see a mentally ill lead or a wheelchair-bound protagonist; those roles are reserved for fair-skinned, outgoing, physically fit characters.
I still remember reading TwoKinds for the first time on an old iPod touch in eighth grade. I was fascinated by Natani, the female-to-male assassin brother. As time went on, he became less a fictional character and more a friend, one who I couldn’t live without.I watched him bandage his chest with a newfound empathy. I shared in his despair at being locked out of men’s facilities. I’d always thought that I was broken. It was Natani who taught me that I wasn’t alone, that there wasn’t something wrong with me. Everyone deserves that validation. Everyone deserves to look at a character, a good, heroic character, and say “hey, that kind of looks like me.”
Finally, diversity in fiction isn’t just important, it’s common sense. The real world is diverse. Even this class is diverse. Look around. We have white students, black students, mixed-race students. We have gay students and straight. Guys, we’ve got a tranny in here. Now look me in the eye and tell me that the real world isn’t diverse. You can’t. Because the fact of the matter is, real life is diverse.
It’s been said that what doesn’t bend breaks. If the creators of fiction cannot bend to a growing, diverse audience, then they will break. Thank you.