Don’t Discount the Value of Subtle Representation

Broader representation is starting to become cool, which is great for a lot of people. I for one have been starved for certain kinds of media since I knew how to read, and occasionally, things got a little desperate and I’d find myself searching the bottom of the barrel on fanfiction sites. I’d say those weren’t my proudest moments, but I regret nothing.

The other cool thing is that a lot of people want to get into writing with representation in mind, and while that comes with a host of issues all on its own — e.g., people attempting to write experiences that aren’t their own and falling flat, or accidentally misrepresenting something badly — it’s nice to see that people see the value in it. For a while it was an uphill climb to explain to people just why it was important that everyone see a bit of themselves out there, and how lonely it can feel when not even fictional worlds have people like you in them.

What I’ve started to notice, however, is that a lot of writers in particular want to mirror real-world struggles in their media. That is, they want to add in racism or homophobia or sexism or what have you. It’s all with good intentions, of course, and it could be argued that accurate representation of a social issue is better than no representation at all; better that people read about fictional but accurate portrayals of real-world issues than to not know they exist at all. That much is true, and it’s this kind of writing that can expose people to new ways of thinking and present a side of an issue they hadn’t before considered.

But since it seems to lean so heavily in one direction, I want to talk about the value of being more subtle as well. Part of this comes from my own preferences as a reader, because as much as I can appreciate the political efforts of someone trying to mirror struggles like mine in fiction and the positive effects it can have, I quickly get exhausted of actually reading it. I see many promising LGBT-oriented books that I end up avoiding because they’re set in a world that looks down upon that sort of thing, and if I wanted to put my mind in a world that doesn’t like me because of who I am or who I love, I’d just stay in this one. I’ve gone from having little representation to having plenty that all contains the stuff I’d really like to get away from.

This doesn’t mean that what you write can’t have an impact. I like to think of the value of a political discussion vs the way a person’s direct experiences can influence their thinking. Learning comes from everywhere, whether it’s from a direct challenge on your views to simply being exposed to new points of view from your surroundings and the media you consume. I’d argue that the latter can sometimes be even more effective, because when you present certain ideas that don’t come in the form of a debate or an argument, or really in the context of anything political at all, people won’t be as likely to put up their defenses. Think about how easily you may accept certain things from media because they aren’t presented in the form of someone screaming them at you and implying you’re an idiot if you think any different.

What I’m hoping is that the addition of media that features a person’s ideal world can have just as much a positive impact on media that confronts issues directly. If I create a fictional world where Earth’s prejudices aren’t allowed, that might not be an accurate reflection of life in the real world, but it doesn’t have to be — sometimes it can help to paint a picture of where we’d like to be, rather than where we are. Think of why people enjoy Star Trek because it represents so much of what we could be someday. And while Star Trek undeniably had its political elements, there were many aspects at its core that were designed to be simply accepted. There was no need to fight for those things to exist or be, or for people to make a big, loud statement about them, because in that world, they were already the norm.

Exploring the many facets of society — even its negative ones — can be a great writing tool, especially when employed creatively. The possibilities for fiction there are boundless. Nothing is perfect, and although fiction technically permits perfection, that would definitely qualify as unrealistic. Not to mention it wouldn’t be all that exciting.

So this isn’t to say that there can’t be heart-wrenching and evocative depictions of real-world issues. Those can be done really, really well, and there’s definitely an audience for them regardless. But it is to say that there are many different ways to lend your voice to something, and we shouldn’t forget just how effective something simply existing without a goal can be. Sometimes things just are, and that will do wonders for people’s perceptions just as much as obvious symbolism.

Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash


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