When you enjoy analyzing and discussing fictional works as much as we do here around here, you often get this question: why do you care so much? It’s just fiction! While occasionally this is meant to derail discussions, I do think it’s a fair question. So today I wanna talk about why I think fiction – and how we choose to represent life in fiction – matters so much.
The answer to this question is very personal, because fiction carries a different weight for each of us, depending on how we connect to it and what we find in our experience. But even when we seek it just as entertainment, to spend our free time or relax after a long day at work or school, it still makes an impression. We see something we like in those stories, something that keeps us coming back.
Fiction allows possibilities that reality denies us: I know I’m never gonna be a Pokémon Master or fly on a broomstick, but just for a moment I can experience those things. From medieval courts to coffee shops, from time travels to pirates, from a dragonborn to a single man in possession of a good fortune, everything and everyone can be part of a fictional story.
Through fiction, we get to know other people. We experience their adventures and misfortunes, see the world from their perspective. We explore their feelings, conflicts, fears and motivations. We learn what it means to be them. And with that, we learn a little bit about ourselves as well. From “I should try that” to “I didn’t know this happened to others too”, we explore our own feelings and struggles and desires.
It’s worth noting this often doesn’t translate straight. To give a personal example, I’m incredibly anxious in real life, yet I love horror fiction. I don’t like to experience fear and tension on my daily routine, but when it comes to stories I delight in my own emotional reactions. So I’m uncomfortable with equating somebody’s tastes in fiction with their real life inclinations. To use a topic we already covered, when a person shames another for enjoying a problematic ship, they have no way to know what this means to them and how they approach this dynamic.
This is actually part of fiction’s role: it allows us to explore complicated feelings and conflicted emotions. Fictional worlds and societies offer commentary on our own culture and examine complex moral questions. Because we’re not really there or really talking about that, we can address the elephants in the room. We can look at stuff we otherwise wouldn’t be able to, just as we can look at the sun wearing sunglasses. As Neil Gaiman says:
I think that pretty much every form of fiction (I’d include fantasy, obviously) can actually be a real escape from places where you feel bad, and from bad places. It can be a safe place you go, like going on holiday, and it can be somewhere that, while you’ve escaped, actually teaches you things you need to know when you go back, that gives you knowledge and armour and tools to change the bad place you were in.
All this experiences affect us. Maybe a particular story or character won’t mean anything to you, but they’ll change somebody else’s life. When fiction teaches you something useful or inspires you, this has real-life consequences. Lt. Uhura from Star Trek inspired Mae Jemison to become the first African-American women in space. And Nichelle Nichols, the actor behind Uhura, inspired Whoopi Goldberg to become an actor herself. And Whoopi inspired younger actors like Lupita Nyong’o and Leslie Jones. Uhura was fictional, but the mark she left in those women wasn’t.
It doesn’t matter if the stories are not true, the effect they have in us is very much real. Neil Gaiman again, from the fantastic Anansi Boys:
“It’s just a folk story,” she said. “People made up the stories in first place”
“Does that change things?” asked the old man. “Maybe Anansi’s just some guy from a story, made up back in Africa in the dawn days of the world by some boy with blackfly on his leg, pushing his crutch in the dirt, making up some goofy story about a man made of tar. Does that change anything? People respond to the stories. They tell them themselves. The stories spread, and as people tell them, the stories change the tellers. Because now the folk who never had any thought in their head but how to run from lions and keep far enough away from the rivers that the crocodiles don’t get an easy meal, now they’re starting to dream about a whole new place to live. The world may be the same, but the wallpaper’s changed. Yes? People still have the same story, the one where they get born and do stuff and they die, but now the story means something different to what it meant before.”
Fiction doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. It’s a reflection of the society we live in, but reflects something back too. And we can learn a lot by looking at those reflections. If my musings are not enough for you, this subject is constantly studied by others – so we know identification with fictional characters can change real-life behavior, or exposure to violence in media can desensitize you to violence in real life and affect your brain, or watching TV can impact on children’s self-esteem. Keep this last one on your mind, we’ll get back to it in a moment.
If fiction is indeed so important, how we choose to represent life in fiction is equally important. A story can be our very first contact with an idea or a group of people we don’t belong to and how those elements are portrayed can have a lasting impact on our perception. Or it can be our very first contact with a group of people we do belong, with an identity we will later claim as our own, and that can be incredibly important too.
Yet not everybody has their stories told. Studies on movies, TV shows, books, video games, what have you, all come to the same conclusion: that fiction remains heavily white, male, cis, straight and able-bodied, in a proportion that doesn’t match real life demographics. The less you fit this standard, the less likely you are to see yourself represented in fictional works. And those are just the numbers, not the role in the story or how this representation takes place.
Behind the numbers are people who want to see themselves in stories too. They want to dismantle dystopian governments, to have romantic escapades, to become wizards or to save the world from aliens. And they deserve this. They deserve to see themselves and to live all possibilities that fiction allows. And as Junot Diaz says,
“There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’ And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might seem themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
Representation is more than just the presence of a character, it’s also their role in the narrative. Are they the lead, the ones that move the story forward? Or are they the friend, the sidekick, the character that dies to further protagonist’s story? When diversity is background, it sends the message that certain people are less important than others and their stories are not worth being told. Social media campaigns like #StarringJohnCho or #StarringConstanceWu highlight how easy would it be to see Asian-American actors in more diverse and prominent roles than they usually are.
Not only that, but as actor Yara Shahidi explains, there won’t be parity while some people are perceived as a tired stereotype or one-dimensional. There’s no such things as a “universal Latinx experience” or “universal trans experience” or “universal Muslim experience”. Each person is unique and has a unique approach to their identities. And the more identities you throw in the mix, the more you have to consider the intersectional aspects of this experience. For instance, the trope of the Strong and Independent Woman carries a very different weight for white and Black women.
Stereotypes can reinforce harmful perceptions in real life. To give a concrete example, a study shows that many med students believe black people feel less pain than white people. Doesn’t this match the stereotype of Angry and Strong Black people we so often see in fiction? It doesn’t mean you can never have a character that matches a certain stereotype, but a writer should always ask themselves why they are associating certain characteristics with a certain identity. What Mysterious and Uncontrollable Reasons™ made you think the smart and nerdy kid was East Asian or the badass fighter was a lesbian? Is it so vital for your story to reproduce those patterns? Because, as always, the problem is the pattern.
This is what writer Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of a single story” (seriously, watch this video, it’s fantastic). Fiction has a great power to influence our perceptions, and if we’re constantly fed with the same narrative over and over, we start to believe it. We reproduce those single stories, perpetuating the harm they do. We have all sorts of expectations for people we never met. We make them carry the weight of their entire identities, how awful is that? And we often throw a bunch of different identities under the same label:
“When we talk about Latinx Representation we should ask ourselves, which Latinx? It’s interesting that, despite Jane the Virgin being about a Venezuelan family (played entirely by Puerto Rican actors) and the Salazars on Fear the Walking Dead being Salvadorian (played by a Panamanian and a Swedish actor respectively!), both stories are similar in that they are generically about “immigration.” But there’s nothing to make them specifically Venezuelan or specifically Salvadorian. Because to Hollywood, and to the average viewer, there’s no difference. Latinx are simply generic, interchangeable brownish people from that ever-nebulous part of the world that’s “South of the Border.” And don’t they all pretty much have the same story? Don’t they?” (x)
This happens not only with characters and stories, but creators as well. Even when they’re not majority, male and white writers tend to be more reviewed (x, x, x) and receive more literary awards (x, x). No wonder female writers often choose male pseudonyms or gender-neutral initials. Writers that belong to underrepresented and stereotyped groups are also caught in the duality of being required to subscribe to the stereotypes of their identities and, at the same time, being demanded “universal” stories:
“My white teachers and my white classmates told me over and over again they simply didn’t believe a Chinese person would ever talk the way my characters did when workshopping my stories, but heaped lavish praise anytime my white peers wrote stories set in countries they’ve never lived in, narrated by people whose experiences of racism they never personally experienced. I was told to stop writing about myself and write things with more a universal theme.” (x)
“This is a world where writers of color are damned if they do and damned if they don’t—we often find ourselves either being asked to “emphasize” (read: exoticize) our identities (“I love your writing about race,” one editor told me. “Do you have anything else like that?”) or pretend our difference doesn’t exist, to pretend our trauma doesn’t exist, to pretend that the audience we’re looking back at isn’t 90 percent made of white men. We’re pulled in so many directions, it’s a wonder we still have the energy to produce creative work.” (x)
“There’s no ‘white guy shelf.’ There’s no ‘Lads Who Write About Gentrified Brooklyn’ shelf. And every author needs the space to write about things other than their identity moniker ascribed and recognized by wider society. We need to actively expunge the premise that the only [identity] writer on the list can write about [identity] and nothing else. I think this is a fundamental right for the life of a writer.” (x)
There won’t be proper representation while certain audiences are still considered default and creators pander to their expectations. Especially because real audiences tend to be more diverse: when it comes to videogames, half the players are women, yet female characters are so often sidelined and sexualized (something that has real consequences, and not even boys like); Latinxs/Hispanic people are more inclined to buy games and African-Americans play video games more than average, yet your average protagonist is always white. There’s this illusion that fiction is the way it is because certain audiences don’t consume fictional works, but it’s not true. Why are we prioritizing some people over others?
Remember that study I mentioned on TV affecting children’s self-esteem? It says white boys experience an increase in self-esteem after being exposed to television, but all other children – in this study, Black boys and both Black and white girls – experience a decrease. Considering where we stand when it comes to representation, is anyone surprised? What if we measured other characteristics, other identities? What happens to the self-esteem of disabled children after watching TV? Or queer children? Neurodivergent children? Jewish children? Immigrant children? Are they seeing themselves? And if they are, are they seeing themselves in a way that makes them proud?
Just to be clear, I don’t think creators do this because they’re all part of some evil conspiracy plan to consolidate white male cishet supremacy over the world – I think they do it because they’re used to see things this way and not question it. But we are questioning. And not because we’re obsessed with “political correctness” or because we want to erase white people or men from narratives, but because we’re tired of not seeing ourselves or our friends and family on fiction. We’re tired of seeing only one kind of people being praised. We’re tired of being invisible, fetishized, otherized. We’re more than one-dimensional tropes. Representation is not meant to be a political movement, but it will carry political weight while certain groups don’t enjoy the same rights others do. To quote writer Emmi Mears:
“It’s a political book, even though at the same time it’s not. It’s about a woman saving the world in the face of hell, of navigating moral grey areas, of getting covered in demon slime and tearing through hordes of hellkin like her blades are part of her hands. But it is a political book because my identity is political. Until the lawmakers don’t seek to limit my rights solely based upon my identity, my body, and my loves, it will remain thus.”
So no, it’s not just fiction. If a narrative promotes the vulnerability of an already vulnerable group, if it excludes people from their own stories, if it perpetuates harmful stereotypes, if it prioritizes certain groups over others, than this story and its creators should answer for that. I can’t stress this enough, though: never harass real-life people over fictional stories. It doesn’t matter if they’re actors, creators, other fans. On that regard, it is just fiction. Criticize ideas and stories is one thing, attacking real people is another.
And sure there are other more urgent matters and more important social issues. But isn’t it marvelous how we can care about more than one problem at the same time? To dismiss the discussion of fictional works as something not valid, to deny the power of fiction – for good and for bad – is a position of privilege and unawareness. Privilege because you already have all the stories and don’t want other people to have them too; you don’t want to share your toys. And unawareness because those stories helped shape you and your perception of the world, whether you want it or not, and you didn’t even notice.
What have they shaped you into?