Let's Talk About Representation
This is a topic I know can be divisive. It really shouldn’t be, but it just is. A lot of that comes from people just not understanding the importance of diversity and representation in media. Some feel it’s some “sjw agenda” meant to erase the importance of good writing and replace it with forced pander. I hate using the word “privilege”, I don’t like it, I feel like it’s used too often as a replacement for an intelligent discussion. It’s the auto fire response to a lot of arguments, and to be honest, it has never, ever solved a debate. If anything, it just makes the other side hate the notion of diversity and representation more. That said, privilege is why most react to diversity and representation negatively. Is privilege an inherently bad thing? Not really, it just means someone has the benefit of not having to deal with a less than ideal life experience. It doesn’t mean someone with privilege is evil or less important, it just means they can’t possibly understand what it means to be from a different avenue of life. When you break it down, everyone has some form of privilege over another. The problem is how the word is implemented and shared. People view it as an attack, which quite frankly is ridiculous, but I can understand the feeling. Some people use the word to “lessen” someone else’s life experiences, suggesting that they don’t matter because of their skin color or identity. That is where the issue comes from. It’s why I hesitate to use the word, not because I don’t think it exists, but because when people hear that word they automatically tune out from what’s being discussed. Diversity and representation in media is extremely important. There’s no real way to sugar coat this, but the fact is, white CIS Het is the default standard in the majority of media. Because of that, everyone that doesn’t fall into that category is often felt like their life experience never mattered or was ever meant to exist.
I’m not writing this to make some major declarative political statement. My experience as a writer and creator is mine alone. This is about my own journey as a writer and how I’ve evolved to truly understand the power that comes from representation in media. Before I dive in, I should explain who I am. My name is Adam Tilford, I am the writer and creator of a mech series called Shattered Heaven. From my name alone I’m going to assume you are classifying me as some CIS Het white dude. You’d be half right. I am of Puerto Rican and Scottish descent. I’m a half-breed, a term I’ve used since Inuyasha. Being bi-racial gives me this weird perspective on a lot of things. I’ve lived as a white man that was still too different in the eyes of the white community and school I grew up in, I was darker than the rest of them after all and it was always a point of contention and moderate bullying. Okay, so I was too dark for them, but there’s always the Puerto Rican side of my life, right? Yeah well, I was too white for them which also was a point of contention and whenever I was in the presence of other Hispanics I was the butt of the joke and uncomfortable. So, where did I fit? Hell if I knew, and it’s still something I struggle with today. It was always easiest to just assume I was white and blend in there, even if I grew up fascinated and in love with my Puerto Rican heritage. But I was never a “true” Puerto Rican, but I was always never a “true” white dude” either. It always amused me that my Hispanic heritage was ignored and I was just always assumed to be “white”, even though I was 50/50. This said, I still grew up with some form of privilege. While I share my heritage, because I was more “white passing”, I never really shared in the problems of profiling or other racist stereotypes. I did experience racism when people found out about my heritage. Some when I was a baby and more on my mother’s experience than mine, but being told I went from a good natured baby in day care to suddenly an unruly child that wasn’t welcomed there after they found out my mom was Puerto Rican, well, it puts some things into perspective. I’ve experienced racism from white people who thought I was different looking than them, I’ve experienced it from Hispanics who thought the same. Despite what many people will have you believe, racism isn’t about “power over another”, racism is solely about treating someone poorly or as they’re inferior to you based on their ethnicity/heritage. You can have no power over someone and still be racist. So, what’s the point of me explaining this? Well, I guess it’s to emphasize that I’m not some random white dude trying to suck up to the SJW NPC agenda. I’m not trying to write this out to fill some white savior complex. I’m merely writing this to share my experience and to discuss why representation in media matters. I will mainly be focusing on the LBGQTA+ representation for Pride month. It’s something that I really wanted to focus on when it came to representation.
I’ll just answer the question right off the bat. This matters because these people matter, they are not invisible and they have the right to exist. Believe it or not, media does shape our understanding of the world around us. Stereotypes and tropes established in media mold a lot of people’s view of not only the world, but of the people who live within it. I am not LGBTQA, I am a CIS Het biracial. I can not understand their life, their struggles, nor their fears. I can, however, relate to how they feel about representation in media. Growing up, I can’t think of any main protagonist in any show, live action or animated, where I felt my unique heritage or identity was represented. There was a lot of full on white men doing all of the things. Sure there were some Hispanics present, but a lot of them were the “token” Latino, the Mexican stereotype. Apparently every Hispanic in media were always Mexican. That was the “go to” for Hispanic representation. The stereotypical accent, the gang wardrobe, the language, etc, I’m not even going to really break it down, I’m sure most of you already have the image in your head about what I’m describing, hell you might even be thinking of a specific Hispanic actor you’ve seen so many times but can’t name. Sucks, right? So from this perspective, I can empathize how LGBTQA people feel about their representation or lack thereof.
Right to it, I’ll be talking about this representation in my own writing and my own project, Shattered Heaven. Off the bat, I don’t view this project as anything drastically important. It’s a small passion project animated web series and a self published novel. In the grand scheme of things, representation here doesn’t really change the landscape or even poke it. But to me and my life experience, it is important to me.
Shattered Heaven: Character Identities and Reworks
When I wrote the early versions of this story I didn’t have any LGBTQA characters. The characters in the series were all loosely based off of my life experiences and the friends around me. At the time, LGBTQA people were hiding, afraid of how they were to be perceived. Their identity was used as an insult and flung around casually with no concern of worry about the pain it’d cause. So when writing, I had no experience or understanding of their existence. I mean, I knew they existed, and I had no ill will towards any of them, but I didn’t personally know any. It wasn’t til I went to college where that changed. But still, while I knew them in passing, they never truly affected my life.
It wasn’t until I started working online with voice actors that my life experiences changed. The friends I met across the world represented such a vast and ever expanding universe of unique people. Friends I knew as one identity would slowly take pride in who they were and thus reveal a new one, their “true” one. I can remember one experience in particular and this is the one that honestly woke me up to just how important representation in media is for them. I won’t name them, but if they read this I’m sure they’ll know who it’s about them.
I was at a convention and staying with them for the weekend. I had always known them as a straight Het man. But when I arrived at the hotel, they would later reveal to me that they were transgender. They were still my friend and that’s really all that mattered to me, I didn't understand it at the time and it wasn't my place to try and understand it. All I knew is that they were my friend and they were clearly insecure about revealing this fact to me. I don’t remember the specifics of what they said to me at the end of the weekend, but to paraphrase-
“I just want to thank you for not treating me any differently. You treated me normal and that meant a lot.”
I didn’t understand what they were thanking me for. But it hit me that while I didn’t see them as different, that wasn’t the point. Even though I didn’t treat them differently, their life experience was still different and I had to respect and empathize with that. It stuck with me. Around that time I was preparing to rewrite my book and animated series as a whole. It had gotten me thinking about my friends that were LGBTQA. Did I have any characters that represented my updated group of friends? The answer was “no”. While it might sound selfish or self-serving, I wanted to expand my writing. These friends of mine existed in the real world, but not my fiction one. I had to sit down and really wonder why that was. Was it because I rejected them? Or was it because I just didn’t think about it? The answer of course was that I just didn’t think about it. I wasn’t condemning them, I wasn’t thinking poorly of them, but I just wasn’t thinking of them at all. Maybe that was just as bad, if not worse. It was at this moment that I realized I could do better and that I should.
Suddenly I started having more friends from all walks of life, gay, lesbian, trans, bi, non-binary, etc. My life exploded with so many different life experiences and friends that I wasn’t acknowledging in my fiction world. A world that was loosely based off of what I considered my real one. I had to fix that. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t going to change the world with the representation in my dumb little series, but as a writer I wanted to help in what little way I could. I wanted to have my own way of saying “I see you, you matter, you exist, you are valid.” And again, I don’t think Shattered Heaven is some transcendental work of fiction piercing the heavens of acceptance. I just wanted to write better.
I was in a place where I was already reworking the series and the characters to have better depth, so it was the perfect time to update characters and make some changes. I had a lot of supporting characters that really were just “there”. It was also important to me that if I was going to make changes that they be good and not for the sake of pandering.
Veronica Laboro: The operator for Stephen Novus is a lesbian. At first, she wasn’t, she was just there and all her personality was, was a brief exposition machine that eventually disappeared in the original version. She was the perfect character to update properly. She is not defined by her sexual identity, but it help kickstart her character revamp. Turning her into this character that was awkward and shy about her emotions while also having this stoic false identity helped me write her in different scenarios that were simply fun. Her being a lesbian is never shouted from the rooftops, it’s shown through her interactions with other female characters, usually during her “off” mode, where she’s more real and no longer putting up her stoic act.
Heather Pertencia: An insecure sniper mech pilot that is part of Stephen Novus’ team. Again, in the original iteration she was just “there”. Another character to just do some fighting but never really had a personality. Reworking her into self-doubting, yet talented and strong character that was also a lesbian was one of the best things I ever did. Her being a lesbian didn’t suddenly become her character’s defining trait, it’s just now a part of her experience. Her and Veronica now have a chemistry that never existed in the original book. It’s fun to write their interactions as people who just also happen to be lesbians. The two of them get to explore their identities while not being forced or shoved around looking to score points. They both just exist and that’s what matters.
These two are the main examples of this as they’re part of the main cast that are always in the forefront of the story. But they’re not where the representation stops in this story. Supporting characters also got revamps for inclusion.
Chris Procella: A mech pilot that used to be a white male was changed into a gay black man. That line sounds weird and some people probably think that’s a forced change and it wasn’t. Chris had no personality originally, like many, he was just “there”. Intentionally changing him helped me decide how I wanted to write him. In a cast that was always mainly “white”, Adam and Stephen were biracial Puerto Rican because well, yeah, life experience. But I never really mentioned it, I guess it was a JK Rowling moment. Where it was never in the story but after the fact I go “BUT HEY THERE WAS REPRESENTATION ;D”. I didn’t want to be that, it was stupid and a cowardly way of “representing.” It’s not like changing a character’s ethnicity or even sexual identity changes the character’s core personality. Though, if the character didn’t have one to begin with, then it’s an upgrade! That’s what I wanted to do, and by caring about my friends that surrounded me in the real world, it made me a better character writer in the long run.
I’m not going to go into full detail on every character and how they were adjusted and where it goes, but I will list out the other characters and their matching identities. In the story I will always be striving to show these in some form or another that is natural and isn’t coming off like a shouting neon sign for props.
Some Characters and their Identities in List Form
Sarah Henning: Another character that was simply supporting. Not much about her changed, I just made her bisexual. I’ll drop hints here and there in the story, she’ll be flirting with either male or female.
Grayson Shaw: He was a new character added to series, from the get go he was always a gay Asian.
Crystal Hill: Also a new character added to the series. Identifies as an ace Asian.
Amber Rollins: An ace bisexual.
Nicole Mest: Black bisexual.
Alex Anders: Black gay.
Anwar Renatio: Black gay.
I don’t want to do a bullet point listing here, this will go too long. But these are just some examples in the series. What’s important is to always strive to improve your cast, to strive for representation not to score points, but because these people exist in the real world and they should in the fiction one as well. I’m sure how I’m doing it isn’t perfect and there’s always ways to improve the process. But just recognizing the importance of diversity and representation in media is huge. It’s not some pander to appease a bigger NPC agenda.
Naturally sometimes media do emphasize representation and diversity to score points, it happens, there’s no denying that. But if your immediate response to every instance of representation is an NPC conspiracy agenda, then I’m sorry that you do not have the empathy to realize the importance on this matter. Good writing will always be the goal of any writer, but adding in representation does not suddenly mean the writing isn’t good.
As a writer, I’m not the end all, I’m still growing. My writing and my content may not be the optimum vehicle for representation but I’m trying to be more aware. It matters, my friends that live these lives matter, their existence should be considered normal without question. Normalcy is the goal for equality and representation. To see someone of a different identity and not bat an eye. It’s not the same notion as “erasure”, it’s to acknowledge someone else’s journey and life experience as valid and to never question if they belong.
I don’t know if what I do matters or even helps someone see that they are valid in their existence. But for me as a writer, I know what I want to do. I want to write and represent people as best as I can. I want to rely on the friends that live it to keep me accountable for writing in a way that is respectable. As a kid growing up, I always wondered if someone like me, a half-breed of two different natures could be seen as a normal occurrence. As dumb as it sounds, Inuyasha helped me see it in media. I may never truly understand how LGBQTA people feel in their life or how they endure their unique hardships, but I can at the very least empathize with them when it comes to the importance of representation.
Pride month isn’t some political stunt, it is to help increase the visibility and validation of a group of people that struggle every day with acceptance. Your acceptance of these people shouldn’t be limited to a single month, it should be something we all strive for to make a normal occurrence. This may not be a lot, but it is my small way of trying to contribute to creating a normalcy for the validation of my friends’ existence.
Let’s all do better in the ways we can be supportive allies.