Diverse representation benefits all of usBy Madeline Anscombe | 03/30/2017 10:51pm
CW / Kylie Cowden
When I was a senior in high school, my mom found the first season of Veronica Mars at the library and rented it. The early 2000’s cult classic stars Kristen Bell as Veronica, a high schooler who is trying to solve the murder of her best friend Lilly Kane. If dealing with this wasn’t enough, the series also encapsulates a series of hardships that no young adult should have to endure. In the pilot episode alone we learn that Mars is a social outcast, her alcoholic mother has skipped town leaving her father alone and barely making enough to get by, and most poignantly her unsolved rape in which she was drugged and mistreated by the police. Yet, Veronica is resilient, even when she feels as if she has the world on her shoulders she perseveres with grace. Veronica Mars is by all accounts a bad ass. Three years after starting the show for the first time, I still find myself looking back to Veronica for support when I need it most.
My freshman year I was sexually assaulted in a case that resonated closely with Veronica’s story. I turned to the show in a time of need and saw Veronica as a testament to the fact that just because something awful happened did not mean that I had to let it ruin my life. She provided insight on how to move forward and let me know that I could be both strong and vulnerable at the same time. Through the show I found validation when I needed it the most, and during my hardest times I am lucky to always have Veronica Mars to turn back to.
I realize now how lucky I am to have fictional characters that I can identify with and become empowered by. But in this realization, it also becomes incredibly apparent that my empowerment is somewhat of a rarity for all of those whom are not adequately represented by the media. Even as a straight white woman, there are few women on television that I have felt any sort of connection to. A 2014 study done by San Diego State University found that only 12 percent of identifiable television protagonists were female, leaving 86 percent as male. Within that 12 percent, nearly 75 percent of these women were identified as white, leaving only a quarter of these roles for women of color. GLAAD’s 2016-2017 “Where we are on TV” report found that only 4.8 percent of characters on broadcast television played characters within the LGBTQIA+ community, only three characters of which were cast as transgender. Needless to say these numbers are nowhere near representative of reality and make an incredibly powerful statement about who is deserving of a narrative.
In Joss Whedon’s incredibly insightful article On Strong Women Characters, the famous director reflects on how frequently he is asked about his focus on writing strong female protagonists. The article concludes stating that the necessity for writing such characters is twofold; on one hand it is important to write narratives as a vehicle of empowerment, and on the other, the importance of writing for strong female characters is quite plainly in the fact that still is a question being asked. I think that Whedon’s rationale may be expanded further to all marginalized groups. As Whedon says, it is crucial to provide all those without proper representation characters that they can feel empowered by.
In his own series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon created a world in which a cheerleader-type could be strong and protect men as well as stand for herself. He believes that within Buffy’s world, there is also an opportunity for men to identify with her more feminine attributes while also respecting her kicking ass and killing vampires. While this show is relatively silly (which did not stop me from watching every last episode), it shows the potency that a more diverse range of protagonists may offer not only those with similar identities, but even those with all the representation they could hope for. I think of my own experience watching the television show Transparent, which while problematic in many ways, it allowed me to have insight into the trans-community that I might have never sought out had it not been featured at the top of my Amazon Prime.
I am not a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and so in many ways, I will never be fully able to understand the issues that they must endure every day in justifying their gender and sexual identity. However, this show empowered me to recognize the ways in which I experience privilege and challenged me to embrace my own gender and sexual identity. I am also reminded of shows such as the 1970’s sitcom The Jeffersons which brought a black family to the forefront of broadcast television and in turn, paved the way for more examples of good black parenting. Shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Black-ish have since continued this tradition and broadened our definition of who may fit the role of a good parent. These shows again do not serve solely those who can be categorized with the characters. When a family friend moved to America from India in the late '70s with no knowledge of english, she turned to The Jefferson’s to pick up tidbits because even though she did not look like them, the show exuded a sense of solidarity for those experiencing the tense race relations during the time. To this day, she still tells people that The Jeffersons taught her english and were her first friends upon arrival. Stories like this are all over the internet and are testaments to the potency a more diverse range of characters may have on television. We may learn a tremendous amount in putting people that don’t look like us (but look like others) in the spotlight.
The latter half of his argument deals with the obvious. In a rapidly globalized society, we should not view providing a more accurate representation of the world as “risky” for broadcast television. We should not confine the strong and brave to strictly cis-white men. We must each push for increased diversity on our television screens and whether that means changing the channel when we see an overt example of bigotry or expanding our horizons and seeking out more diverse programs, we must each prioritize this until everyone is able to have both someone they can identify with and someone that challenges their beliefs. Until everyone can have their own Veronica Mars, modern broadcast television does not suffice.
Madeline Anscombe is a junior majoring in anthropology. Her column runs biweekly.