When Media Representations Aren’t Good Enough to Let Us Live By: Robyn Ollodort I want to begin by expressing my feelings of shock and grief over the acts of violence leveraged against the queer of color community this weekend. As so many have already expressed such beautiful words to describe their sadness over the loss of lives and hurt for those injured, I can only repeat those sentiments: while marriage equality felt like progress, these moments remind us of what is left to overcome. When violent acts of this scale occur, every body is impacted, and I find it necessary to question the structures that put bodies, whether they are gay, disabled, racialized, gendered, etc., in harms way in the first place.
Like many folks in my generation, I use the internet when big things happen, from so-called reputable news sources to the opinions of those I trust, like bloggers and popular culture commentators.This post reflects this process, as I jump from blog posts and quotes that have informed my thinking and feeling over the last few days.
This Tumblr post, which popped up in my feed and seems to be quite popular right now, has a particularly emotional draw, a relatable sentiment right now; in it, the author expresses emotional exhaustion over the shooting in Orlando, a fatigue derived from grief, media misrepresentation, and taking for granted the hard-won ‘safe spaces’ afforded by gay rights and liberation movements, which have been preyed on by corporate sponsors. The author points to a common media trope, referred to as ‘bury your gays’, where gay (usually fan favorite) television characters are routinely sacrificed in order to further heteronormative plot narratives – the cited article notes the series The 100, but many other examples are readily available (*cough* Tara in Buffy *cough*).
This trope of queer characters serving merely as storyline fodder, reminds me – like I can forget! – of the recent backlash by the disability community against the film Me Before You, which precariously places a heteronormative relationship within the context of a man who is paralyzed from injury and his quirky female caregiver. And, as you have hopefully already read (and hopefully not seen), the dude ends up dying, because although his heteronormative love enriched his live, it wasn’t enough to save him from his disability, and thus… death??? Just as ‘bury your gays’ gives us, as viewers, a broader range of characters to identify with, only to off them, I want to argue that ‘bury your crips’ works the same way; viewers get characters with disabilities, characters they can identify with and relate to, until they are killed off (Million Dollar Baby, The Sea Inside, etc.).
As a phase 1 judge for Superfest: International Disability Film Festival 2016, I saw enough films to counter that narrative (119 to be exact!); films with complex, leading roles written with or for (or both) people with disabilities. I saw characters that looked like me, and had similar experiences to me, and characters that were nothing like me with whom I also fell in love. And none of them had to die in order for their films to be supremely excellent. The sentiment I am getting at here is that when nobody looks like you in the media you watch, that’s devastating; but, when you finally see ONE character who looks like you, whether that character is gay, or Muslim, or in a wheelchair, or transgender, or black, Latina, Asian, whatever you are, ad then that character is killed? It’s a tragedy. And it makes those real life tragedies even more plausible, because, as the bad trope goes, people like that die on TV or in the movies all the time.
"Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness—all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through…"
— Claudia Rankine, from Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014)
A body has memory. Our bodies, however they are marked in society, carry the weight of the legacies of that mark. We remember all the traumas, we feel all the pain. We need to do our best now to make space for those wounds to heal; to make futures we can see ourselves in, futures that have people who look like us in them. This means telling stories of people who are gay, who are transgender, who have disabilities, who have dark skin. This means making characters who are different, who survive, who thrive and love. This means making real and good representations, and allowing the people you are representing to tell their stories, too.
In thinking about how to incorporate diversity into representations in the media, I really appreciate this article by Australian athlete, advocate, and blogger Robyn Lambird, expressing the necessity for better representations of people with disabilities. “Through accurate and expansive media representation, we can normalise disability, shift the negative attitude surrounding it, and highlight the issues that the disabled community face. Through this, we can create a more understanding society that is open to beneficial change.” This call is applicable to more than just disability, but to all non-normative identities as well; when we are better represented, we are better understood, and it is harder to justify violences, big or small, against us. To conclude, here is a statement of solidarity from the late visionary, Mark Aguhar: