Representation Is A Superpower!
As I walked around the expo floor of ComiCon, I was hard-pressed to think of another public space or large scale event short of Pride where I felt so welcomed and comfortable as an LGBTQ+ person. To see the diversity and acceptance of everyone attending, where no one so much as batted an eyelid at androgyny or trans and non-binary people; to see the sheer number of LGBTQ+ artists and the inclusive comic books they’d made. And this got me thinking about stories.
It can be argued we're a species of storytellers. No matter who, where or what we are, they have at some point shaped our lives. They have the power to inform both personal and sociological direction, so much so that when social aspects are omitted people get left behind. This is why representation is so important.
The Realms of Possibility
Representation entrenches perceptions of possibility. When your early life is led entirely by example, experience and exposure, to see yourself in a hero or leader tells you that you can someday be the same, whereas a lack of inclusivity reinforces the opposite. Alongside its inspirational and aspirational benefits, increased visibility also goes a long way in helping young people understand themselves, as well as dismantling ignorance surrounding those whose stories aren’t being told.
Thankfully representation has been steadily increasing across the board over the years, but has had a notable head-start in the comic book world, with the first coming-out of a high-profile character, Marvel’s Northstar in 1992, followed by the first same-sex marriage in 2012 between him and partner Kyle Jinadu. Since then headline heroes such as Constantine, Deadpool, Iceman, Batwoman, Poison Ivy, Green Lantern and many more have all had their sexuality explored. In 2016 Wonder Woman writer Greg Rucka confirmed the character as queer and her island nation of origin Themyscira an entirely queer culture, making her the first LGBTQ+ female superhero (albeit by a logical retcon). The first Queer female PoC to lead an ongoing solo series (who also has two mothers and is a total badass) Miss America Chavez came in 2017, written by Latin-american LGBTQ+ novellist Gabby Rivera. Marvel Comics also featured the first headlining muslim superhero, Pakistani-american teenager Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, winning the Hugo Award for best graphic story in 2015, and heralded as one of the most important comics. Rumours are floating of a Ms. Marvel movie too which, if true, will mean an even wider reaching message of empowerment to young muslim girls.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that as these characters diversify so too must the opportunities available to creators, writers and artists in order to create space for stories with authentic perspectives from their respective demographic.
Social Justice League
Comic books have also been a valuable source of allegorical fiction surrounding issues of social justice. When people are locked into an ideology a story can lift them away from a usual knee-jerk rebuttal to reveal relatability and empathy, however sometimes the ideologies are so deeply rooted, overbearing or outright dangerous that even true-to-life accounts have little to no impact. This is where fiction comes in, a notable example being the X-men comics.
Launched in 1963, just a year prior to the U.S Civil Rights Act, the series was at first alluded to and later confirmed by writers as an allegory for the Civil Rights Movement. Parallels were drawn between the main characters, with Professor Xavier being reminiscent of Martin Luther King and Magneto’s more militant approach to securing mutant rights akin to Malcolm X. The series also covered themes of targeted mob violence against mutants, and organisations of oppression such as the Church of Humanity, considered a representation of the Klu Klux Klan. The comic series continued to uphold its theme of civil rights when it ran a plot-line covering mutant apartheid in the 1980’s.
To be a ‘mutant’ wasn’t just allegorical for ethnicity in the comics either. New Mutants issue #45 tackled the teen suicide of Larry Bodine, who was subject to anti-mutant bullying, despite never revealing he was a mutant. This drew parallels with the way anti-gay rhetoric is used in playground bullying, negatively reinforcing social reception of gayness regardless of orientation, and the level of real-world LGBTQ+ teen suicide as a result.
All The Way To Faerûn
Inclusivity has even reached to the glorious peaks of nerd mountain, with the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons diversifying both the non-playable characters being written into adventures, as well as within the rulebook itself. The rulebook now features several PoC as example artwork for player classes and races, the art for “Human” being a black woman. The rulebook also asks players to consider their character’s gender identity and sexuality: “Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expecations of sex, gender and sexual behaviour… you don’t need to be confined to binary notions.”
Obviously being a game about creating identities, players could bring their own racial, cultural and orientational qualities to the table all along, but to now see that reflected back at them in the game-world will give players validation while exploring aspects of themselves. This is what makes D&D a very freeing experience, as it gives players a safe space in which to build and explore an identity in line with their own, without the stigma they may usually be abject to away from the table.
"Once you've escaped, once you come back, the world is not the same as when you left it. You come back to it with skills, weapons, knowledge you didn't have before. Then you are better equipped to deal with your current reality.” - Neil Gaiman
LGBTQ+ visibility in childrens’ cartoons has also been on the rise and goes a long way in raising awareness and acceptance of same-sex relationships. Examples include shows like Adventure Time, Gravity Falls and The Legend of Korra, but perhaps one of the most notable and diverse in its coverage of gender and orientation is Steven Universe. Some have accused Steven Universe of pushing a political agenda onto kids, with the show featuring a lesbian marriage between Ruby and Sapphire in 2018, but several of the show creators said its level of representation was less about making a political point and more to help children understand and develop their own identity.
Cartoon writers have continued to up visibility to teach kids valuable lessons they may not otherwise be getting, whether at home or in school. ‘Mr Ratburn and the Special Someone’ was an episode of Arthur that aired in May featuring a gay wedding. The episode was generally well received, though Alabama Public Television banned the episode from airing, stating that doing so would betray the trust of religious parents. Though representation is increasing it’s important to remember this is an ongoing battle, as similar pushback in regards to Steven Universe’s approach to queerness has resulted in the show being occasionally censored in parts of Europe and Asia, heavily censored in Russia and banned outright in Kenya.
Although inclusivity can be easily politicised, I doubt if the politics of those opposed to it weren’t so exclusive it wouldn’t receive such backlash. We need to remember that heroes are supposed to seek justice for those downtrodden by design. This makes every inclusive line drawn, word written and dice rolled an act of resistance against hate, and a vital step towards understanding ourselves and each other.
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” - Sir Phillip Pullman
Article by Thomas Phillips