Fair Portrayal is Protection
Is Fair Representation in Fiction that Important?
Cultural representation provides the language, images, and much of the content that makes up our thinking about others. The less direct experience we have with others, the more it does so, and the more we tend to rely on representation to fill in the gaps.
And the more we’re prone to believing the narratives we’re exposed to about people, places, groups, cultures, events–in other words, cultural representation.
Especially fiction. Even the most analytical among us tend to absorb stories with much less questioning than we do nonfiction, which is more widely understood to come from a particular viewpoint. Yet fiction–TV, movies, novels–very much influences how we think about things, and people. Until we can actually compare it to the real experience–out own or that of people we trust, we are likely to trust the depictions we see, especially if they appeal to our emotions, something good fiction does very well.
i say this as a fiction writer and avid fiction reader. It is fiction’s super power, and like most superpowers, it can be used for good. Or not.
Depictions heavily color our thinking about others, even folks we personally interact with. Even, in fact, those we live with.
Really? Humans give more credence to stories about people, even when the real people are right in front of them?
That’s why people have been demanding full and fair representation of women and people of color in fiction. It’s that important. And it’s why we need full and fair representation of activists.
Why Focus on Activists?
Respectful representation of groups of humans in all types of communication is vital. Demeaning, stereotyped portrayal of categories of people–women, people of the global majority, poor or disabled or gender non-conforming people, and so on–facilitates and justifies their exploitation and oppression.
Telling the truth about activists is as vital as it is for any group, but the lack of full and fair portrayals of activists in fiction–the dearth of activists and activism appearing in fiction at all–is particularly insidious, pervasive, and little recognized–even by activists.
Continuously depicting groups in negative ways can fuel bad behavior toward them, on a slippery slope starting from ignoring them, to unaware oppressive acts, to major mistreatment… and even to massacre. [With distance, we can sometimes see how this happens, but in the middle of it that’s not so easy]
Can protection from stereotypes keep us from being fired, harassed, and other scary consequences of sticking one’s neck out as an activist?
Ultimately, yes! Not all by itself, but full and fair representation of activists helps people be aware of, value, and identify with activists.
People feeling connected to activists as human beings makes a safer, more welcoming climate for activists and activism.
People are more likely to object to mistreatment of their friends than of folks they don’t care about. Humans are simple that way…
Does fair representation protect activists from Covid-19?
In a way, it actually does! Activists are often on the front lines in any crisis, and more awareness and appreciation also helps them withstand consequences of taking action for the most vulnerable. Including those most exposed and susceptible to the pandemic and other illness because of race-, class-, gender-based and other oppressions. Which ultimately protects everyone.
In other posts we’ll explore works of fiction (WoFs) featuring activists, seeking out examples where activists and activism crop up, including in unexpected places such as mainstream bestsellers. We gauge how full and fair the depiction is, whether it counters or reinforces stereotypes, and to what degree people reading or watching this work of fiction are invited to understand, empathize and identify with folks involved in social change.
Or whether, in contrast, stereotypes and objectification lure them into considering activists as nuisances, or even the villains of the story.
Or, as in so much of our entertainment, simply not there.
What's the Harm in Stereotyping Activists?
What effect does it have to almost never see activists in our movies, novels, TV shows, or video games? We see endless variations on themes of saving the world and fighting injustice…except the ones that people actually engage in. Even though real movements for justice, peace, and revolutionary social change are filled with the heroism, underdog dynamics, drama, tension, conflict, emotional sparks, relationships, and other elements that fuel the stories people love, centering these in mainstream fiction is rare indeed.
Where are the genuine depictions–in feature films, TV programs, novels, plays, games–of activist characters and settings that show activist lives as the fascinating, uplifting, conflict-filled, exciting, heroic stories they are?
Fiction often shows people enduring and resisting oppression and injustice. How does it so often manage not to show the resistance, demand for change, and alternative ways of doing things, that activists everywhere are doing via organized collective action? What happens to our ability to frame and face social problems when the people who act and organize actions are missing from the story?
How does it affect us to frequently see activists stereotyped and “othered” on the occasions they do make it into the story? Does it affect people’s view, and treatment, of us, and our own view of ourselves as activists?
Duh! Who wants to identify with people shown as alien, angry and weird?
Exactly! That’s why we hope you’ll help improve that situation by submitting your favorite fiction featuring activists to our list, and submitting reviews that show why you think they have worthy representations of activists and activist culture…or not!
Fiction Featuring Activists
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Propose contestant works of FFA for our 10 Best and 10 MINOI (Most in Need of Improvement) awards.
And –very important!–it helps people stop seeing activists as holier-than-thou hippie communist killjoys instead of smart and committed people doing their best to keep humans from pushing our Earth off the deep end.