Representation: Major Plot Point vs Casual Mention
Representation in movies and TV shows seems to fall on a spectrum. On one extreme of this spectrum is when a part of the character’s identity becomes a major plot point that an episode or an entire series revolves around. On the other end of the spectrum is when a part of someone’s identity is briefly mentioned as an everyday, casual statement. Depending on the specific circumstances within the TV show or movie, either extreme could be a beneficial form of representation. Each extreme also has its downsides and can even be harmful depending on the specific scene. Before you continue reading, some of the examples I mention may be considered spoilers for the TV shows or movies they are from. Please keep this in mind.
Casual mentions can be really sweet and help normalize certain identities that are often stigmatized. Multiple examples of this can be found in Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. When the character Double Trouble is introduced, everyone in the show refers to Double Trouble using they/them pronouns. There was no coming-out story or Double Trouble having to explain their pronouns. They/them pronouns were simply used as casually as for characters who used he/him or she/her pronouns. This was so nice to see, considering people in real life sometimes refuse to recognize they/them pronouns or keep questioning their use instead of being accepting. There were also multiple gay relationships in the show that developed without the characters having to explain themselves or worry about coming out. The relationships simply developed and were immediately accepted, just like the heterosexual relationships in the show.
The CW’s The Flash also contains a similarly casually mentioned gay relationship. In one episode, the police chief mentions his boyfriend (who later becomes his husband) in an everyday conversation. The time he mentioned his partner was so brief and casual that it was easy to miss it. Besides reducing stigma through portraying the existence of LGBTQ people as just part of everyday life, another benefit to these casual mentions is being able to simply exist if you are LGBTQ. Unfortunately, it is not always safe to be out currently. However, for people who live in a place where it is safe, it is nice to not have to make coming out a big deal every time you want to simply be yourself around someone new. Society does not make people come out if they are straight, cis, able-bodied, etc. Being ourselves in an everyday setting should not require answering a bunch of very personal questions from those around us or include the fear of anticipated or felt stigma. However, there is also value in going beyond a casual mention as far as representation.
One issue with the casual mention form of representation is it tends to be for minor characters mostly. Even when dealing with the main character, there is also value in exploring identity beyond a casual mention in at least some media. Ideally, I think there should be a mix of both casual mentions and representation that is more central to the plot when looking at representation across multiple shows and movies. A good example of representation that goes beyond the casual mention can be found in another from a show within the Arrowverse. The Arrowverse is simply a word used to refer to the multiple shows on CW that adapt characters from DC Comics and tend to have crossover episodes, such as The Flash and Supergirl. In a season of Supergirl, one of the main characters, Alex Danvers, explores her sexuality over the course of multiple episodes before coming out as gay. At first, Alex is not sure what her sexuality is after an event causes her to question it. Eventually, she realizes she is gay after dating an openly gay woman for a while and reflecting on how dating men previously did not feel right to her. She comes out to her family and becomes very confident in her sexuality over time. This is an example of representation being made into a plot point. In this case, it ended up being a powerful, positive form of representation for multiple reasons. First, not everyone is immediately sure of their sexuality. Even people who are straight sometimes go through a period of questioning their sexuality as they grow up before being certain they are straight and also may at first question what type of person they are attracted to when looking at attributes beyond gender. Personally, it took me years to really feel confident about my sexuality, although that was partially due to stigmatization and fear of both coming out and actually exploring what my sexuality could be. Please note that exploring your sexuality does not mean you have to go on dates or be sexually active to do so. Even just taking the time to mentally reflect can be enough of an exploration. For me, it was primarily a matter of accepting who I naturally find attractive when looking at different people. It is nice to see a character go through that very relatable process of being unsure of their sexuality, exploring it in some form, and then becoming confident in their identity once they figure it out. Another reason this example is a positive form of representation is that Alex pretty much had complete agency over the situation. No one was pressuring her or stigmatizing her. While she did talk to other people about the subject, she explored her identity on her own terms. It was nice to see this as well.
One downside to both casual representation and an identity-focused plot is if the TV show or movie relies heavily on stereotypes. This can be harmful, especially if the specific stereotype being portrayed is a degrading one. One way to avoid this is by having actors, writers, and other staff who share the same identity as the character. If you want better LGBTQ representation, then include LGBTQ people in the making of the show or movie. The same goes for when the representation is of a certain race, disability, etc. It is also important to acknowledge the diversity within any identity group to avoid stereotypes. Not all autistic people are exactly the same. Not all nonbinary people express their gender or otherwise act the same way. One way to show this diversity is to have multiple characters within a show that are of a certain identity. It could also stem from the writers consulting a large group of people instead of a single person or small group when trying to figure out how to better represent a certain identity via a character.
A downside specific to casual representation is that it can be easy to miss. While having a gay couple dancing in the background in a crowded room full of people dancing can be sweet, a viewer also may not notice. This happened when I came across a post online where someone screenshotted a scene from a show I had watched and circled a gay couple way in the background dancing at a party. I had not noticed the couple while watching, because my focus was on the main characters. There was another time where I did notice a very quick bit of inclusion that was easy not to spot before the show moved on. There was an episode of Steven Universe where a gender-neutral bathroom is quickly shown way in the background while the characters are talking at a roller skating rink. It is brief enough that many viewers likely did not spot it. While it was nice to see this detail in the show, it is also important to have more easily viewable examples of representation and inclusive spaces in shows and movies. Another issue with causal representation is sometimes it is only implied that a character is LGBTQ. Sometimes, this is done because the writers want to include an LGBTQ character, but the people higher up in the production will not allow it. Other times, it can be harmful if it is done simply to bait people into watching, especially if the show later uses a negative trope when revealing the character’s identity.
This piece originally stemmed from me being prompted to write about autistic representation in the media. I have multiple reasons for mostly focusing on LGBTQ representation instead. It is partially due to having explored and been out about the LBGTQ aspects of my identity for years longer than when I first started dealing with the autistic part of my identity. This means I have had my eye out for LGBTQ representation longer. Another reason is that there is a severe lack of autistic representation in the media I consume. I can name a long list of shows that I have watched that contain LGBTQ representation that I did not start watching knowing they would. Occasionally, I will watch a movie or show after hearing about it containing good LGBTQ representation, though there are also plenty of times a show I was already watching for other reasons suddenly introduces an LGBTQ character. However, almost all the autistic representation I have seen in the media has been from me searching for it or people recommending shows containing autistic representation. If including YouTube or news articles when discussing media, then I do occasionally accidentally stumble upon autistic representation. I cannot easily name a movie or show that contains autistic representation that I started watching without knowing beforehand, though. I know autistic representation exists in the media from looking up lists online and watching YouTubers critique examples. With LGBTQ representation, I do not have to work as hard to find it, especially when it comes to sexuality more so than transgender representation.
While the lack of autistic representation in media is a problem on its own, it also strengthens the issues I previously mentioned that can occur with any identity being represented. Stereotypes tend to be portrayed more if there is not a diverse, larger set of examples of representation of a certain identity in the media. Even if an autistic character in a show is not problematically portrayed, I still may not relate to them if the way autism manifests in them is different than the way it does in me. As someone who often does not fit many autism stereotypes, I rarely see people like me being portrayed even when it is a good example of representation that another autistic person might relate to. The desire for more representation can also lead people to guess if a character is being implied to be autistic, which can get problematic quickly. However, I have caught myself doing this. One time, I was watching a show and kept noticing a bunch of autistic traits in a particular main character, though the show did not say if the character was autistic. On the one hand, the specific traits I noticed were ones I share and it was nice to see the main character of a show be like me, even if the writers had not planned for the character to be autistic. On the other, playing that guessing game can lead to labeling real people who do not personally want to be labeled that way and is not as good as having characters that are clearly stated to be autistic.
In my own life, I have had moments where I casually mention parts of my identity and other times where I go into a long discussion with someone. It can feel really good to be able to confidently discuss my identity openly, though it is the opposite experience to be pressured into explaining who I am when I don’t want to and by people who are not willing to openly learn about my life. Just a week or two ago, we were talking about stigmatization in relation to chronic conditions and of identities in general in one of my college classes and I ended up going into a long conversation with a classmate about autism often being labeled as a bad thing based on stereotypes that do not apply to all autistic people. In that case, I was the one to bring up the topic and my classmate was very open to hearing my thoughts. She said that the conversation gave her a new way to think about autism that she had never realized due to not being autistic herself. That real-life form of representation of me simply being openly myself and willing to talk about my identity can be beneficial. TV shows, movies, and other media can have characters go through a similar experience if the creators choose to have them do so.