You've seen it. I've seen it. The soon-to-be-born will see it shortly after they take their first breath. You know ... the mantra, the hashtag, the popular adage: Representation matters.
It's a topic that is popular in its exclamation, but rarely parsed to discuss what it actually means. And it's a saying that has left me to wonder if those who utter it do so because of what they're told it means as opposed to what it actually means to them.
Humor me for a moment.
I recently had a conversation with an intern at my new job who, upon learning that I was a former English Lit major in college, wanted to know what was my favorite type of writing. Not my favorite author or my favorite book. She wanted to know what was my favorite type of writing, as in what movement or period in history produced some of my preferred forms of storytelling.
After thinking for a moment, I sheepishly said, "Well, I've always been partial to 20th century Irish authors. Playwrights, poets, novelists, short story writers, you know." Then the intern, being a woman of color herself, gave me a short look of confusion. So I felt the need to explain.
I told her that although I believe wholeheartedly that representation does matters, in truth, I have rarely felt represented in media. Regardless of medium, I do not see myself reflected in the characters in most films, TV shows, novels, comic books, poetry, etc. Sure, I've seen images of people on camera who might look like me, but they don't act like me. They don't think like me. Very little in those characters mimic my journey or make me feel as if I'm not alone simply because the actor's skin may resemble my complexion or their hair texture is similar to my own.
And as a result, I've learned to never look for representation of myself in contemporary media. So when I do happen upon a character or an identity that strikes a chord with me, I've found it rarely is in the body of someone who looks like me. Upon discovery however, I do feel more at ease. I recognize that despite what many who would have me believe otherwise, I am not alone. And it's a great feeling.
I realize that I'm compelled to explain why my favorite reflection of how I see me isn't someone who looks like me. It's why I've never told anyone (until now) that Black Panther affected me the same way Captain America: Winter Soldier did ... I was a merely spectator to a great story about the lives of a group of people with whom I have little in common.
Now, I would never take anything away from those who shout "Wakanda Forever!" or speak of how groundbreaking the film is or how it has affected them. I get it. I really do. You know why? Because it's the same feeling I got when I read James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the first time. It's the same feeling I got when I finally saw the film Amélie and fell in love with it. It's the same feeling I had when I gazed upon Rodin's solitary statue of The Weeping Burgher at the Musée Rodin in Paris.
Stephen Dedalus (the protagonist in Joyce's Portrait...) and I are not the same gender, race, age or nationality. But his experience with having a highly sensitive emotional connection to others and the world around him was easily the first time any other person had described a worldview that made me feel as if I wasn't going crazy. Joyce's description of the need to seek isolation, but constantly feeling as if you're broken if you do, sent me a message of hope from across an ocean, a culture and almost a century into the future.
Amélie Poulain's interior design or fashion sense doesn't mirror my own. Her job, her relationship with her parents, or her complicated strategy to learn more about a person who has lost a valuable treasure have virtually nothing in common with my life. And yet, the way she works behind the scenes to manipulate a little more happiness into the everyday lives of the people around her struck a profound chord with me. Her desire to focus more on the joy of others because the act brings her joy, and not because she wants others to applaud her assistance, made me feel as if I haven't chosen a foolhardy approach to life.
I also have nothing in common with Auguste Rodin or Andrieu d'Andres, the man depicted in The Weeping Burgher statue. But like a moth to a flame, it took everything I had that day in the gardens of the Musée Rodin to not reach out and touch that bronze work. I wanted to console and offer solace to a man long dead before even the statue's creator was born, let alone me. Rodin so magnificently captures his anguish and emotional collapse as he faced his final days (if not hours) on earth that I, again, across time, felt it and knew it intrinsically. I had seen The Burghers of Calais statue years before at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, but it never resonated with me the way The Weeping Burgher statue does on its own. In that moment, I knew Andrieu d'Andres because, in the past, I have felt what he, captured in this moment, has felt.
But I know Stephen, Amélie and Andrieu are not me. They don't look like me. They don't sound like me. And the environment that produced them is substantially different from my own. But a part of these characters or their depictions does represent me. Not the me others see on the surface, but what lies beneath. And that representation matters just as much as any other.
I would love to see any of these characters take the form of a brown-skinned woman with natural curly hair, a crooked smile and poor eyesight. I would also love to see a character who reflects me and my odd-to-everyone-but-me psyche in every way, on the inside and out. But as of yet, no such fictional character exists.
Yes, I see someone who resembles me in the cast of A Different World, which thankfully spurred me to attend a HBCU after high school. I see me (and my family) brought to life in the comforting, but esoteric film Kingdom Come. I see me in the pages of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls..., as well as on stage when its performed.
But I also see me in the TV show Daria, which helped me get through high school just as much as A Different World. I also see my family in the stories of that great New Zealand TV series Outrageous Fortune (don't judge). I also see me in the pages of the Hellblazer comic book as the lead whose worldview isn't too different from my own.
Like most, I know that representation has always mattered. I just never put much stock in that representation speaking only to what others see on the outside, because to me, what matters most, is representation of what lies on the inside. Now if only I could stop feeling compelled to explain that to others.