The Burden of Representation 7 comments

A major challenge of writing diverse characters is the burden of representation.

Characters written as women, people of color, or members of other marginalized group aren’t allowed to be individuals or representative of humanity. Audiences interpret these characters to represent their marginalized groups–to convey universal messages about all members of those groups, and at the same time, to convey messages only about members of those groups. Marginalized characters are interpreted to be merely a subset of humanity but at the same time asked to carry more responsibility than dominant social group characters.

Default Humans vs “Others”

The burden of representation is rooted in the the Western default model of humanity. Click To Tweet

The burden of representation is rooted in the the Western default model of humanity. Western cultures, or at least the dominant social groups in Western cultures, hold up straight white able-bodied males as the default model of humanity and, in contrast, relegate women, LGBTQ people, people of colour and the disabled to being “Others”.

For example, in the world of American film, a story about (straight white) men, in any genre, is a “movie” (i.e., the default or the norm), a movie with women leads is instantly dismissed as a “chick flick”, a movie with black leads is an “urban film”, and movies about anyone else are “special interest pictures”. When was the last time you saw a movie singled out for being a “straight movie” or a “white movie”? You take my point.

In the world of storytelling, for any medium, this whole concept of straight white able-bodied men as default models of humanity means that if you change a character from a dominant social group to a character from a marginalized group, the way your audience interprets the message of the story changes–even if everything else in the story is the same.

Case Study: Gender-Swapping Othello

Let’s look at Shakespeare’s Othello as an example. In Shakespeare’s original version. Othello is a swarthy-skinned man whose lieutenant Iago (a white man) undertakes to destroy Othello with jealousy. The story is held up as an insightful commentary on the human condition that explores themes of trust, loyalty, fidelity, betrayal, and jealousy. But note that no one perceives it as a commentary on “men”, in the gendered sense of men–it is a story about humans and humankind.

What if Othello & Iago were both women? Click To Tweet

What if Othello and Iago were both women? Ms. Iago is overlooked for a promotion and in consequence plots out an elaborate scheme for revenge against Ms. Othello. Magically, the story is no longer about “humankind”; it has become a story about how (all) women can’t be friends, (all) women stab each other in the back, and (all) women are always cat-fighting. Because women aren’t representatives of humanity; as subsets of humanity, women only and always represent women. The same burden of representation holds true for most characters written as marginalized people.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on your characters…

The Burden of Representation in Action

The limitations of storytelling in a society that holds up (straight white able-bodied) men as the default model of humanity is much on my mind right now because I’m at the stage in prep on a story where I’m questioning my choices around the identities of my characters. In my original conception of the story, a limited location low-budget horror, the lead was male. If I make the lead female, that gender change ripples out through the genders of the other characters (even allowing for same-sex relationships, which were part of the original version of the story, too); it would take a little fine-tuning but the relationships and story world still hold up. Here’s the problem: with a male lead, the story is about how his pride and vanity set the horror story in motion, because pride and vanity are dangerous human failings; but, with a female lead, the message of the story changes to be that pride and vanity are dangerous flaws of women–of all women and only of women. In other words, by making the protagonist female in an attempt to be woman-positive, I wind up creating a story that is woman-negative. Yuck. That’s not a story I want to tell or a message I want to send.

Options for Writing Diverse Leads

I want to write stories with female leads. So what do I do about the problems caused in this story by the burden of representation?

Here’s how I see my options for this story:

  1. Leave the lead as male and don’t worry about. This option is obviously problematic.
  2. Change the lead to female and reinforce a pervasive and destructive narrative about women. I don’t want to do that.
  3. Leave the lead as male and make as many of the supportive roles female as possible (and make them diverse in other ways, too). This is a decent possibility, if not perfect.
  4. Change the story so it genuinely represents female experience from a female point of view–which is often a powerful way to dispel the false narratives around women. This is a great option when it works. It can take a radical reconception of the story.
  5. Acknowledge that I have a strong commitment to writing female leads and if I can’t make this project work with a female protagonist, I can choose to walk away from the project. This is a good possibility.
  6. Hope for magic to twinkle down from the sky and solve the problem for me. While this is always an attractive option… it doesn’t tend to work that well. (Your mileage may vary.)

I’ve had great success with option 4 (changing the story to tell a more truthful version of female experience) on previous projects  but for reasons I won’t bore you with it won’t work for this story–or, at least I can’t see yet how to make it work. I’m torn between options 3 (diversify the supporting cast) and 5 (walk away). It’s not an easy choice. If I do go ahead on this story with a male lead, I’ll make the following project more overtly woman-positive to balance out my portfolio. I’ll also keep exploring ways to make the lead female and yet make the story work (option 4): I don’t think I’ll find a way in this case but sometimes I surprise myself.

(There are other options for addressing the burden of representation that aren’t relevant to the story I’m working on right now; I look forward to exploring them in future articles. For now, let me say I don’t mean the list above to be definitive.)

Sometimes my original concept for a story will have a female lead–and that makes my job easier. Sometimes I’ll start thinking of a male lead but work out ways to successfully change the protagonist to female. In other cases, I go through a thought process similar to what I outlined above–and I usually, eventually, arrive at a solution I’m happy with.

The burden of representation can present challenges for doing diverse characters justice. Click To Tweet

The burden of representation can present a real challenge for writing diverse characters and doing them justice. If you add more diverse characters into your projects and you find it breaks your stories, that’s okay: it happens sometimes. Try using the list of options above to work out how to write the story you want to write. It’s worth the effort. And let me know how you fare.

(In the course of writing this article, I may have found the seeds of a solution… perhaps magic is twinkling down on me after all. There’s much ink to spill before I know if this will work or not; I’ll let you know some time which course of action I wind up taking.)

7 thoughts on “The Burden of Representation

  • John Connor

    As someone who is 1) concerned with issues of diversity and representation, but is also 2) a straight white cis man, in my efforts to write about people other than myself (and to write about experiences other than my own) I have a sneaking suspicion that I end up doing #2 on your list more than I’m aware.

    (Now that I think about it, it’s possible this is another symptom of the kind of Default Human thinking you detail above: even when I write about another experience, I’m less inclined/able to see my characters as bearing the burdens of representation you outline, because society hasn’t taught me to think that way. I give my female/PoC leads all the ambiguities and flaws I want, even if they might reflect poorly on the marginalised group they represent, because I don’t see that female/PoC character as representative … because I can’t see myself that way.

    Ugh, that second paragraph went down the rabbit hole a bit. Let me know if it doesn’t make sense and I’ll try and clarify it further!)

    • Shaula Evans Post author

      Hurray, John! I’m so happy to see a response from you on this post: I’ve been looking forward to discussing this with you.

      Don’t worry, I followed your second paragraph.

      You’re not alone: I find #2 is pervasive in all storytelling industries. (I think you’re also better at this than you give yourself credit.)

      > society hasn’t taught me to think that way.

      Bingo! That’s a great point. We’re all working against lifetimes of conditioning when we look at better ways to write diversity. That’s why it’s such a slog!

      We can also teach ourselves to think in new ways. That’s what a lot of this boils down to: cultivating new kinds of awareness and new ways of writing.

      • MC Nedelsky

        Phenomenal article and great comments (John your second paragraph was clear as day). While acknowledging that as a cis white male I’m certainly not as conscious of the way in which non white male characters carry additional burdens of representation by standing in for a whole group of people, I also don’t think we should always shy away from putting diverse characters in roles that might seem to have stereotypical elements to them. For instance, your female Othello hypothetical is something I would absolutely love to see. Part of the way we avoid them serving as a representation of “all women” is by having a diverse set of women in the story. So sure, Iago might come across as the pettiness of women, Othello as the jealousy. But if *all* the characters were women, than we have a diverse set of characters, and no single woman becomes a stand in for the group.

        I’ve been thinking about this specifically in relation to male Asian actors doing martial arts roles. The issue isn’t that Asian men shouldn’t do martial arts roles, but that a) those shouldn’t be the only Asian roles present and b) that the martial arts role is a real character, and not just a set piece stand in. So if there’s an Asian character who performs martial arts, great, but make sure they have a real, dynamic character, and also that they aren’t the only Asian character in the series.

        The same is true of black criminals, muslim terrorists, asian nerds, air headed women – all the various tropes that are present in our stories. I’d argue that the issue isn’t that these characters shouldn’t exist – such people really do exist in the world – but that they shouldn’t be the *only* characters. The Wire has black criminals, but the characters are all distinct, and there are also black characters who are not criminals. I would argue a similar case could be made for Muslim terrorists in Sleeper Cell (which isn’t exempt from problematic portrayals, but also has a lot going for it in terms of a varied portrait of Muslims) and something like Mean Girls, which shows even the trope of bitchy high school girl not to be uniform.

        • Shaula Evans Post author

          It’s lovely to get a comment from you, MC. Thank you.

          > Part of the way we avoid them serving as a representation of “all women” is by having a diverse set of women in the story. So sure, Iago might come across as the pettiness of women, Othello as the jealousy. But if *all* the characters were women, than we have a diverse set of characters, and no single woman becomes a stand in for the group.

          Yes! You raise an excellent point, in the example above and your other examples. Going beyond “the token minority” to present a variety of characters who share an identity is a great strategy to address this problem, too.

  • NullFuture

    This post crops back up at a good time for me as yesterday the idea came to me to completely change the lead protagonist on a story from young white male to young black female.

    I wasn’t aware of any negative issues from this change as, well, as the previous commenter said, I haven’t been educated to think this way. One thing that may alter the discussed issues is that the central issue is one of mental health. I am curious as to whether or not that would level the playing field

    • Shaula Evans Post author

      > I haven’t been educated to think this way

      You’re not alone, NF: most of us were never taught to think about issues of identity and representation in our writing.

      > I am curious as to whether or not [a central story issue of mental health] would level the playing field.

      For me, the underlying questions are always: how does this character change in turn affect the power dynamics of the relationships and the expectations (and baggage) that the audience brings to the work?

      Part of the answer also depends on the approach you take as the writer to a particular story. There’s a big difference between a ham-handed story that telegraphs “all black chicks are crazy” vs a story that sends a message like “intersectionalities of race and gender make navigating mental health issues and the social stigma of mental health that much more difficult”.

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