Trigger warning for (brief) discussions of various types of prejudice and stereotyping, and discussions of internalized transphobia--that is, transphobia directed at myself.I've recently been thinking about representation in media and how it affects feelings. Usually I'm thinking of it with regards to trans* characters--especially genderfluid ones--and my own feelings, on both counts because they are more relevant to me personally, and on the former count because it is the aspect of my identity that I see most rarely expressed. I see three ways representation affects me, and I think all of them generalize.
The first is the one I see most commonly talked about: Representation is a background tape of "Yes, you exist; you have a right to exist; you are not alone." This is why people can cheer even when a representation is terribly stereotypical--because, "You can be only this," can feel fantastic when you've just come from, "You don't exist," or, "You shouldn't exist." "You can be only this," still says, "You can be."
The second is where the type of representation becomes obviously important: Role models. Part of this links into the previous type, in that seeing a scientist of your gender/race/orientation or with your disability or neuroatypicality or whichever is that same message. When it's something outside the stereotype, the message goes from, "You can be only this," to, "You can be this, too," and even if the 'this' isn't what you want to be, that 'too' can make all the difference. Because if you can be 'this too', then you can be something else, someone else, too. You aren't bound to one of the traditional roles.
Role models can exist just for being what you are, too. This is why happy queer stories are so important, why happy publicly queer people are so important: "I am what you are, and I'm happy. It is possible for you to be happy, too." That's not to say anyone is required to be happy, of course--that's a step back, "You can be only this; you can only look happy." But having them, knowing that they are there, that this is possible--that's important. Happy people who are like you are role models, if only in their happiness. The background noise they give off is, "Yes, you can survive here; yes, you can thrive here; yes, you can laugh and smile. And you know what? You deserve it."
And then there's the third type of representation, the one that's so prickly because it can feel like a step back, and because it is so easy for it to be a step back. It's the people who are insecure about their own identities. I've found them very helpful, because there are all these things I think to myself, and as soon as anyone else thinks them, even a fictional character, their absurdity becomes obvious. "I'm not really trans* because I have days when I'm not dysphoric." What? That's so obviously wrong as soon as anyone else says it. "Everyone will always think I'm not worth it." Huh? Where did that even come from, because it certainly didn't come from any of my friends and supportive family.
It's hard to write those stories, because it's so easy to make them a TRAGIC GAY NARRATIVE or a story about a LITTLE BLACK BOY WHO WAS TOO GOOD FOR THIS SINFUL EARTH. But they don't need to be one of those stories; they don't even need to have a sad ending. There just need to be characters with their own insecurities, so we can see them from the outside. Even if seeing it doesn't make them obviously absurd, or even if they aren't absurd, at least we know we're not the only ones who think that way. I am not alone in messing up my own pronouns. I am not alone in being scared of how relatives will react.
I am not alone.
That's the point of representation, really.