What does it really mean to feel “represented”? What does it really mean to feel seen?
“Representation,” a cultural buzzword that’s often tossed around with words like “diversity” and “inclusivity,” is typically thought of as this idea that when we see people who look like us on TV shows, in movies, and on the covers of magazines, it validates our own existence.
I’ve thought long and hard about the first time I “saw” myself in the media ― really saw myself. If representation simply means the cultural presence of people who physically resemble you, then technically, I’ve seen myself as a housekeeper, a teen mother somewhere in the “inner city,” a child soldier, a slave, a nameless face in a crowd.
Images of Viola Davis as Annalise Keating or Lupita Nyong’o on the cover of Vogue are supposed to be especially meaningful to the everyday women who share their backgrounds, who look like them. And for me, a dark-skinned woman born in Ghana and based in New York, their success, and the image of their success, is largely meaningful.
And yet, I can’t help but feel that our idea of representation, what it actually means and how it actually serves us, needs to be expanded. Growing up, the pieces of pop culture that resonated with me on the deepest levels (TV shows like “Doctor Who,” movies like “The Lord of the Rings”) didn’t necessarily hinge on what black faces I could spot on-screen. I connected with characters and themes that resonated with my interest in things that were outside the norm, that challenged my own reality.
The first pop cultural moment that really spoke to me as a black girl was the rise of the Spice Girls. Melanie Brown, then known as “Scary Spice,” fascinated me. I was drawn to her, not just because she was black, but because she was black and weird. She was unapologetically loud and unapologetically fierce in a way that (in my mere 10 years) I had never seen a black girl have the permission to be. But she, and her bandmates, didn’t ask for permission. That resonated with me, a shy and awkward kid always afraid of stepping on toes, in a profound way.
It’s a tiny example, but it’s one that serves for me as my idea of what representation really means, or can mean. We like to think of representation as this incredibly generalized concept, the idea that someone like “Orange is the New Black’s” Uzo Aduba can be the inspiration for all dark-skinned black women who aspire to be great actresses, or Shonda Rhimes can be the single beacon of hope for black women who want to be TV bosses. In reality, no one black woman can encompass the entire black experience, no matter the heights of her success.
Representation is actually incredibly personal. Feeling seen is incredibly personal. The impact that Mel B had on me as a kid won’t resemble the impact she had on someone else. That’s why more representation, more complex portrayals of black womanhood (and other identities) are needed in media: the black female experience itself is not just one thing. Neither is the queer experience, the Muslim experience, the experience of having a disability.
Representation isn’t just about optics and images. It’s about personal stories, experiences and identities that become universal in their specificity. Perhaps, the more we share these stories, the more textured and nuanced the representation we see will become.
In the spirit of this idea, and in an effort to show what true representation means to different people, we are launching a series called “When Representation Mattered,” designed to explore our many stories. We invite people of all racial backgrounds, religions, abilities, and sexual and gender identities to share those profound moments ― however brief ― when they really saw themselves in others for the first time. To submit your story (in written or vlog form) for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.