t’s a challenging world to live in. Over the past few years, many of us have had our favorite childhood memories tainted by the fact that something about them is problematic. Indeed, this is the reality of waking up to the society we live in—realizing that some of the things and people we prized most in our memories contributed at least in part to the complex systems of oppression that many of us experience. We’ve seen many such instances with critics of Disney pointing out the lack of racial diversity in its characters, Hollywood whitewashing becoming widely disparaged, and abusers in the media industry finally being held accountable with the rise of the Me Too movement. At this rate, it’s become a harrowing experience to open up Twitter and see your favorite celebrity’s name trending. One wonders: did they die, or did they do something that I now have to hate them for?
Looking back on some of the characters we loved to hate growing up, I can’t help but notice how clearly gender-subversive some of the villains were. Lion King’s Scar, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, and Him from The Powerpuff Girls are the best examples of this that come to mind (look also at the features of Maleficent and the Ugly Stepsister from Shrek). We are meant to fear all of them. We are meant to root against them. But is it a coincidence that the villains of our stories have features so exaggerated that they look like drag makeup? That their mannerisms are typically effeminate?
When I was younger, it was easy to villainize these characters —and, by extension, anyone who looked or acted like them. I found characters like Cruella de Vil and the Jafar garish and frightening because of their sinister motivations, but also simply because of their appearance and mannerisms. Feeding into other cultural and social conditioning that had taught me that any “male” person who “acted like a woman” was to be feared, they led to a subtle message: queer people were villains. I didn’t have a frame of reference for this: I just knew that all the characters we were meant to like were typically white (or light-skinned), thin, able-bodied, and gender-conforming. So, that was who I strove to become.
The stories that we are told from birth tell us that every story has a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ side. As we get older, we find out that the world is more complex than that. But because of the way we are conditioned, we nonetheless still apply that hero-villain lens to our lives. Our children (and their children, and their children) deserve to hear their stories told—to feel that their voices are important. It is up to us to provide them with that framework. Despite the call for representation, media has not shifted in the ways that we would have hoped: directors, producers, actors and writers are still overwhelmingly white and male. Representation is looking someone in the eye and saying, “I see you, and you are important.” Representation is what we owe to each other.