Represent the Thriving
Now that I’ve finished a massive binge of Critical Role (all caught up; somebody give me a medal), I’ve found myself flipping around and taking a sampling of some other TV that’s out there. There’s a lot that piques my interest, and I’ve narrowed it down a few times, but I’ve picked up on a theme that stuck in my craw a bit. It’s pervasive, and all over different genres and media types, and I think I’m so burned out on it that you can smell the char a mile away.
I’ve got two shows in mind that are culprits of it, and so I’ll bring my thoughts to the surface by referencing the things I’ve noticed in those. Shrill was a show I picked up for obvious reasons – it’s about a fat girl existing in the world, and that’s something I’ve been yearning for since forever. Lindy West is also on the writing team, and I’ve appreciated her work since I dove into the loving arms of feminism while recovering from PTSD. I also peeked at Workin’ Moms on Netflix, which looks like it is trying to bring a sense of realism to the highly romanticized act of having kids (I am NOT knocking moms, y’all are powerhouse heroes, I just mean it’s not all rosewater baby oil and giggles when you have kids). I’ve caught up with Shrill, and I got through one and a half episodes of Workin’ Moms before I had to pause and word vomit these thoughts because I felt them boiling over.
I want to add a small caveat here before I launch into the rest. I do want to say both these shows seem good. The writing is on point, the characters feel dimensional, it’s shot and produced wonderfully. They are quality shows, and I would recommend them. What I feel isn’t necessarily a mark against them by any means – it’s just a feeling I want to point out in spite of everything they’re bringing to the table.
Representation matters, right? Representation is something we’ve fought for tooth and nail in a lot of different genres and categories. To see shows about working mothers and shows about fat girls and shows that include varied sexualities and genders, well that’s amazing. It matters SO MUCH that we’ve made enough headway in representation that these shows were funded, produced, and got advertised enough that they came across my radar so I could consume them. Yet, as I watched Shrill, I found myself feeling as though something was missing. It’s representation. It’s a girl that is shaped like me on the screen, and that representation is good, but somehow, I still came up feeling like it wasn’t representing me.
Both shows are heavy on interactions that highlight a lot of the discrimination that people face. In Shrill, the main character puts up with fatphobic abuse and invasive health “advice” on just about every front. She hears it from her family, her coworkers, her boss, random people in coffee shops, internet trolls. It’s pervasive, which is accurate to a lot of women’s experiences. In Workin’ Moms, I’ve seen one character deal with snide bullshit as she returned to work, another get her feelings dismissed by her husband, and another have her husband completely misread her emotional reaction to being pregnant again. There’s also a good representation of the snideness that can exist between women and targeted at each other, and the judgmental perils that many women face when becoming mothers.
What kills me about all these moments piled into the scenes of the show isn’t that they’re there, but it’s the reaction that the characters have to them. Part of what “we” – as women, as gays, as fats, as POC – complain about when we talk about these kinds of microaggressions is the fact that societal norms have dictated for a long time that we just have to deal with it. I’m sure a lot of us are familiar with the stiff, pained smile we slap on our face to hide the boiling rage beneath the surface when someone makes a stupid fucking comment they couldn’t bear to keep to themselves. It’s the same smile I see in the shows, over and over. The characters get hit with these moments, and they behave in the socially engineered ways we’re “supposed” to respond. As the audience, we understand this is ridiculous, we can see the unfairness and we’re on the character’s side, feeling that same frustration.
That’s where I’m stuck. That’s where I’m getting this feeling like the hair on the back of my neck is standing on end and my eye starts to twitch. Because I think I’m at a point in my life where I just wouldn’t stand for any of it anymore. I’d call out the bullshit, I’d tell the person it’s none of their business or to keep their mouth shut. I think that’s where we have been pushing society to get to, as well. I’ve seen post after post begging people to speak up, begging people to say what’s uncool, begging people to fight against the microaggressions – or worse. And I’ve seen that kind of rhetoric pay off. I’ve seen people call out friends, I’ve seen people react appropriately to that kind of oppression or abuse. Even if it’s subtle or gentle, I rarely see bullshit pass my radar without someone stepping up to point out that’s not something we want to tolerate anymore. Perhaps I’m living in a fantastic bubble of people that are good and pure, but I’d like to think it’s more a trend than it is just the people around me.
Which is why it’s so damn painful to see a character face these situations and still slap that shit-eating grin on their face. To let it slide. To put up with it in silence, while everyone around them seems to notice no issues.
To the credit of Shrill, that character does eventually start to push back, and I imagine both shows will have moments where the breaking point is hit, and a reckoning is had. Trying to watch them get to that breaking point, though, leaves me feeling…not represented.
I know the narrative of meek girl or woman finds her voice is a popular one. We like to see the underdogs win. I think, however, that I’m starting to find it’s a detriment to representation as a whole. Why are we pushing the story that we have to put up with a certain amount of bullshit before we’re allowed to overcome it? Why do we show everyone that you must first take the shape that society “expects” before you’re allowed to break the mold?
I’d like to see some representation for characters that face that oppression and thrive. Characters that don’t mumble “fuck you” under their breath but say it out loud to the person acting like a fool. Or a character that, when asked if her child calls the nanny “mom” yet, would respond “first of all, fuck you, and second of all, another comment like that and I’m going to sue you for workplace harassment, because I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to discriminate against me for being a parent”.
I spent my whole life consuming fiction that taught me that the meekness of a person enhances their worth. The “she’s more beautiful because she doesn’t know she’s beautiful” bullshit. For the longest time I believed it, too. I believed that I needed to remain dismissive of myself and my accomplishments in order to be appealing to others. That even when you thrive, you have to hide that light just a bit so as to remain acceptable. That I must lack enough confidence so that someone could come along and build it up for me. To have too much meant I was leaving no room for anyone else.
The way the characters in Shrill and Workin’ Moms behave, it furthers the idea that meekness is desirable, while also teaching us that breakdowns are required for growth. That you won’t be able to rise above something until it’s beaten you so far down that your mental health snaps. That you lash out in rage or do something dangerous or drastic. Yes, this is a valid story. So many people get pushed to that point over these things, and I absolutely understand that it IS a way that some can learn to rise up. Hitting rock bottom means there’s only one direction to go, after all.
But I’m tired of that being the only narrative I see. Represent those of us that are already sick of the cycle. Represent those of us that deal with the oppression but don’t let it make us victims (this is NOT a knock on people that do feel victimized, you have a right to, BUT, that’s not the way you HAVE to feel, it’s not the only way to feel). Represent the ones that fight back for our right to exist and have freedom. The representation is wonderful, it’s good to have it, but it’s not aspirational. It’s meant to be relatable, but not to be something we can use for guidance. It tells the story of what IS, and not what can be.
You don’t have to put up with things until you break. You don’t have to take all the comments to heart until your depression nearly kills you. You don’t have to suffer to learn to love yourself. It is exhausting to look out into the world and realize that’s the only narrative we’re showing people.
It’s dangerous to preach that verse because the impressionable start to think that trauma is something to aspire to. That you aren’t special until you’ve been broken. That you must emotionally snap for anything to improve. It’s the same story, over and over, across all types of representation. I’ve seen people negatively affected by it, as well. People who romanticize tragic backstories or are deeply drawn to broken characters as though the strife is what’s made them complex.
We are complex as humans. We are interesting as people. I have trauma, I have tragedy, but I was whole and complex before that happened. I remain whole and complex after it has passed. I remain interesting through every level of discrimination that I face. Yes, I have had breakdowns. I have been reduced to ashes and been brought back up like a phoenix. What I would love more than anything is to guarantee that somebody else doesn’t have to break as bad as I did. That the blows don’t hit them as hard. That they can see stories that show them how to pass through whatever fire is in their path without as many burns. We need to tell more stories to make people realize that you don’t have to have trauma and suffering to be interesting. That’s not the only narrative there is, so it would be nice to see that reflected in our media.
So, let’s have shows about fat girls where the conflict isn’t their weight. Let’s have shows about lesbians and gay men where they fight dragons and not homophobia. Where a character can be black or Asian and the narrative doesn’t have to give us a reason that they aren’t white. But most of all, I’d love to see representation that doesn’t force us to watch our metaphorical image thrown to the wolves over and over again. Stories where our representation gets to thrive rather than get smashed to pieces. Or at least representation that doesn’t involve them struggling just to prove their right to exist, like it’s a toll that must be paid just for the right to be on screen.
Representation matters, but I wish we could be represented without burning us in effigy first.