In the last couple days, many have been celebrating the rising tide of positive representation depicted in Black Panther, on Twitter with #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe.
And yet, every silver lining has a cloud — at least a few commenters flocked to the hashtag to talk about how representation is a non-issue and that everyone else is overreacting, with some even accusing them of being ‘racist’ for celebrating an actor/character based on their race.
It’s not just limited to discussion about Black Panther, superhero movies or movies in general either. Many reactionaries dismiss works of media with protagonists who are some combination of non-white, not-straight and/or not-male as pandering or “SJW bait.”
The positive effects on the mental health and self-esteem of people who are able to see themselves positively represented in media have been confirmed in study after study, through both empirical and anecdotal evidence, like the Black Panther hashtag. Over the past few years, changing social trends and rising levels of societal awareness — as well as companies realizing the potential profits — have led to more and more diversity in our media: from T’Challa in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Finn in the Star Wars sequels to Korra in the Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel series, to the joy of many.
However, as stated, many reactionaries — specifically, straight, white, male reactionaries — have clamored against diversity, claiming it to be an unnecessary, obnoxious and forced trend. We live in a society and culture whose media has been dominated by white male protagonists, largely white and cisheteronormative supporting casts and extremely stereotypical, if not downright caricature-like, depictions of characters from minority groups for centuries. White people have never had to live with not seeing themselves in media, seeing themselves exclusively portrayed as overly violent and overly sexual or constantly seeing portrayals of themselves that lack substance. We don’t understand why representation is important, and don’t see a need for it.
And realistically, we — cishet white men — need to do better and be more understanding, especially young people that make up the next generation of media content creators and consumers. When people from groups not normally represented go out of their way to explain what being represented means to them, whether it’s through a hashtag on social media, or an editorial or any medium, we need to take their voices seriously and at face value instead of constantly demeaning and doubting them. People of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community have just as much of a right to heroes and idols that straight white men do.
And even if you’ve never experienced a lack of representation among the lines of race, gender or sexuality, it’s still not too difficult to understand how important representation is if you keep an open mind. For example, I’m all of the things I’ve been talking about – straight, white and male. I see people who at least somewhat look like me all the time. But there are more specific things about me that are rare; when I see a heroic journalist, for example, like Ben Urich in Marvel’s Daredevil Netflix series, I feel proud seeing that character on screen and automatically love that character way more. As someone who plays fighting games a lot, one of my favorite game characters is Charlie Nash from Street Fighter, one of the only fighting game characters that wears glasses and isn’t built like an absolute truck. I imagine the feelings I have seeing those characters on screen doing cool things and multiply it by a dozen, and I begin to understand the joy a Black person might feel when they see a movie whose main character is an African prince, scientist and superhero at the top of the Rotten Tomatoes list. And I begin to understand why representation matters and what it means.