What people get wrong about representation in media
Posted On August 11, 2020
As someone who consumes a metric ton media (video games, anime, music, etc), and also writes for a living (freelance inbound lead life) I have a lot to say about where the two intersect.
I could’ve—and have—ranted for hours about how to craft interesting characters. I could’ve—and have—spent redorkulous amounts of time analyzing my fave media. I could easily burp up thousands of words on writing and entertainment, especially if they converge on LGBT+ avenue (not cis, very bi), all without breaking a sweat.
However, there’s one rant I’ve let collect dust for too long. One that we—as analytical, progressively-minded entertainment fans—need to acknowledge.
What rant is that exactly? It concerns representation, writing, and which characters (and lived experiences) we erase.
Let’s start by defining representation in media.
Then, I’ll provide an example of positive representation, and chase it with an example of media that many people find problematic.
Finally, we’ll analyze where the disconnect is, and why it absolutely fucking matters.
What is representation in media?
In a nutshell, representation means opening up the media landscape to narratives, concepts, types of people, and more, that often get overlooked in mainstream entertainment.
It means crafting stories with LGBTQIAA+ leads. It means stepping aside to make space for BIPOC to tell their own stories. It means tackling topics like mental illness, ableism, queer issues, ageism, classism, racism, and sexism—meaningfully. It means having trans actors play trans characters in movies.
It means creating worlds, crafting characters, introducing concepts, and presenting themes that do not just cater to the neurotypical white cishet demographic.
Representation in media is the dedication to making space for varied characters so that not only can people feel more included, but so we can also have richer, broader stories to engage with, tell, and enjoy.
Representation in media says: these stories—these perspectives and people—are important and worth sharing.
Now that we’ve got a definition of representation in media to work with, let’s introduce our positive example.
She-Ra and Representation in Media:
A nuanced breakthrough with lots of heart
Many people are familiar with the original 80s cartoon She-ra, which was inherently made to sell action figures. Many more still are avid fans of the She-Ra and the Princesses of Power reboot, and for good reason.
The She-Ra reboot is special. Not only does it feature PoC in leading roles, but it also doesn’t slack where queer representation is concerned, either.
Catra and Adora end up becoming Season 5’s quintessential couple (after much exploration of the toxicity of denying one’s true feelings), and the creators certainly didn’t shy away from an on-screen kiss, as well.
Not only that, but Netossa (PoC) and Spinerella are both confirmed as a lesbian married couple in Season 5, and have much more screen-time than the prior seasons. Bow (PoC) is also a huge part of the main cast, and has two dads; George and Lance (also PoC).
Furthermore, we have non-binary representation in the form of Double Trouble, a morally gray chameleon extraordinaire with the ability to change form at will.
There’s far too much to discuss about She-ra, and much of it has already been written, but suffice to say it’s a masterpiece that masterfully provides what many fans in marginalized communities have been asking for: good representation and good storytelling.
None of these characters are tokenized. The universe validates them by giving them room to be themselves, to fail, to have flaws, and to succeed.
She-Ra is representation in media done right, and doesn’t mishandle the difficult parts, though it does package them gently (in many cases).
She-Ra seeks to normalize, validate, and underline the stories of many different types of people in a way that everyone can enjoy.
The She-Ra reboot, in my opinion, is the best example of family-friendly representation in media on multiple fronts.
Now that we have an example of positive representation in media to refer to, let’s explore an example of problematic representation—and the reason I penned this article in the very first place.
Hazbin Hotel and Representation in Media:
Problematic adult comedy with a rich story to tell
Hazbin Hotel is the passion-project-brainchild of VivziePop (who is bisexual, latina, works with a predominantly queer crew, and surprise, isn’t perfect). What started as a pilot episode has now gone on to reach enough acclaim to snag a series, by way of A24 greenlighting Hazbin Hotel.
In a nutshell, Hazbin is an adult cartoon (much swear, very violent) that revolves around the princess of hell trying to reform sinners by helping them work through their issues in a safe space—the Happy Hotel.
To start, we’re going to briefly focus on a handful of characters that best explain why some find Hazbin’s representation problematic, and add a small bit of context:
Many don’t find Charlie’s naive Disney-princess aspirations to be problematic. We’ll be skipping her, but she’s important to the context of the cast/story as she’s a catalyst for change.
What they do find problematic is Vagatha’s nickname and her apparent nod to the ‘angry latina’ stereotype. Charlie and Vaggie are dating, which is a redeeming factor many detractors overlook, as well as the context surrounding Vaggie’s creation, and her deep desire to protect her girlfriend.
Alastor—the myth, the deer-man, the radio-demon legend—is ace (asexual) and positioned as an antagonist. His role is that of a very bored, very powerful demon who wants to help Charlie run her hotel, because her failure will entertain him.
The main criticism against Alastor is that he’s ace and evil, which some feel creates a comparison. Sadly for people who think this, everyone in Hazbin Hell is evil; their sexual orientation/identity has nothing to do with it.
Angel Dust is the specific character I want readers to pay attention to, because he’s the quintessential example of representation people deem problematic, and therefore, ‘bad’:
In life, Angel Dust was a member of a mafia family, died from a drug overdose, and is in hell due to his mafia activities.
In hell, he fell in love with shady pimp Valentino and became a sex worker (the order of events is yet to be determined).
Angel Dust loves drugs, loves dick, loves making people uncomfortable, loves making sex jokes while waging turf wars with his friend Cherri (an Australian demolitions specialist), and apologizes for absolutely none of it.
It’s plain to see why Hazbin Hotel is a challenge for many progressive fans of entertainment: it isn’t PG, it appears to fall into stereotypes, the characters are all flavors of bad (sans Charlie and arguably, Vaggie), and Hazbin appears to challenge nothing.
Hazbin Hotel Has a Representation Problem…
Yet, it asks the very same questions that representation begs answers for…
I’m going to break this article’s dry tone to deliver a gigantic truth bomb that can’t be provided without getting real about representation and character development: if you think diverse characters must be perfect, pure, UwU babies that can never be flawed, or evil, or wrong, or say or do bad things, you do not want representation.
You want approval from the neurotypical white cishet establishment.
Not all queer people are perfect—or even good—people, and to ask others (especially queer creators) to only ever write queer charactersas perfect disregards the very question representation begs:
Can we provide stories and characters that represent the full breadth of human existence and stop pandering to the straight, neurotypical, white, cis audience at every opportune moment?
Representation in media also begs another question, one I need readers to pay attention to:
Whose story gets to be told?
Do we only want what’s comfortable, or can we give comfort to people who’ve been to hell—and back again—and reaffirm that they’re redeemable?
In just one simple pilot, the writing clearly outlines the flavor of Hell the story hinges on: punishment by excess.
As Hazbin takes place in hell, you’ll find bigots, megalomaniacs, murderers, drug addicts, and more. Note that nobody goes to hell for being gay in Hazbin; they go to hell for being horrible people.
Furthermore, it’s apparent that their punishment is to never, ever break free from their downward spiral—what sent them to hell in the first place—which is reminiscent of VivziePop’s battle to grow from her difficult, problematic past.
The question Hazbin posits is simple:
Must people default to toxicity, or can they be something more when given the support to find their footing?
Can Charlie’s dream really come true? Can Angel Dust turn his life around?
Can people change?
This is the conversation we need to have about representation, reality, writing, and the complexity of human beings
Angel Dust is treated as a symptom of a problem, when really, he’s the solution
Angel Dust is a character that lets us explore that of which we leave out in representation. For people like me, he’s also the panacea for the migraine we get every single time a non-straight male character is packaged for straight people so their fee-fees don’t get hurt. Stay mad.
Angel is the hotel’s first occupant, and the first demon who struggles with change. He has no love for Valentino anymore (shady pimp), and every effort to dabble in ‘business things’ over ‘gay porn’ is reprimanded by said pimp.
Angel Dust is stuck.
He’s addicted to drugs, wants to go clean, wants to be more, but he can’t. He has no way out, no way up, and nowhere to run. So what does he do?
He falls into toxic habits, and stays with a guy who treats him like dog shit, because at least he gets to suck dick and snort coke in hell. When he was alive (1940s), being gay was not acceptable.
That’s the one good thing hell gave him, and hell still found a way to make it suck.
Watch this—and actually listen to the lyrics—then watch the credits, and tell me his prospective development doesn’t suggest he’s way more than just a bad stereotype:
Seen after the credits, Charlie’s Hotel offers him a way out—the only act of kindness he’s received that didn’t come with a splash of enablement—and he oscillates on committing to it.
Isn’t that relatable to some people? Do addicts not get their stories told? Do flamboyant gay men have to ‘tone it down’? Must sex workers be maligned until the end of fucking days?
Angel Dust is the archetype of a person that exists. A flamboyant, proudly gay, deeply troubled, extremely conflicted person, who is none-the-less still valid.
Angel Dust is important. He’s important because to malign his existence as a character, in favor of She-Ra’s softer extrapolations, is to believe his journey to redemption isn’t worth having.
Which is exactly what ignorant people mean when they push back against representation in the media in the first place: the stories of marginalized people do not matter.
What people get wrong about representation in media:
Who we erase, and the stories we refuse to tell, truly matter
As much as She-Ra is an outstanding story that grapples with difficult themes, and has wonderful representation, it also neglects a lot of harsh realities in favor of something more easily accessible and acceptable.
That’s not to say character development in She-Ra isn’t complex, it is. Catra’s descent is a feat of storytelling, but in the end, the wrap-up is clean: the girl gets the girl, the universe is saved, the end.
People are nowhere near as easily accepted for past mistakes, especially not queer people, who are held to a very high standard of acceptability politics (heteronormativity).
Case in point: Angel Dust: the flamboyant, provocative Tommy Gun rebuttal for faux-progressives who can’t find enough cishet boots to lick.
When we ignore what characters like Angel Dust represent, ignore the development Vivziepop has obviously shown she’s planned for him, and pretend that representation must hinge on being perfect, we do a disservice to writing as an art form.
More importantly, we also do a disservice to the voices in marginalized communities that do not fit our ideal image. We ask them to fit in our boxes, and condemn them when they struggle.
When we judge representation in this way, we also brand some stories as not worth sharing—as if it sets us back to see addicts get healthy—and some types of people as irredeemable—as if being out, proud, flamboyant, and a sex worker is something to be ashamed of.
Angel’s problems are drugs, violence, being an asshole, and unarguably, Valentino.
To boil Angel Dust down to an irredeemable, offensive stereotype is akin to asking for the heteros to give us queer people an extra bowl of gruel.
Angel doesn’t have time for that shit, and neither do I.
We need to start talking about what representation in media truly means, and stop pretending PG-rated, hetero-comforting, untouchable archetypes are the only way to get there. They aren’t, and to suggest otherwise, is a flavor of internalized bullshit.
If we don’t start this conversation, we will have become the exact problem that representation in media tries, doggedly, to address: