Visualizing Leadership

Sometimes, I like to think that I have enough imagination that I don’t need my leaders to look like me. I  think that I don’t need to be “pandered to” when I come across some events that are specifically designed to cater to one or more of my identity markers. I resist the idea that I need a narrow vision of a leader to identify with. In the last few weeks, I have had the privilege of hearing from leaders who have reminded me of the power of seeing Someone Like You Do Something Like That.

I was reminded that it isn’t a lack of imagination that makes it seem so vital to hear the voices of different leaders than we’re used to. It isn’t a failing if I don’t relate as much to the leadership stories of cis men who have found success in their passions or careers. I can relate to a lot of people, but I don’t need to feel guilty about the empowerment I feel when I hear from someone a little more like me.

The leaders I was hearing from were women, but they differed in their heritage, history and passions. I heard from a panel of leaders in health care who have climbed a career ladder to get to jobs I wouldn’t necessarily even aspire to. I heard Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks speak at the New School online, often about experiences I had little reference for (video below). I heard from entrepreneurs and professionals and communications strategists at a conference I normally wouldn’t attend. Still, I walked away from listening to these different women feeling more confident in my own path, however different.

Anyone whose face is less represented in the media than they are in real life – people of colour/women/queer people/non-binary folks/fat people/people with disabilities/and on – is forced to learn to identify with someone else in order to tap into stories. We are asked to imagine what it would be like to be somebody else constantly. Asked to relate to the decisions made by those in a position we might never be in. I think this is a vital skill for all, encouraging empathy and a radical imagination, but it can also be exhausting. Is it any wonder that we crave hearing from people a little closer to our own starting point? Everyone is an individual, but hearing from someone who keeps my concerns closer to their heart offers a narrative intimacy that feels more rare than it should be. Decreasing the number of steps I have to walk to get into their shoes feels like such a luxury still. Hearing all of these women, I find different assumptions being made, different rationalizations, different emotions, and it feels like they open up my own options. I feel braver for hearing them.

Representation can nourish something that you don’t realize needs attention, sometimes. Seeing something of yourself mirrored back in stories of accomplishment and struggle and passion can be powerful. It isn’t a weakness to want to see that leadership comes in millions of forms and strategies, including someone like you.


Stereotypes, Violence and Fatal Assumptions

For some people, stereotypes become an issue of survival, not representation. Visibility can become a life and death issue when your body is seen as a symbol for what people fear, hate or dehumanize. Stereotypes and assumptions can support, encourage or excuse violence against specific people whose bodies have been marked as a threat, expendable, or both. The colour of your skin or the length of your skirt can become shorthand for an excuse to treat you as less than human, when there is. no. excuse.

[Content warning: This post will be discussing physical, emotional and sexual violence throughout, including victim blaming and murder This warning applies to many of the links throughout the post as well. These things are not fun to talk about, but they are part of a reality for too many people and this kind of conversation can help to understand why violence is distributed unequally, and what we can do to change that.]

I’ve spoken recently about (in)visibility, stereotypes and representation, but I still wanted to focus in on some of the worst outcomes of these issues. There is tangible, irreversible damage done by stereotypes, although we may call it racism or racial profiling or bigotry or any number of -phobias. In my piece on hypervisibility, I spoke about hate crimes that Muslims (or those read as as Muslim) can face as a result of stereotypes, which is an example of these extreme consequences of stereotypes, but I couldn’t stop there. In this post, I’m going to use two examples to address two consequences of stereotypes. First, stereotypes supporting violence, and second, stereotypes inciting violence.

Supporting Violence

Most of the time, when someone commits violence against you, there is a sense that you are a victim who did not deserve this. The crime is immediately labeled unfair and unjust. However, for some people and some violence and some crimes, there is less sympathy. There are unofficial ‘deserving’ victims. There are “What did you expect?” responses. The “should have known better”s. There is a sense of the inevitable about the crime against them. If you live in a certain neighbourhood, frequent certain places, you might find this attitude applies to you. If you are a woman who experiences sexual violence, victim blaming is practically par for the course.

Victim blaming is exactly what it sounds like. Victims are blamed for what happened to them, instead of blame being laid on the perpetrator. This phenomenon is disgustingly common and is part of rape culture. Rape culture is, in very short, the everyday acts, images and ideas that allow sexual violence to be normalized, excused, supported, and even sanctioned. How this ties in to stereotypes is that the implicit permission for violence against women applies doubly to ‘certain women.’

In Vancouver, Canada, women from the Downtown Eastside have been disappearing for years. It took decades of women going missing from this low income neighbourhood for the local police and RCMP to round up the serial killer haunting their streets. In 2002, Robert Pickton was finally charged with the first degree murder of 27 women, although he is suspected in about 50 cases of missing women from the Downtown Eastside. The details of the case are gruesome, heartbreaking and enraging at every turn – from the murders themselves to the handling of the case. My point in bringing it up in this post is that justice for these women (and for women in the Downtown Eastside who were not taken but could have been and continue to face violence) did not come because they are not the ‘right kind’ of victim. These were women from the poorest area in Canada, many were First Nations, most were involved in sex work, and many had substance abuse issues. Stereotypes marked them as expected victims, maybe even inevitable victims, whose deaths did not disrupt the system. The violence against them was supported and excused and allowed by the stereotypes that marked them as easy targets. Impoverished sex workers being killed fails to shock a city, a nation, a generation who has watched CSI and Law & Order and the daily news nightly. It is dangerous to be walking around with a body that people interpret as a ready-made victim, as undeserving of sympathy, as an unsurprising target. Groups have rallied – have had to rally – to demand accountability for killer, for the police, and the city who stood by as woman after woman went missing and the reports were brushed off with excuses.

How someone is seen undeniably influences the response to their disclosure of violence. For example, when a woman reports sexual harassment, assault or rape, there is often a (spoken or unspoken) question that springs to the lips of those who hear: what was she wearing? Stereotypes associated with ‘provocative’ clothing (short skirts, low cut tops, revealing outfits… although you’ll get arguments for almost anything) have too often been given as a good enough reason not to get consent, or to assume that it’s always present (and what exactly is the mini skirt supposed to be provoking, I wonder). The stereotype follows that women who dress “like that” are “asking for it” and are sexually available.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are also rape survivors who are doubted because they are seen as not “attractive enough” to be raped, which entirely misunderstands rape as sex, because it is about power and not attraction. Other people have historically been seen as “un-rape-able” based on their bodies, like sex workers, slaves, or men and boys. In so many horrible ways, the body becomes evidence to be held for or against a rape survivor. The body becomes an excuse that is manipulated for other people’s ends. These excuses, built on stereotypes, support and arguably encourage violence.

Your body is no accurate barometer for your ability to give or deny consent. What you do with your body does not eliminate your right to give or deny consent. Stereotypes about rape and about women give a dangerous, false impression of the who, what, why and how of sexual violence. Violence continues in part because stereotypes are applied to real people.

Inciting Violence

Stereotypes may not only support violence but actually create a reason for it to begin. This typically happens when a stereotype paints certain people as inherently dangerous or/and threatening. Violence is then seen as an ‘appropriate response’ to their very existence. It can become a knee-jerk reaction. Laws, policies and perspectives can then incorporate the logic of responding with violence to entire categories of people.

The stereotype of the Criminal Black Man assumes that Black men are synonymous with crime, turning these men into a threat merely by existing. Black men in America (and in the West more generally) don’t need to do a thing to make themselves intimidating to those that hold this stereotype.

Touré, from MSNBC, explains the Criminal Black Man stereotype in the clip and I encourage you to watch the entire thing, but I want to highlight a section of it. First, Touré describes the stereotype as “the assumption of black male criminality – the way that we are so often guilty until proven innocent” and cites studies that have found that “people of all races tend to think that they see guns in the hands of unarmed Black men far more often than the hands of unarmed whites.” He goes on to say,

“Black people have long known that young black men are viewed as criminals, whether or not they are, and Black men often instill fear in others without even trying to and that fear becomes our problem. It becomes confrontations that we don’t want and incidents that we don’t deserve. This is why my parents told me when I was young the same sorts of things that so many Black parents have told their sons: “Don’t run in public if at all possible, unless you’re playing sports. In stores, keep your hands visible at all times. Avoid putting them in your pockets, lest you appear to be stealing. And if you end up speaking to police, speak softly, answer questions directly and quickly, and also bury your anger and resentment at being treated like a criminal until later. Society is afraid of you and that’s your problem.”

As a young white woman, I have no idea what it’s like to be interpreted as threat or for my parents to sit me down and warn me that world thinks I am a bomb that could go off at any second. That there are teams of people waiting at the door for a wrong move. I get the benefit of the doubt – so much doubt that I am much nearer the predestined victim than the inevitable criminal – and, until recently, I had never thought about what it would be like not to have that privilege. I had not imagined being a mother who had to tell her son that the world may not welcome him. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what that feels like.

Touré says, “We are expected to be monsters until proven safe because the biases of so many lead to the criminal actions of a few, representing the inherent criminality of all. This while the criminal behaviour of white men does not overshadow all of them,” and isn’t that the difference? Here, a stereotype will be applied to an entire group and trap them in a box labelled “Danger” regardless of the truth, but white criminals and serial killers and terrorists do not become emblems of their entire racial category. Their bodies remain their own, their actions their own, and their fate their own. White men are not feared by dominant, white society and so they do not have to fear.

The media is not shy about the message that black men are to be feared – just turn on the news during prime time – and the popularity of this stereotype is not without consequences. Seen as inherent risks to public safety, it ‘makes sense’ for over 50% of NYC’s stop and frisks to happen to Black people (compared to under 15% for white people), for Black people in America to have a 6 times higher incarceration rate compared to white people, to receive 20% longer sentences than white folks who commit the same crime…If you can see beyond the stereotype and actually examine the figures, there’s no rational explanation for this kind of disparity. It doesn’t seem just or fair, especially when you look at reports stating that white people are more likely to abuse drugs but less likely to be searched, caught or charged. White bodies aren’t labelled as a threat the minute that they walk into courtrooms and that matters to the judge and jury.

Trayvon Martin was a young black man who was interpreted like young black men so often are. He was seen as a threat. He was seen as out of place and dangerous in a gated community. So dangerous that Zimmerman had to call to the cops about this seventeen year old in his neigbourhood, on his territory. So dangerous in his hoodie, walking while Black, that Zimmerman could not trust the police to come quickly enough. He could not wait. Trayvon Martin was seen as a threat, but in reality, he was the one being threatened. He was the one who should be afraid, it turns out. Being assumed dangerous at all times is dangerous.

The protests that have followed the Martin case have recognized the influence of stereotypes in his death. In the marches, many are wearing hoodies and clearly connecting the dots between violence and stereotypes. A young black man in a hoodie links up neatly to the visual attached to the criminal black man stereotype.


Martin is not the first black man – boy – to die because he was too dangerous to be allowed, his body somehow enough damning evidence against him. Black parents are forced to again face the fact that their children are not safe and may not find justice because they are immediately the enemy. Their baby boy is seen as the criminal black man by people with enough resources and power to act on their assumptions. He is not given the benefit of innocent until proven guilty, a white privilege that could keep him safe.

Stereotypes don’t just appear in politically incorrect cartoons or bad jokes or vintage television. Stereotypes are acted out on our streets, in our courtrooms, in hospitals, in classrooms, and in our lives. Being seen through the lens of a stereotype leaves a person visible only as something they are not – maybe a target, maybe a threat, maybe a mixture of the two – and it a hazardous way to be seen. Stereotypes can and do support and incite violence. They must be challenged in any form they take. It is not harmless when we refuse to recognize one another and look past stereotypes. The cost of not being seen as you are can be very, very high.

Hypervisibility: How Scrutiny and Surveillance Make You Watched, but Not Seen

There is a world of difference between being seen and being watched. Many people live in the space of this difference, especially those whose very bodies are seen as a threat. A simple example is of a teenager walking into a 7-11 and being under the scrutiny of the cashier, who is waiting for them to shoplift, which is totally different from being acknowledged (seen) as a valued customer. We’ve spoken a lot about invisibility in the two weeks or so, but the flip side of hypervisibility can have incredibly negative impacts as well.

Hypervisibility is a type of scrutiny based on perceived difference, which is usually (mis)interpreted as deviance. Often, this deviance becomes a focal point for outside attention and comes to symbolize or represent a hypervisible person, group or place. When you become overly visible, you’re often constantly under the gaze of others. You are being looked at, sure, but you are being watched and judged, so it’s not kind of visibility that people tend to seek if given a choice.

There are probably times in your life when you’ve felt hypervisible. When have you felt like you were under scrutiny because you were the “odd one out”? When I’m the only woman in a room full of men, I sometimes feel like my woman-ness stands out and puts more critical eyes on me, making me hesitant to speak. It’s at these moments that my emotions, appearance, gender, intelligence or feminism are mostly likely to garner dismissive or harsh comments. If I come across as ‘too much’ of woman, I can lose credibility and respect to some degree. These are daily moments that can highlight the discomfort of being made more visible based on difference or deviance.

Hypervisibility is experienced by many groups, but I think two clear examples in a North American context are Black women and Muslim people. These two groups are both frequently the object of media attention without being offered many opportunities to genuinely shape how they are represented or allowed space to become active subjects of media coverage by driving the story based on their own perspective. This often boils down to, on a basic level, seeing a lot of footage of these groups without hearing from them. They are highly visible within mainstream culture, but the coverage is based on reaffirming their difference and leans heavily on stereotypes to establish their deviance.

Hypervisible as Hypersexualized

In the United States, Black women have historically been stereotyped and depicted as hypersexualized and constantly available, particularly to white men. Unfortunately, that image of the sexualized Black woman is hypervisible. This means that the stereotype of the hypersexual, hyper-available Black woman is incredibly pervasive because this idea is repeated (re-presented) over and over.


[Image depicts a Black woman with a large afro with her back to the viewer. She is only wearing very short booty shorts and has turned half way back towards the viewer so that some of her breast is revealed. She uses one hand to shield herself. She is winking and the the text behind her says, “Free Ride.”]

This is no new phenomenon, although with media available to access 24/7 hypervisibility has been taken to a whole new level. For generations, Black women were seen in the West as constantly sexually available and deviant compared to the supposed ‘modesty’ of respectable white women. Treva Lindsey, a Women’s and Gender Studies professor, has a really interesting talk available on YouTube speaking to the history of hypervisible and hypersexualized Black women in the United States. She also discusses the challenges of trying to negotiate  a powerful erotic space in the face of hypervisible hypersexualized imagery that haunts women of colour and Black women in particular. Making room for the kind of sexual performance that can be empowering rather than exploitative can be challenging when so many people insist on seeing (and depicting) your body as negatively sexualized and objectified.

Heads, I win. Tails, you lose

Managing visibility is arguably a critical, challenging and frustratingly necessary skill for those who are vulnerable to both invisibility and hypervisibility. If hypervisibility threatens overexposure and harsh scrutiny while invisibility enforces silence and erasure, marginalized groups are left in a precarious position. Visibility therefore becomes a double edged sword that seems dangerous to wield at times. Is it worth trying to be seen if it really just opens me up to be judged?

Managing visibility is very difficult in this position, as you’re likely to get burned in either direction without the benefit of truly being seen and acknowledged. On a day to day basis, it can require the choice of a) speaking up for yourself/others and being ridiculed/threatened, or b) staying silent and your interests being ignored/invisible. I don’t know if the decision of what to do in this situation gets any less stressful over time, but I think practice makes it easier if you do choose to speak up. Do you have a strategy for dealing with the moment when you are asked to risk hypervisibility or invisibility? Have you been successful in making yourself visible and heard in that situation?

Making Everyone’s “Watch List”

Muslims and Arabs in the West, but particularly in the United States, are experiencing an awful type of hypervisibility. After 9/11, there has been a significant number of people who perceive Muslim people negatively, even stereotyping them as terrorists merely for practicing their faith.  Sadly, there were 157 reported) hate crimes against Muslims in the United States in 2011;the numbers don’t appear to have settled even over a decade after 9/11. The wrongful and harmful representation of Muslim and Arab people in the media has left many people extremely uninformed about the realities of those groups. This has hardly increased cross-cultural understanding. In the wake of a national tragedy, there has been a rush to ‘secure,’ surveil and detain, but Muslim and Arab people have experienced an arguably unique brand of body terrorism based on being a hypervisible “threat.” Muslims and Arabs across North America are being profiled,* judged, jailed, denied entry, stereotyped, threatened and even killed for how their bodies are seen.

In fact, even those who can be mistaken for Muslim, like people who are Sikh or look Arab, are feeling the negative spillover effects of this hypervisibility as well.  And when I say “negative spillover effects,” I mean that people have been killed because they were mistaken for being Muslim, as we saw in 2001 when a gas station owner was murdered for the mistake and, in August of last year, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin was the target of an assault that ending in 6 people dead and more injured.

It can be dangerous to be hypervisible. It may mean that when people see you, they see red. There are real, horrifying consequences to your body – your race, your religious expression, your nationality, your sexuality – being deemed a threat. (Perceived) deviance seems dangerous to some and often falls under the watchful eye of those who do not see individuals but a monolithic risk or inferior group. Unseen and  unacknowledged but always under scrutiny, hypervisible groups may find that invisibility is actually preferable. If being hypervisibility puts you at risk of violence, judgment, exclusion, or even a hate crime, there’s little surprise that people surround themselves in their community, whatever that may be.

In fact, hypervisibility really is just another way to deny people recognition and the right to be truly seen. It is the trial by fire version of invisibility; instead of freezing you out, we’ll put you on the hot seat. It’s still not a place at the table. The ability to be recognized is so often constructed as privilege reserved for lucky few whose bodies and identities are accepted by default. As a white, generally abled, cis woman and Canadian citizen, I often have the privilege to blend in when I need to and be heard when I’d like. My taste of hypervisibility comes mostly by way of gender, but my other privileges often soften the scrutiny I might otherwise feel if I ‘overstep.’ In some cases, I am more likely to find people like me in the room who can act as allies when I feel the eyes of others on me.

This privilege requires me to try to act as an ally for those who don’t benefit from this kind of easy visibility. It is my responsibility to try to soften the gaze on those who are constantly under the microscope in the media, constantly being asked to explain and justify and erase their difference. Maybe at first this just looks like recognizing my own contribution and refusing to judge. Maybe it is working to challenge policies that target hypervisible groups or petitioning media to offer better representation. Speaking to peers, friends and family about stereotypes and challenging their assumptions about people can be difficult, but as you question the judgment of others, it also opens you up to question judgment of yourself. Scrutiny of difference, labelling that as deviance and punishing it, benefits no one. Visibility can be about recognizing and welcoming, rather than exploiting and rejecting – if we are looking at it the right way.

*More general profiling information here, for example, as it is a clear consequence of being seen as a hypervisible threat and it applies to many groups.

Water, Water Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink: When the Media Covers Fat Bodies

Media coverage does not always equate to being seen. The representation of fat people in media is an unfortunate example of poor representation resulting in more invisibility than visibility. When the media relies on stereotypes and clichés, it is not creating space for new voices. Instead, it continues to empower those who already set narrow limits on who can be seen or heard in public forums.

Stereotypes about fat people are so common that many people don’t realize they’re stereotypes at all. Too many believe that fat people actually are all unhealthy, gluttonous, lazy, sick, undisciplined, stupid (ugh)… and the negative representation by the media must take some share of blame for insuring the strength and prominence of these stereotypes. The mainstream media too often gives airtime to negative depictions of fat people and effectively supports the sizism that costs people jobs, promotions, relationships, health care service, self-esteem and more. However, for me, one of the most striking aspects of fat representation in the media is the literal portrayal of fat bodies in news coverage. How are fat people and their bodies typically shown?


[Image: fat man seated at a picnic table eating take away and drinking Coke. His face was excluded from the photo.]


[Image: A man sits on a bench. The camera focuses on his round stomach and his face has not been included.]image

[Image: Two people featured next to a garbage can, clearly caught in a candid photo. Their heads have been cropped out.]


[Image: Fat person seated in an outdoor chair. Again, their face is not pictured]

Faceless people are splashed across newspapers and television screens on a regular basis as reporters emphasize the ‘obesity epidemic,’ and I have to wonder how much easier it is to uphold sizism/weight discrimination when you don’t put the name to a face. Fat activist Charlotte Cooper called this phenomenon the “Headless Fatty” and it is incredibly pervasive. Cooper writes,

“As Headless Fatties, the body becomes symbolic: we are there but we have no voice, not even a mouth in a head, no brain, no thoughts or opinions. Instead we are reduced and dehumanised as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food. There’s a symbolism, too, in the way that the people in these photographs have been beheaded. It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether.”

There is something intensely dehumanizing about the number of faceless photos and videos of fat people that are constantly being distributed. The subjects of these photos are never given the benefit of an identity, having it stripped from them along with their facial features, and they are never given the opportunity to gaze back at all those who will be looking at them and scrutinizing. The media coverage is silencing and erasing, not representing or creating space.

Coverage of ‘obesity’ leans so heavily on these faceless photos and I wonder, is it that much easier to fall back on stereotypes and shallow judgments when you don’t feel like you’re describing the bodies of actual people? Does the media portrayal encourage people to dehumanize the people around them? What could be the impact of radically unapologetic and human depictions of fat people in our media?

Critically, how can the audience be expected to relate and connect to subjects of a news story without being able to see their face and recognize shared humanity? This question just reveals that stories about fat people aren’t typically asking the audience to relate to those they see on screen – justreact. Scorn or shame or fear or reject as a “part of the problem” instead of part of the community. Fat people aren’t the subject of these news stories, really; they’re the object of those stories.

Sometimes I wonder if the news team thinks that they’re doing people a favour by not identifying anyone in particular in the pictures that play over newscasts that announce the new obesity figures for America. Who wants to be the face of an epidemic? Plus, the idea that there is so much shame to fatness that you would not want to be recorded while fat is depressingly common. Of course, this fat phobic rationale is hardly a good excuse for dehumanizing fat people.

The fact is, removing heads from bodies doesn’t eliminate the fact that those cropped and cut bodies are still people, still pictures of bodies that belong to real, breathing people. Only now, those people are faceless, nameless… just a walking stereotype. Charlotte Cooper writes of“Headless Fatties” in the news,

“…these are real people who look as though they’ve been photographed without their knowledge, consent, or payment of any kind, for commercial photographs that are then marketed and sold by photographers and agencies. I wonder what it must feel like to open the paper one morning, or click onto a news site, and see a headless version of yourself there, against a headline decrying people who look like you.”

As for the audience, we are left nothing else to go on as viewers butstereotypes. We are shown footage of crowds where people’s faces are omitted and their voices are rarely heard. The camera focuses in on stomachs and bums, as if they were separate from who they are attached to. The scrutiny is so focused on weight that the photographer can’t be bothered to include any other feature of their subjects. The gaze is so intense and yet fails to see so completely. It is ridiculous how invisible this type of ‘visibility’ can make you.

Most of the footage and pictures and coverage of fat people in America isn’t doing anyone any good as a representation of fat people. It is not offering complex stories or new voices. It is just the same dominant voice speaking over footage of crowds, warning us over and over that you too could becomefaceless I mean, fat. This is the definition of invisibility through visibility. Just because your body (or bodies like yours) is in public space it doesn’t mean that you have been acknowledged, accepted or empowered. Just because you appear on the nightly news doesn’t mean your story is being told. Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.


  1. Cooper, C. (2007) ‘Headless Fatties’ [Online]. London. Available:
  2. Fat Studies Reader
  3. Special thanks to Marilyn Wann for help with this piece. Check her out at

The False Promise of Representation: Stereotypes in the Media

Stereotypes are bad. Duh, right? We’ve heard it before but I’ll say it again: there are no good stereotypes. Putting someone in a box isn’t kind, no matter the box. As empowering as it may be for some to find a label that fits, being labeled without consultation can inspire everything from a grimace and a cringe to intense anxiety or anger. Even the ‘good stereotypes’ leave many people feeling boxed in by the weight of expectations and the constant need to re-establish who they really are.  So, that’s the basics.


[Image: The text reads “Deconstruct. Discuss. Educate. Look Beyond Stereotypes.” Two rows of figures appear in black and white. Figures depict simplified versions of stereotypes, including a school girl, hippy, farmer, cheerleader, rapper and many that are less strictly identifiable, but are still recognizable.]

Stereotypes in our media do something else as well, though. They provide a false sense of visibility. These stereotypes substitute real people for cardboard cut-outs made of assumptions (and, too often, some -ism or another). Instead of offering a new story and a new voice, stereotypical characters become just another way to express the worldview already represented, only now dressed up in new clothes.  Basically, if you run into stereotypes on television, news or the novel you’re reading, you’re not learning about the experiences of someone – you’re learning about the assumptions of someone outside that group.

For example, there is a lot of talk in the American media about the supposed “welfare queen,” which is a phrase first popularized by President Reagan in the 1970s and is typically applied to Black women on social assistance. The myth that Black women, particularly mothers, are living large by abusing state programs and taxpayer money has been incredibly persistent even though it is incredibly wrong. You can guarantee that this stereotype does not reflect the perspective, experiences or reality of the women who are attempting to make ends meet on social assistance in America. As this example shows, a stereotype is much more likely to be coming from the dominant societal force and from people who have created the stereotype based on their own misunderstandings rather than someone’s reality. A stereotype is just more of “how does the dominant group think?” rather than giving someone else a turn to be featured. Worse, too often people will dress up a cardboard character in their assumptions and then dare to think that this counts as fair representation!

When a token or stereotypical character is dropped into a story, they aren’t providing a compelling, complex representation. They’re just meant to show up, align with our shallow expectations based on a few characteristics, and go home without real development or insight. Worse, that’s supposed to be enough for an audience to feel satisfied and to feel represented. “Ah, my story has been told now that paratrooper/waitress/nurse #1 is a person of colour/woman/queer/disabled…” Nope. When you look around and find that the only character “like you” in a movie is the person with no lines, who dies first, gets “saved,” or who turns out to be the villain, you don’t feel morerepresented or included. Your story still isn’t being told. It’s just being dubbed over with clichés and boring tropes. It’s false visibility. A backhanded invisibility.

Stereotypes are a way to make people feel more invisible even as you appear to be offering representation. This is not helping. One gay character who spouts clichés is not supporting “the cause.” A movie where a person magically becomes able-bodied by the end is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It’s not telling new stories, opening up space to new voices, and it certainly isn’t going to make people feel seen or heard.

In fact, maybe stereotypes in the media you watch make you feel less invisible and more like you’ve been written over, like an old VHS tape. It’s a visibility that masks rather than reveals. That’s not progress. Too many people believe stereotypes for this to be considered a harmless misunderstanding, and there is nothing harmless about the way that stereotypes can creep (or sweep) into policies and programs. Stereotypes change how people are treated on a daily basis and when someone is mistaken for a stereotype, assumptions can get so out of control that people are put at a real physical risk. For example, being constantly targeted for stop-and-frisks as a young man of colour is not only unjust, but is part of the same problem that might lead police officers to shoot an unarmed Black man. This stereotype of criminality is also part of the story for Trayvon Martin, who was killed by Zimmerman because he was seen as a threat, which was an interpretation that cannot be separated from stereotypes of young Black men. Stereotypes can actually support and motivate violence, and we’ll be expanding on these issues in later posts this week.

When we demand representation in the media, we need to demand portrayals that give more insight into different lives, experiences, and identities rather than further stereotypes. This requires characters that aren’t tokenized and do actually play an important part of the narrative by offering a compelling, complex characterization with their own arc and unique traits. Only then will more people start recognizing their friends, family, community, and themselves in the media around them. The more variety and quality we see on screen, the less a single caricature will be mistaken as representative of a group. We need and deserve more than stick figures on our pages and screens.

Seeing is Believing: Why Media Representation Matters

[I spent this evening chatting about women and media representation at Eastside Yoga, so I thought it was time to share this post, which was featured on The Body is Not an Apology in August. Take a look at the next few posts to get my series of posts on media, visibility, invisibility and some of the consequences of (mis)representation. You can find all of them under the tag or category (In)visibility or Representation.]

Seeing is Believing

In North America today, we are exposed to media on a nearly constant basis. The average teenager now spends over 7 hours a day consuming media and so it’s hard to argue that it’s not having any impact on how we experience the world. For much of the day, we’re living in the media landscape through the internet, cellphones, television, advertisements, magazines, and movies. Unfortunately, the world of the media sometimes proves to be a strange parallel universe that excludes the reality of many, many people.

If you step back and take a look at the media, who you see? Better yet, who don’t you see? The answer may be: You. Your friends. Your family. Even if we forget for a moment about wanting accurate or positive portrayals, some groups can’t even seem to get time on the screen, even if you spend 7 hours staring at one!

When you turn on the television, who is reporting your news? And who is deciding what’s newsworthy? Who is on the cover of the book you’re reading? Whose stories are told? Who is in on the cover of magazines?

[Photo of Vanity Fair’s 2010 Young Hollywood issue featuring 9 young actresses, from left to right: Abbie Cornish, Kristen Stewart, Carey Mulligan, Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Hall, Mia Wasikowska, Emma Stone, Evan Rachel Wood and Anna Kendrick.]

There has been significant frustration with the whiteness of magazine covers, for example, but this phenomenon is just another aspect of the whiteness of media in general. In 2010, Fearless Magazine noticed a rather ridiculous lack of any visible women of colour in the photo spread above from Vanity Fair for their Young Hollywood 2010 issue and Fearless decided they wanted to do a different version.

[Photo of Fearless Magazine’s Class of 2010, featuring Lauren London, Monique Coleman, Tia Mowry, Tiffany Hines, Naturi Naughton, Kyla Pratt, Jennifer Freeman, and Chyna Layne]

Magazine covers are hardly the be all, end all when it comes to the media, but not letting Vanity Fair’s cover go unanswered is an important challenge to media norms. The covers of popular publications give us a sense of who major media producers think will get attention (i.e. sell more copies). More importantly, they also set up who they think belongs in the public eye and whose body gets to be seen – and being seen matters.

The media helps to shape who and what we see as important, as well as outlining the range of visible options for what is collectively seen as possible. Who can be a politician? Who can be celebrated? Who is part of the community and who is Other, the outsider? Who is seen to live happy, healthy lives, and whose lives are invisible? If you see yourself, or someone like you, portrayed positively in the media, it can offer a sense of belonging and opportunity, but the opposite is also true.

For example, the It Gets Better campaign is an attempt (not without its own problems) to create media that offers representations that the mainstream media and culture do not: real, (generally) happy stories of LGBT folks overcoming challenges and achieving their dreams. With all of the negative representations of the queer community in the media, many people felt that it was critical to offer a different version of the story, particularly in response to high rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide among LGBT youth.

The media is one of our tools for interpreting our reality, but when our reality is absent from the media, we may feel like our role has been written out. We may feel ignored, rejected, or erased.

Miss Representation is a documentary that seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people, myself included. Although the movie itself is hardly a perfect example of representation, it did get a lot of people’s attention focused on the issue of how women are (under/mis)represented in the mediaand the important impact that this has on the world. In the film, Marie Wilson quotes Marian Wright Edelman, saying:

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

This quote really hit me hard. How do you dream from scratch, with no role models to be found? If you can’t see yourself reflected out there, how do you believe you belong? How do you visualize your future?

Still, I would like to revise the notion a little, because many people never do see examples of the people that they hope to become – and they do it anyway. It is too often a privilege to be able to look around and find examples of dreamers who look like you. Obama had to believe that he could be the President of the United States, regardless of what history and the media told him. Hillary Clinton had to believe it too. On a more daily level, many people have been able to imagine lives for themselves that they didn’t see reflected around them by peers or the media.

It’s not impossible to be a trail blazer by any stretch, but it’s an up hill climb when you’re the only one you know who can see your vision of your future (or even your present). It’s tough to keep the faith when everyone else is busy convincing you that you’re just dreaming – or just plain “crazy.” Often, it’s a whole lot easier not to defy everyone else’s expectations. In fact, in a way, the problem at hand isn’t about what you see necessarily, but that people can’t see you. People don’t recognize you or your dreams. To them, you’re invisible, and maybe even “impossible.”

Fortunately, there are more and more people working to create media that offers inclusive representations and positive portrayals. Making media that makes space for everyone is a powerful step towards accepting and celebrating everyone. We should all feel welcome and reflected in our media and in our communities.