How role models in media shape people of color.
Children have and will always look for heroes and role models in the world around them; from relatives and teachers to celebrities and fictional characters. But, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recalls in her TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story (transcript), “when the heroes of the stories that children have access to are nothing like them, children don’t feel like they’re allowed to exist as themselves in these narratives.”
Like her and many other non-white, non-Western children with creative aspirations I often wrote stories with characters that looked and behaved nothing like me. Inserting myself -my Latino dad, my language, my traditions- into the magical worlds that I wanted to write about felt forced, detached. My terrible self-insert Harry Potter fanfiction wasn’t like the terrible self-insert Harry Potter fanfiction of white, Anglo-Saxon kids, because I always felt that there were parts of me that simply didn’t belong in that world. JK Rowling’s world didn’t have any Latinxs (nor many people of color at all, for that matter), nor did any of the fantastic books that I loved in my childhood. Kids like me existed in more mundane stories, far removed from any kind of magic.
Image: Hermione Granger, played by a Black actress in the “The Cursed Child” play.
Years passed from the first time I read Harry Potter, back when most of the music was in cassette form and we couldn’t afford cable- to my teenage years, discovering I was queer and finally getting “broadband” Internet at home. I was fifteen when “Glee” first aired, and Santana Lopez was the first teenage sapphic I had ever seen on TV and she was Latina.
If I could go back in time and ask fifteen-year-old me what she thought of “Glee”, I’m sure she’d say that it was the most diverse, progressive and inclusive show in the history of television. I was just taking my first steps into becoming a socially aware kid, and the visible diversity of “Glee”, in my head, meant the show was Good Representation. If I told teenage me that Santana was a racist, sapphobic stereotype, she would punch me in the face.
I spent years clutching to Santana because she was the only representation I had. She was a Black Latina sapphic (later confirmed lesbian) struggling with compulsory heterosexuality, internalized homophobia and a complicated crush on her best friend; and she was vital to me. I couldn’t see that she was a collection of offensive stereotypes and harmful narratives, because she was the only character that made me feel validated, and as the only one, she was perfect in my mind.
Four years after “Glee” first aired and a year-or-so after I finally quit that godawful mess of a show, I finally was able to look back and see Santana for what she really was: a harmful caricature created by an entitled, privileged, white gay man who didn’t actually care about representing marginalised kids or providing us with the representation we needed, but who actually wanted to write controversial stories that would attract media buzz by sheer virtue of being offensive.
Santana was hypersexualized from the beginning, presented as a promiscuous homewrecker with a personal vendetta against (white, christian) Quinn. Santana was catty, angry, foul-mouthed, loud. It’s hard to decide which of her characterisation was because she was Latina and which because she was Black, but I doubt Ryan Murphy even understood that one can be Black and Latinx. She wasn’t good sapphic representation, either: she was outed by a straight man and made to instantly forgive him, her girlfriend and eventual wife leaked a sex-tape of them and she was also made to forgive that, as well as her extremely biphobic lines. But I didn’t see any of that when I was watching the show as a teenager, and many other sapphic fans glossed over those details. Even today, when I voice these thoughts online, people in the “Glee” fandom become angry and defensive at the mere suggestion that “Glee” was anything less than perfect representation.
Image: Santana Lopez from Glee.
Around the time I dropped “Glee”, I started watching “Teen Wolf”. Teen Wolf was also awful, like most teen shows, but more an enjoyable kind of awful and, most importantly, it had a soft, non-stereotypical Brown Latino as the lead. I instantly fell in love with Scott McCall and, as enamoured with him as I was, I didn’t see any of the myriad of issues that plagued the show from its very pilot.
Unlike Santana, Scott McCall wasn’t a bad character. In fact, he was revolutionary, as not only the Latino lead of a fantasy show, but as a Latino character in general. Scott McCall was gentle, kind, soft-spoken, intelligent and inherently a pacifist; all characteristics that are rarely given to Brown men in media. The fact that he was asthmatic like me, that his story was clearly an allegory for sexual assault and that he was heavily coded as mentally ill just made me love him more.
Jeff Davis might have written a character as pivotal and revolutionary as Scott McCall merely by accident, but Tyler Posey’s stellar acting kept me enraptured even as the writing started to flake and screen-time slowly but surely shifted to favour Scott’s white sidekick: Stiles, rather than on the Brown lead of the show. Jeff Davis’ favouritism and the show’s obvious bias towards its white characters became more and more obvious as the seasons went on, but a rewatch of the first three seasons led me to realize that the warning signs had been there from the beginning. In “Lunatic” (S01E08), Stiles chains his Brown best friend to a heater and dehumanizes him by giving him a dog bowl to drink from without any consequence, and yet, this casual racism went unnoticed by me and many others.
I continued watching “Teen Wolf” for a while, despite being keenly aware that it was racist and only getting more racist as time passed, because I simply wasn’t ready to give up on Scott McCall yet. Seeing him on my screen every week, seeing him retain his kindness and his soul at the face of endless trauma and adversity, seeing him stand up to his abusers and offer a hand to his friends, seeing him simply exist as a mentally ill Brown fantasy hero was a healing thing for me. Until one day it wasn’t, and I realized that watching Scott be abused by his white best friend and forced to ally himself with his abusers without any criticism from the narrative was doing me more harm than anything else, so I finally quit.
Image: Scott McCall from Teen Wolf.
As time passes and I grow older, the need to have my identity validated in media lessens, and I can look back at characters that were life-saving during my childhood and teenage years and finally see them in a critical light. I don’t need a book or a show to tell me that I’m not alone in my experience because I have a confidence built on years of struggle, and a community that supports me. But I know that there are kids after me, kids that have struggled all their lives with not being white and now find that they might not be cis, not be straight, not be neurotypical, and are forced to to align themselves with stereotypical and damaging representation because they can’t find anything better.
The examples don’t end at “Glee” and “Teen Wolf”; every year brings new, pseudo-progressive shows that lure marginalized teens in with empty promises of representation. “The 100”, “Eyewitness” and “Riverdale” are just some examples. “Riverdale” might be the most recent, but “The 100” has been the most notorious due to the size and dedication of its (ex-)fanbase.
When “The 100” first premiered, it looked pretty promising. A white girl as a lead wasn’t very revolutionary, but her co-lead was a Filipino guy and the main cast looked pretty diverse. The Savage Natives trope plagued the show and characters of color were regularly tortured and killed; but the show wasn’t any more popular than any other mediocre racist show. Not until the second season, when the leading white girl was given a female love interest. After the white lead was confirmed to be sapphic and given an (also white) female love interest, fans flocked to the show and any discussion of racism was quickly swallowed by the overwhelming praise for its sapphic representation.
While the bliss lasted, criticizing the racism of the show was impossible because it was “invalidating LGBT representation”. When the honeymoon phase ended and the writers killed Clarke’s lesbian lover in the most sapphobic way possible, critiques from fans of color were pushed to the margins as fans protested the death of a white lesbian. And, when fans of color dared criticize the fact that said white lesbian character had her skin artificially darkened with makeup and wore a culturally appropriative bindi, they were accused of homophobia.
I don’t share this connection to Lexa’s character, nor do I think (anymore) that any character is good simply because they share a marginalized identity with me, but I understand where the young fans’ defensiveness comes from. Like Santana was for me during my own teen years, Lexa was a life-changing character for many young sapphic fans. As a teen, I felt like any criticism of Santana was an attack on me, and I understand that young fans probably feel the same way about these characters now.
Image: Lexa from The 100.
Like the terrible bands of our emo phases and those high-school friends who we haven’t spoken with since graduation, we cling to the characters that made us feel less alone as teenagers through misplaced fondness and nostalgia. It’s difficult to approach these discussions in fandom spaces. Hell, there are people for whom Buffy was the first female role-model they ever had, and I get angry Buffy fans in my twitter mentions every time I say BTVS was racist and misogynistic even though it’s been a decade and a half since the show ended.
Teenagers and adults alike become defensive and angry at the suggestion that the things that make them feel safe and understood are anything less than perfect, and the chances for critical dialogue are slim when groups of fans gang up on anyone voicing criticism. It’s easy for teens to feel like they’re being personally attacked when someone criticizes their icons, and it’s even easier for older fans to forget that teenagers are going through struggles with their identity and sense of belonging that we might have already overcome.
But, as we grow older, it becomes our responsibility to become more aware and more critical of what we consume, and to try and do better by the kids coming after us. It is by criticizing the media that already exists that we push the industry to create better, more inclusive and respectful content; the kind of content we wish we could have had as kids and we hope that our younger will be able to find when they’re going through their own processes of self-discovery.
Author: Drea Merodeadora
Editor: Mara Zain