How long has it been since we talked representation? Awhile?
As a refresher, representation is when diverse people are included in media (preferably) as fleshed-out individuals. It’s the idea that people want to see stories about people they can relate to, and that when we see positive portrayals of people like us, that can give us something to aspire to. Like Whoopi Goldberg going into acting after seeing Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek.
Recently, I read a phenomenal article, Hanna Brooks Olsen’s “A Leslie Knope in a World of Liz Lemons.” Olsen contrasts Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock, two enormously popular sitcoms created by celebrity best friends and outspoken feminists Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. When 30 Rock aired, Olsen says, women reveled in seeing a woman as flawed as they were on TV. Liz Lemon was hungry, sloppy, kind of a mess with guys and really selfish. Seeing such an honest character was a breath of fresh air. Women everywhere found themselves saying, “I am Liz Lemon!” (Including me.)
But, Olsen argues, aspiring to Lemon-hood holds us back. Instead, we should aspire to be Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, a woman whose flaws include her intense passion:
Leslie’s flaws — like that she’s a borderline hoarder and that she sometimes is so passionate about issues that it’s “like arguing with the sun,” as her husband tells her at one point—are less cute. They are real and they are difficult and they are the kind of flaws that women rarely play up. They are the flaws that get women pegged as “bossy” or “bitchy” in the workplace. They are the flaws that we desperately try to distract from as we “complain” that we sometimes (adorably!!!) eat the entire tub of Just One Of The Guys Full Fat Because We’re So Bad Ice Cream in one sitting.
But her positive traits — her unstoppable work ethic, her deep, thoughtful love of her friends, and her nonstop motivation to succeed—are the ones that make her a role model.
While the representation of Liz Lemon was refreshing and new, Olsen argues, Knope gives women someone they can aspire to be.
Reading this article, I couldn’t help but think of Broad City, another female-driven comedy. It’s the first comedy series I’ve ever watched that has made me laugh out loud at every single episode from the very first episode.
Watching it, I tried to figure out which of the two protagonists I was. Like Ilana, I have short hair and sometimes wear inappropriate, childlike outfits. Like Abby, I work hard at my job and aspire to climb the ladder. But after several episodes of vacillating between the two, I decided I am neither. I don’t smoke weed or Skype my best friend everyday, or go on the same wild adventures they do.
And that is perfectly okay. That’s the thing about representation: When there are enough diverse, interesting women in media, I don’t have to see myself in every one. I don’t have to be every complex portrayal of every woman on TV. But when there are so many different women on TV, I have plenty of role models to choose from.
Have you seen Big Hero 6 yet, Dad? You’re missing out if you haven’t. Like I’ve said before, the film features several female scientists in the main group of friends. The best part about that is their gender doesn’t become central to their identity. When you don’t have one girl in the cast fulfilling the role of “the girl,” you’re free to create more interesting characters. In this case, there’s the tough-as-nails speed-demon with a cool bicycle and the sweet, all-things-pink chemistry whiz. Do you know how powerful it is to see a group of diverse women and realize how open your options are? It’s empowerment.
And it’s why representation matters.