Beyond representation: Visibility in media won’t save us
A story does not need to be told to everyone to not be erased.
I always stop scrolling on his face. I always stare into those puppy dog eyes, aged far beyond their years by hell itself. They stare back in my direction but not at me. Like he was looking for something and I got in the way. Like everything got in the way of what he was looking for. I always stop, for a moment, at least. But I never click “play.”
On paper, the documentary series Time: The Kalief Browder Story on Netflix should be right up my alley. Following an outrageous series of injustices that led the wrongfully incarcerated 19-year-old to take his own life after years of abuse and solitary confinement, it dwells alongside so many of my interests—true crime, Black liberation, the evils of the prison system—but I can never watch it. Just like I couldn’t watch a number of the other documentaries on the injustices against Black people I have witnessed—am witnessing. Just like I always skip the episodes of Dateline and 20/20—my go-to lazy day TV shows—that feature Black victims or perpetrators.
Sometimes when I keep scrolling, I feel guilty. I know I should be happy that our stories are out there. Happy these stories have a home and a platform. Happy they aren’t being buried. But happy wouldn’t be the word for how every depiction of our lives makes me feel.
For the longest time, I thought I needed these stories told always and everywhere until everyone realized how important they were, even as they reopened traumatic wounds that haven’t yet healed and probably never will. But now I realize that I only ever needed our stories to stop being erased. And there is very big a difference. A story does not need to be told to everyone to not be erased.
As a filmmaker and storyteller, I understand how powerful it can be to see yourself represented in the media. Marginalized people are so often denied that opportunity, which is a purposeful and effective way to ensure our abuse can continue without interference. To combat this reality, I echoed the shouts of “representation matters!” that resonated all around me in activist spaces. Give us more Black TV shows, more queer characters, more writers with disabilities, more female candidates by any means necessary, I parroted.
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That collective call has helped bring about a lot of great television, specifically. Pose on FX, which importantly portrays the 1980s ballroom scene largely from the perspective of trans women of color. Insecure. Atlanta. Black-ish. Even the upcoming David Makes Man, on which I had the privilege of being a script consultant—all of these are a direct result of getting the message through to executives that representation matters.
And representation does matter. But to whom? When? Where? Why? How? In these activist spaces, I hardly ever heard these follow-up questions asked. When I asked them, I was hardly ever given an answer that amounted to more than “don’t complicate an powerfully effective catch phrase.” I was hardly ever given space for the ways representation can and does reinscribe harm in certain contexts, even though I had seen and felt that harm. Had seen and felt how representation sometimes turned our stories into nothing more than traumatic bargaining chips to sell to white people for a promise of empathy that never came. It was hardly ever acknowledged that some things, sometimes, matter more than representation.
My best friend recently told me he doesn’t watch Pose because he’s not really into the ballroom scene like that and at first I want to judge him. “You don’t have to be ‘into a scene’ to watch it!” I say, and he reminds me that you don’t have to watch a scene to support it, or the people behind it, either. The ballroom scene has flourished and saved lives this long without everyone’s peering eyes—in many cases probably because it went without them. If it can’t flourish and save lives without peering eyes now, the problem might be that we have made it impossible. The problem might always have been how we make it impossible for things to flourish and save us without platforms built from our bones and blood.
When representation is the only thing that matters, it places the onus on us to rectify violent media institutions by adapting to them while those who have power over these institutions go unchallenged. We begin to blame each other for what we do and don’t watch because it might cause a show to be canceled, for instance, rather than blame those who can always find reasons to cancel our stories. We begin to blame ourselves for not watching things we don’t want to watch, that make us anxious, exhausted, or depressed. We must listen to every representative of a marginalized community simply because they are who they are, not because they offer something specifically that we need.
But what if what was important about a story wasn’t always just in what it represented, but in how much room it gave for stories beyond the one it represented? What if that room necessitated space for not wanting to see ourselves on certain platforms sometimes, too? There will never be a show that features every single marginalized community in a prominent way. But there can be stories that always make space for every single marginalized community to then feature themselves as long as storytellers refuse to speak for them and reject narratives that say they have to. Reject narratives that say anyone has to tune in to any one specific story just because it exists.
This is the type of storytelling I am now interested in. I don’t need to tell the Black queer story, even though those are my communities, and I never could anyway. I need to tell my Black queer story without preventing others from telling theirs, and that means rejecting the urge to compete for scraps of media attention in the first place. That means rejecting the feeling that my energy as a media consumer has to be used in service of such a competition, too.
I am glad Kalief’s story is out there. I am glad for Pose, Insecure, and Atlanta. But my friend’s response to Pose reminded me how, in our thirst for representation, it is easy to hold these depictions up as unassailable when they are not. When we operate out of a place of scarcity, it prevents necessary critiques. “Everyone has to watch my Black show because Black people don’t get shows otherwise,” no matter how harmful or even just triggering my show might be. And this way of operating, too, is a purposeful and effective way to ensure our abuse can continue without interference.
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I used to feel guilty for not watching the Kalief Browder story. So much of my work is supposed to help people like him. But now I know that this work doesn’t begin or end with one story from one perspective on any one network. This work is in ensuring the many stories that come from many perspectives on or off any network still have value, whether anyone—white folks especially—watch or not.
As a storyteller, I have first-hand proof that stories don’t save anyone. Stories alone aren’t enough. It’s what happens after the story, beyond the story, that matters. It’s not about listening whenever a person of marginalized experience gains a platform, it’s about making sure oppressors can no longer choose who has platforms in the first place. I was looking for what happened beyond the story and representation got in the way. Maybe Kalief was looking for that too.