Opinions — June 3, 2016 at 09:00

OPINION: The Importance of Representation

by
Demi Lovato at the 2016 GLAAD Media Awards. (via)

Demi Lovato at the 2016 GLAAD Media Awards. (via)

Think back to every song, album, or music video you’ve ever thoroughly enjoyed. Whether it’s fond memories of being engrossed by Lady Gaga’s latest music video, moshing at a concert, or listening to Adele surrounded by empty tissue boxes and bottles of wine, music is often a central figure in our most emotional moments.

Now imagine that all those artists were replaced by squirrels that spoke English. You can very well understand what they’re saying – the words coming out of their tiny squirrel mouths are English, after all – and nevertheless their songs just aren’t getting through to you. Even though you understand what the words mean literally, and no matter how much sense it makes that a squirrel would be singing a song about, say, hiding acorns, the fact that you’ve never been a squirrel who’s felt the need to hide acorns impedes you from truly connecting with the song.

This clunky, woodland metaphor is exactly what it’s like to exist in a world that creates and distributes media that represents a majority of which you are not a part. It isn’t really a complicated equation, and even if we don’t account for, say, the millennia of oppressed gay people (and many, many other groups) have faced, labels make music to make money, and selling music to the majority of the population rather than a small minority just makes business sense.

The problem with a business model that relies on a majority population is that, unsurprisingly, minority groups are left looking for themselves and experiences to which they can relate in forms of media that just aren’t tailored to their unique experiences. It’s like looking into a funhouse mirror, or trying to catch your reflection in a moving river – you can catch glimpses of yourself in what you see, but it’s never really showing you what you are, how you think or the things you’ve felt.

Adam Lambert at the 2016 British LGBT Awards (via)

Adam Lambert at the 2016 British LGBT Awards. (via)

This wouldn’t be such a problem if things like music and movies weren’t fundamental parts of our identities, but we live in a world that associates genres of music with personality traits. The artists we like on Facebook or have saved to our Spotify accounts are badges held up as a testament to the way we are as people. Being obsessed with Taylor Swift says something entirely different about who you are than being a Maria Callas aficionado. It’s not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, but rather that artists are like the buttons that decorate a teenager’s backpack – they’re a crystallization of that person’s identity.

And this is exactly where minority populations run into problems. It’s not entirely impossible for a gay person to identify with a Mariah Carey love ballad, but at the end of the day they’re just not songs about us. Our struggles as a minority group – just like any other minority population – are unique, dynamic, and ever-changing. Mainstream musicians – think pretty much anyone you’ve ever heard on the radio – sing songs about heterosexual love, because they’re heterosexual people, with which other heterosexual people can identify. Just like you can’t expect a man to ever fully identify with an iconic, feminist anthem – because, after all, he’s not a woman – it’s impossible to expect any minority to identify with media created for a specific majority.

I’ve rambled on about these pretty subjective experiences faced by minority populations for a very specific reason. Things like cultural appropriation and representation are buzz words all over the world today; from presidential candidates to actors on the red carpet, everyone and their mother has an opinion on what is and isn’t politically correct. But there are people at the very heart of this issue, and I hate to see it rebranded as a cause du jour adopted by Hollywood starlets and cunning politicians. There are, for example, adolescent boys trying desperately to understand why Harry and Ron can’t fall in love, or what the hell Lionel Richie is singing about, or why people always make fun of him for singing the Nicole Kidman parts in the Moulin Rouge duets.

So, shifting our attention to today where there certainly is an attempt made to appeal and relate to minority populations, I can’t say it doesn’t sting a little to see obvious instances of gay-baiting. Consider something like the GLAAD Media Vanguard Award, which, in its twenty-three years in existence, hasn’t once given the award to an actual member of the LGBTQ+ community. There are some gay icons on the list of recipients – like Liza Minnelli, Cher, and Kathy Griffin – but no actual LGBTQ+ person has ever won the award.

I know it’s really easy to think that this sounds like a lot of hoopla. “But the people who won those awards have done so much for the gay community! They’ve been great allies and have thrown high-profile support behind such a controversial cause! They deserve to be rewarded!” Such claims are absolutely right – but the importance of allies in a world that perpetually persecutes minority groups isn’t what I’m talking about here.

Rather, I want to acknowledge the amount of times we celebrate someone from a majority group for tolerating a minority, rather than celebrating a member of that minority population for excelling in spite of thousands of years of social and political oppression. It’s like working on a project in a group for weeks, only to have one member stroll in at the end and take all the credit.

Canadian pop duo Tegan and Sara (via)

Canadian pop duo Tegan and Sara (via)

All of this isn’t to say that there are absolutely no gay musicians present in mainstream media. Especially in recent years, gay artists have made huge strides into becoming household names – RuPaul, Troye Sivan, Adam Lambert and Tegan and Sara come to mind – but it would be asinine to compare the amount of mainstream media attention gay musicians garner to straight ones.

There are so many perspectives to consider when it comes to representational media. I’ve offered my thoughts on what it felt like to grow up gay in a world that caters primarily to heterosexual media. My grandparents, all immigrants from Italy, will have entirely unique and different experiences listening to music and consuming media about national pride and unity, experiences I’ll never fully understand. Any minority population will necessarily run into roadblocks when consuming media made for majority populations.

My point in writing this, however, is to reconsider the way we listen to music and consume mainstream media. When you’re singing along to a love song on the radio, think about why you might have to (or not have to!) change the pronouns to suit your gender. Realize that even though you may identify with a song incredibly easily, not everyone has had the same experiences as you, and it’s almost impossible for an entire population to relate to the songs they listen to on their morning drive.

The next time you’re about to argue that, for example, gay people should suck it up and make an effort to relate to heterosexual media, imagine if Titanic starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, or if Mariah Carey sang songs about other women, or the music video for “Hymn for the Weekend” featured an actual Indian person.