Why Representation is Not “Pandering”

misty claire

If you’re a fan of this site, you probably believe in the importance of increased representation in TV, movies, and comics. But as we know all too well, there are, unfortunately, many who don’t share that opinion.

One of the claims we commonly hear is that increasing representation in media is just a way to “pander” to women/people of color/queer audience members. Often, those who lob this complaint claim that they’re not personally sexist/racist/homophonic, that they’re not against representation per se, but rather they’re only opposed to it when it’s done as a form of fan service. They claim that this “pandering” takes away from the integrity and artistry of the show, movie, or comic.

But truthfully, that’s a bogus claim for a number of reasons. First, it’s a complaint that’s too easily thrown about whenever we see any instance of improved representation. Those who make this argument – often in the comments on social media — rarely provide examples of representation they believe are done well. What is it that qualifies one example of representation as “pandering,” whereas another example may be considered more authentic to the story? There seem to be no criteria to determine this. And that’s because it’s not a complaint that’s based on any kind of critical analysis of the material. It’s a blanket criticism that’s used, frankly, to try to justify an unjustifiable perspective.

Of course, there are instances of blatant pandering – and they often do more harm than good. Too frequently, we see “diverse” characters thrown into a story just for the sake of diversity. In these cases, the characters are often portrayed as caricatures or stereotypes, or they’re killed needlessly or relegated to the background of the story. This truly is a form of pandering that does nothing to advance the cause of representation, and in fact sets it back.

But that is not the point of the criticism being made by many of those who toss around the “pandering” complaint. Instead, they seem to believe that a story that includes diverse characters – and treats those characters with respect – only appeals to a small segment of the audience. Only women will care about a story with a compelling female protagonist. Only LGBTQ viewers or readers will care about queer characters. And for that reason, creators who include these characters must only intend to pander to that segment of the audience – they can’t possibly be attempting to create a more realistic, interesting, enjoyable story.

This perspective severely underestimates the majority of viewers and readers, most of whom do, in fact, have the capacity to empathize with and relate to characters who are not straight, white men.

In a media landscape where the vast majority of characters are straight, cisgender, and white, the inclusion of characters who are not will be noteworthy. It will stand out because, sadly, it’s still not the norm. But that is changing. We are – however slowly – moving toward an environment in which increased representation is the norm. And that unsettles those who are comfortable with things they way they are – and they way they have been. So they seek another explanation. It’s just pandering, they say, because the thought of a new norm threatens them to some extent.

But the reality is, in the world of fandom, we all love the same things. We all care about the stories and characters. And the hope is that ultimately, we will be able to agree on our mutual love of good art and entertainment, and not feel so divided.

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