Representation imperative to positive social experience

Column | Nothing, if not Critical

During the winter break, I pushed myself to create a list of books, movies and video games to enjoy during my two months off. Needless to say, I didn’t make it very far. I only made a few hours’ progress into “EarthBound,” and I barely scratched the surface of Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” However, during my last few weeks of break, I stumbled across a serialized graphic manga that I had heard about in passing. I quickly fell in love with the piece — not just because of its intricate storyline, but because the novel featured two transgender characters.

Entitled “Wandering Son,” the manga follows a group of young transgender teenagers transitioning within 21st century Japan. The two main protagonists — Shuichi Nitori, a transgender woman, and Yoshino Takatsuki, a transgender man — experience a variety of social pressures as they transition genders. Pronoun misgendering, biological discrimination, crippling gender dysphoria and physical intimidation are all common experiences for Yoshino and Shuichi — and their experiences within the graphic novel reflect the presence of these cultural pressures within the real world. Granted, while the manga isn’t perfect — there are certainly several problems with how transitioning is presented — the work does cover transgender issues in a respectful and welcoming light.

However, as an individual part of the transgender community, “Wandering Son” hit much closer to home than I expected. At times, I caught myself tearing up. Indeed, Yoshino and Shuichi were experiencing the same issues that I was tackling on a regular basis: coming out to family and friends, social pressure to resist transitioning, socio-cultural microaggressions and bodily autonomy were all serious issues standing in the way of “Wandering Son’s” young protagonists. And while Yoshino and Shuichi’s experiences could never fully reflect my own struggles (and vice-versa), I felt a strong sense of solidarity with their experiences.

In other words, I felt that “Wandering Son’s” characters helped represent the struggles of my own, everyday life.

Certainly, my personal connection with “Wandering Son” isn’t an outlier. Across social justice circles, modern activists value the role that narratives play within our culture. By creating narratives that express the struggles and experiences of marginalized groups in a positive light, these works accomplish two goals: They help deconstruct the stigmas that oppress marginalized groups, while simultaneously creating experiences that these same oppressed individuals can relate to.

Sociological research on representation often concludes that cultural representation is a necessary step for deconstructing oppression. A Towson University report on positive and negative media representation regarding individuals with disabilities, for instance, found that positive representations of people with disabilities led to a positive self-image within the disabled community. “Specifically, people with disabilities are more likely to develop positive and confident self-identity when exposed to media stories about the accomplishments of individuals with disabilities,” according to the study. Yet, the study also argues that, “when mass media frame people with disabilities [as] victims, people with disabilities are primed with stigmatized aspects of being disabled, and feel that a disabled person’s life is inferior to … an able-bodied person’s life,” creating a notion of low self-esteem within these individuals’ self-identification. According to these studies, sociological and psychological research reiterates that mass media representation plays a powerful role in the way marginalized communities identify within society. Not only does mass media affect these groups’ self-identification within society, but mass media also influences the self-worth of these various communities. When representation is positive, individuals view themselves positively. When representation is negative, social stigmas are reinforced, along with low self-esteem.

Therefore, representing oppressed individuals with a positive, respectful characterization remains important in both empowering oppressed groups, as well as dissembling the stigmas surrounding their identities. By creating and reporting stories where marginalized groups are powerful and autonomous, our media helps reflect a positive and empowering image back onto these marginalized groups.

Identifying and respecting the socio-cultural struggles of oppressed groups is imperative to fairly representing our nation’s various identities. Cultural representation helps to give marginalized groups empowering narratives that these various communities can relate to. Without this representation, we inherently erase the experiences of oppressed groups — and, in the process, create a narrow representation of our society’s various identities.

Philip Wythe is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in English with a minor in political science. Their column, “Nothing, if not Critical,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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