STORYTELLING WITH MEANINGFUL REPRESENTATION, PART II: PERSPECTIVE
So you want to include diverse characters in your story. That’s great! We need diversity in media because we have diversity in life and art is a reflection of life.
Many storytellers worry about representation. Daunted, they think, What if I mess up? or I’m going to get it wrong no matter what so I may as well not try. I encourage you to try, though. The key is to be thoughtful, sensitive, and informed when you develop these characters.
Your first step is to establish perspective. From whose perspective is the story being told? Your narrator can be a main character, secondary character, or even someone who doesn’t appear in the story (ie, third person omniscient). Once you have determined who is telling the story, ask yourself these two questions:
Does the narrator experience discrimination? If the answer is yes, then your narrator may be a member of a marginalized community. Some examples are neurodivergent, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and disabled communities.
Have you experienced this discrimination firsthand? If the answer is no, then you are likely not a part of that community. Think about why your narrator is a part of that community and why you think you are the best person to tell a story from that narrator’s perspective.
Subconscious biases exist in everyone. We can do our best to unlearn these biases (and good representation goes a long way in doing this), but we will likely always look at the world through the lens of our own lived experiences.
Imagine your lens as capturing visible light waves. No matter how hard your squint or how wide you open your eyes, you cannot see the invisible wavelengths. But those wavelengths exist and are, in fact, visible to people with different lenses than yours.
Perspective is your narrator’s lens. If your lens and your narrator’s lens were a Venn diagram (see Figure 1), the overlap is where you share lived experiences. Generally speaking, I believe the most authentic representation occurs when identity and marginalization are a part of those shared lived experiences.
Figure 1, where A is the storyteller and B is the narrator and the overlap is their shared lived experiences. (Photo Credit: Interalia Magazine)
Think about it like this: you can research what it’s like to be a doctor or mechanic. But, if you are a neurotypical person, can you authentically write from the perspective of an autistic doctor? If you are white and able-boded, can you authentically write from the perspective of a disabled, brown mechanic?
You may get some of it right. But you may also end up perpetuating stereotypes and disseminating dangerous misinformation (such as the use of harmful restraints in Sia’s Music). And you will miss the invisible wavelengths: the casual discrimination, the scripting, the code-switching, and yes, the laughter and joy. Marginalized communities have their own cultures – in-jokes, food, clothing, language, memes, innate understanding of each other, and so on.
Too often, when the narrator is marginalized in a way the storyteller isn’t, one of two things happens:
1). The character’s marginalization is erased, made invisible and irrelevant.
2). The character longs to be what they are not (when, in fact, most marginalized people want to be accepted as they are). For example:
- A character with dark brown skin will secretly wish to be white, or, at the least, to have lighter brown skin.
- A transgender character will self-loathe, wishing they could pass as cisgender.
- An autistic character will hate not being “normal” and wish they were neurotypical.
These wishes don’t consider the subtle, strong roots of systemic discrimination. Instead they reflect subconscious biases of the storyteller themselves:
- Of course, my character hates her mobility device and wishes she were able-bodied. (Meanwhile, this actual mobility device user joyously accessorized her walker with cool stickers, seat covers, and a caddy for an otherwise impossible trip to Disneyworld!)
Instead of feeling limited by that Venn diagram overlap – with thoughts of, I’m not allowed to write from the perspective of _________ because I don’t belong to that group – use the narrator’s lens to your advantage as storyteller. That lens is your narrator’s interpretation of the other characters’ actions and interactions.
Say your story is set at a holiday party. If your narrator is misanthropic, how would they describe the scene? What if your narrator was a social butterfly?
A great example of using the narrative lens to further the story is in the multiple point-of-view episode of How I Met Your Mother, “The Ashtray”. In that episode, the same story is told over and over again by various narrators, with each version being different than the next because each time the story is filtered through a different narrator’s lens. For instance, one narrator describes a character as commanding and authoritative while another narrator describes him as meek and submissive. In this way, the narrative lens reveals as much about the narrators as it does the world around them.
One of the best ways to respectfully include diversity is to create secondary and tertiary characters from marginalized communities to which you don’t belong. With research and sensitivity readers, you can make these characters fleshed out and believable. By filtering their stories through the perspective of the narrator, you will be taking steps to avoid misrepresenting their perspectives and lived experiences.
As a storyteller, you have the power to use your stories to teach compassion. Normalize diversity by being inclusive in your work. Meaningful representation doesn’t come easy but it is so worth the effort. Don’t let fear or anxiety stop you.
Character Study: Venus Van Dam, Sons of Anarchy [SPOILERS]
Venus Van Dam is a secondary character in Sons of Anarchy. While only appearing in six episodes, she is one of the most well-developed characters on the show and has had a lasting impact on all who interacted with her (including the audience).
Venus’s character was created by Kurt Sutter and performed by Walton Goggins, both cisgender men.
First let’s discuss the more problematic aspects of how they presented Venus:
1). Sutter introduces her as kind of comedic relief. The Sons are attempting to blackmail a local citizen with sexually explicit photographs. They hire Venus, a sex worker who, unbeknownst to them, is a trans woman. The moment she walks in, there is a sense of discomfort and uneasy merriment amongst the Sons, who are the narrative lens.
This is a little too close to the Gender Reveal trope, especially since trans panic is a very real danger for the transgender community. Now, Sons of Anarchy is a gritty series with the type of dark comedy that spares no one. In this way, Venus’s introduction fits right into the tone of the show. Especially since the rest of Venus’s arc is so rich and layered that the Sons’ (and the audience’s) discomfort quickly becomes affection, warmth, and genuine excitement.
2). Sutter also has Venus self-describe as being “born a man”, while the trans community generally prefers “assigned male/female at birth”. I do think Venus and Blanche Dubois are kindred spirits, so her caterpillar-to-butterfly assessment does make sense for her, but it’s important to consider and validate the preferred language of marginalized communities until those nuances are recognized and better understood by people outside those communities. Self-descriptive language, particularly for oppressed groups, is powerful because it comes from lived experience.
3). When Goggins was first interviewed about his portrayal of Venus, he made a misstatement by using the word transgender as a noun rather than an adjective. This has the affect of othering transgender folks instead of including them. (I am not a transgender anymore than I am a brown or an autistic. I am a trans, brown, autistic human being.)
Later in the interview, however, Goggins discussed how he prepared for the role:
What you try to do as an actor is move past the point of making choices…. If you spend enough time thinking about it, and you’re coming from a real pure place in your heart and you give yourself over to making believe, then all of those specific kind of moments just become second nature and they just happen. There were things that I asked women about — like little tricks for how you apply your makeup, ways to sit, and ways to get up from a chair. There was one trick that I couldn’t get in my head, because I’d never done it before, but the woman who was doing the hair, said, “Well, when you put your lipstick on, you put your finger in your mouth and you pull it out to make sure that none has gotten on the inside of your lips that could get on your teeth.” And it just made perfect sense! When she said that, it all clicked in.
Goggins worked with women to learn how to physically navigate as Venus. He doesn’t specify whether these women were cis or trans. This is fantastic because trans women are women. In other words, Goggins sees Venus as the woman she is, not as a man dressing like a woman or a woman trapped in a man’s body. She is simply a woman. His innate understanding of this truth demonstrates how sensitively he approached this character.
Despite the missteps, Venus is such a well-developed, three-dimensional character that even in a aggressively cisgender, straight, masculine show like Sons of Anarchy, her presence, her existence is readily accepted not just by the main characters but by the audience, as well.
Let’s take a look at how Venus is a fleshed out, respectful example of transgender representation:
1). She is never misgendered.
2). She is a beautiful, sexy, confident woman who does not look cisgender (and doesn’t need to).
3). She has her own life – family and friends and a complex back story – and doesn’t exist solely to support the main characters.
6). She has an explicit (and tender and romantic) sex scene.
7). She gets an HEA (happily ever after) in a Shakespearean show rife with tragic love stories.
A discussion on the subreddit r/asktransgender, shows a generally positive response to Venus Van Dam by members of the trans community.
And, given the chance to reflect, Kurt Sutter has acknowledged that were he to cast for the role of Venus today, he would hire a transgender actress. Why is this important when he created such a three-dimensional, beloved, authentic character and hired a talented, thoughtful, inquisitive actor to play her? It’s important not just for the nuances a transgender actress, influenced by her own lived experiences, could add to the character; it’s also important because Sutter recognizes that transgender actors do not have the same opportunities cisgender actors do.
Imagine casting roles for a woman in a family dramedy. Would a transgender actress be invited to audition? If so, would she have to be cis-passing so she could play a cisgender woman or could she just exist, a trans woman playing a female character? Sutter acknowledges the disparity. Hiring a transgender actress to play the role of Venus in Sons of Anarchy, a spectacularly successful show, would be career-changing for her.
I have seen many comments on various social media platforms where people admit to feeling uncomfortable and even hostile when Venus Van Dam was first introduced. Over the course of her arc, however, they found themselves feeling compassion and kinship with her. Ultimately she is a human being who seeks acceptance and love, like so many humans do. This is the power of meaningful representation.
Next Section: Tropes As A Starting Point
It is one thing to strive for perfection and another to expect it. When we expect perfection, we don’t give ourselves the space to learn and grow from our mistakes – to acknowledge, to listen, to do better next time … to go on this very human journey.
~ Kalpita Pathak