A Few Resources for Learning to Think About Representation

I have a lot to learn as far as thinking critically about representations of race, ability, and more in literature, but here are three resources I've found helpful.

Last month, we published an article titled “Windows and Mirrors: The Legacy of ‘The Snowy Day,'” written by Laura Raphael with the Tulsa City-County Library. The premise of the article was that books should be both windows and mirrors, meaning that they both expand our view of the world and reflect our own experience.

The flip side of this is that books can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes–even some of our favorite books can do this. A podcast I love and have recommended to many (with the caveat that there is a lot of spicy language, so be careful listening to it around kids or if you’re offended by swearing!) is Oh Witch, Please!, hosted by Hannah McGregor and Marcelle Kosman, two “lady scholars,” as they describe themselves. One of my favorite things about Oh Witch, Please! is how McGregor and Kosman can both love the Harry Potter series and be very critical of it at the same time. This podcast has helped me think more critically and to become more aware of stereotypical or otherwise harmful representations in literature.

For example, they are very critical of how the Gringotts goblins are described as having stereotypically Jewish characteristics–especially when there are only 1-2 actual Jews that show up throughout the original series. Also, in the episode on the “Fantastic Beasts” movie, occasional co-host/”guy with a film degree” Neale Barnholden talks about “The Stereotype Squad,” as he refers to the secret international council of wizards: “I understand that they wanted to establish really quickly and briefly that these are wizards from all over the world and that they are, for lack of a better word, diverse. But the way they chose to do that is through really clear-cut visual stereotypes and particularly costuming stereotypes, and I really think there’s a better balance to be struck between…representation and not just falling into visual stereotypes.”

Would I have even noticed this if it weren’t for Witch, Please? I don’t know. As one of the other hosts points out, that portrayal of diversity based on stereotypes is a decision made by filmmakers in order to signify diversity to a presumed-white audience. Since I fall into that category, I need to become ever more intentional and skilled at recognizing stereotypical portrayals, especially if they are being applied “for my benefit.”

One of the most painful and real-life-applicable things Witch, Please! has made me aware of is how terrible it is to use the word “lame” to refer to something bad/undesirable/etc. This is no excuse, but “That’s lame!” was a pretty popular phrase when I was in college, and at the time (and honestly, until I heard Witch, Please! decry its usage), it never even crossed my mind that this phrase was equating a disability with any random thing someone didn’t like, and that that is a really awful connection to make. To me, it was just something people said. Yikes!

When doing some research back in October for our Spotlight on Special Needs event, I came across another great resource: Disability in Kidlit. This website discusses the portrayal of disability in children’s literature, with reviews of specific books as well as essays on relevant topics. According to the website, “Disability in Kidlit is dedicated to discussing the portrayal of disability in middle grade and young adult literature. We publish articles, reviews, interviews, and discussions examining this topic from various angles–and always from the disabled perspective.”

Back when I began this blog, I wrote about “Wonder,” as I had just read it for the first time. Recently, I read this review of “Wonder” on Disability in Kidlit, which was written by Mike Moody, a “Disfigured trans woman living in the UK.” Moody’s review allowed me to recognize how certain aspects of the book do not do a great job of portraying disability. For example:

“[H]owever hurt Auggie may be by someone, he almost always seems willing to shrug it off. More than once, a character who has done Auggie wrong will assume forgiveness, perhaps after a traumatic event has brought them back together, or laughter has thawed the ice. And each time, Auggie is quick to agree and move on. Perhaps the authorial justification is that Auggie doesn’t like dwelling on things. That’s fair enough, but it does telegraph something of a lack of agency.

Once noticed, this lack of agency is a glaring issue. Stuff happens to Auggie; we see him make choices to be more independent, when circumstances call for it, but his most significant fulfilment of agency is to shut out a friend. (This is also the one time when he doesn’t immediately forgive.) Active, positive actions aren’t Auggie’s to take. Plenty happens to him that is positive – he makes friends, he earns respect, he experiences a ‘seismic shift’ in his social standing following a climactic incident at camp – but it is rarely his decision or intended action which causes it.”

Unless a person has studied literature or the art of writing, “lack of agency” may be a novel concept, but I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. (Here is an episode from my go-to podcast on writing, Writing Excuses, on how to write active characters, if you’re interested in learning more about what it means for a character to have or lack agency.)

One of the first posts I read on Disability in Kidlit is “Writing Autistic Characters: Behaviorizing vs. Humanizing Approaches” by Elizabeth Bartmess. This article answers the question, “When you want to portray an autistic character, how do you do it–especially if you are not autistic yourself?” Bartmess begins by explaining the difference between behaviorizing and humanizing approaches:

“One approach is to describe visibly autistic things we do (‘behaviors’): meltdowns, handflapping, not making eye contact, making social gaffes, taking things literally. These are shown in contexts where a non-autistic person wouldn’t have the same reactions. The reader is expected to see us as autistic because our behaviors are shown as out of place. The autism is being located in the behavior, which is shown as wrong for the situation, or, for positively viewed behaviors, at least as unusual for the situation.

Here is a key insight to creating realistic autistic characters: Autistic people do not do the visibly autistic things we do because of ‘autism,’ full stop. We do things because, like non-autistic people, we are responding to our experiences of the world, and one of the characteristics of being autistic is that our experiences of the world differ from those of non-autistic people.”

If you’re reading a book about a person with a disability and the focus is on that person’s disability rather than who they are as a whole person, that should send up a red flag. (If you’re wondering what books do a good job of portraying characters with a disability, Disability in Kidlit has an Honor Roll, which can be found here.)

As a neurotypical white person who does not have a disability, it is dismaying to admit that I have come across countless harmful, stereotype-reinforcing representations in books and film and not even recognized them for what they were. I know I have a long way to go in learning to think critically about representation–but these are two resources I’ve found both helpful and enjoyable.

Finally, a YouTube channel I try to keep up with is Out of My Mind by Robison Wells, an author who has been diagnosed with OCD and schizophrenia. In this channel, Wells talks openly about mental illness in order to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions about it. In the following video, “Violence and Mental Illness,” Wells talks about how problematic it is to equate mental illness and violence–for example, saying, “The person who committed that act of violence must be mentally ill”–and how this turns people with mental illness into “a scapegoat for larger problems.”

How common is it to assume that a mass shooter must be mentally ill? Yet, according to statistics noted in the video above, a person’s gender (male), age (18-30) and use of drugs/alcohol are more likely predictors of whether or not they will commit a violent crime. Furthermore, Wells says, only 4-5% of violent crimes are committed by people with a mental illness. This is more related to reading about mental illness in the context of news media or hearing it talked about in conversation, but the idea that we need to think critically about what we read/hear is the same.

Even though the process may cause us to recognize things in ourselves or in some of our favorite works of literature that we aren’t proud of, learning to think critically about representation in literature is important. Later in her essay, Bartmess writes, “Representations in fiction impact how people think of us. This can have direct consequences for our real-life experiences.”

What resources would you recommend for helping people learn to recognize good and poor examples of representation in literature? I know I have barely scratched the surface here and would love to hear about what has been helpful to you!

Categories: Spaghetti on the Wall