Discussion: Is ANY representation better than NO representation?

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For our first anniversary, we’re bringing back the discussion post format! In these posts, we ask our contributors for their thoughts on various topics. We’ll post one every Friday this month. Today, we asked:

Is any representation better than no representation? That argument frequently comes up in response to criticism, but is it valid?


s.e. smith:
NO! If a representation is bad, it’s harmful, and it perpetuates negative beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes — or just erroneous information. This argument is totally invalid, because it suggests that we should be grateful for the scraps from the table, even if they’re stale or molding. That’s ridiculous. We’re owed a duty of care and respect, and people who want to integrate diversity into their storytelling (which everyone should!) need to be prepared to take it on seriously, not include it as a slapdash afterthought


Marieke Nijkamp:
Everything. s.e. said. Every. Single. Word.


Kayla Whaley:
Also no for me. I think what s.e. said was spot on: there’s this expectation that we (disabled folks) should be happy we’re included at all, no matter the form that takes. That ANY inclusion and representation is a GIFT we’ve been given, and it’s ridiculous for us to expect it to be an accurate, respectful portrayal on top of that. That that’s asking way too much of authors. Which, honestly, if you think putting some thought and care into writing your disabled characters is way too demanding, I’m going to assume you don’t put thought or care into any of your characters. I realize that answer got a little off track, but yeah, what s.e. said basically.


Sara Polsky:
No, I don’t think any representation is better than no representation. One-dimensional, stereotypical, or inaccurate portrayals of characters with disabilities harm all readers, whether they have disabilities or not. Poor representation leaves readers who have no other experience with disability with narrow ideas about the lives of people with disabilities, and it leaves people with disabilities with no true reflection of their own experience.


What about you, dearest readers? How do you feel about the any representation is better than no representation suggestion?



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8 Comments

  1. Maybe you need someone to play devil’s advocate here, because there isn’t much of a discussion if everyone agrees, right? The fact is, there are a lot of bad representations of disability in classic children’s literature, and we shouldn’t ignore those tropes but rather use them as examples of what not to do, as well as tools to build critical thinking. Wishing away classic books like Little Women and The Secret Garden isn’t going to make them go away, and we need to be more emphatic about what’s wrong with them and their modern-day equivalents so reviewers and readers have understanding rather than prohibitions.

    • Hi Lyn! Thanks for your thoughts. I feel that on a site like this, which is obviously heavily slanted in favor of accurate and respectful representation, we’re bound to occasionally get a one-sided view! That said, we did mean to find people with more varying perspectives. We just ended up in a bit of a time crunch, so the post went up as is. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! This is exactly the kind of discussion we love to see in our comments.

      Speaking of that time crunch, I didn’t get the chance to add my own opinion since I only returned from travel last night. Your comment spurred on a few thoughts, though …

      Discussing iffy tropes is exactly what we devote large chunks of this website to. I don’t think anyone is in favor of ignoring the existing characters. Wishing the books away definitely won’t make them disappear, but often, people seem to make that choice for us. Like it’s an all-or-nothing kind of thing. “Ugh, stop complaining! You should be happy the author featured a disabled character in the first place!” So we were interested in what people had to say about this: what if we DID have the choice? What if we COULD wish these books away, so that people’s perceptions of disability are exclusively influenced by real-life disabled people and actually respectful fictional portrayals?

      It’s not about advocating censorship, just a thought exercise in response to the people who keep bringing up this argument. Since it’s not happening, though, we’ll continue to engage with and discuss these yucky portrayals.

      It’s tricky, though, because it’s often useful to be able to point to existing media portrayals. If a rare disability is badly portrayed in a film, someone with that disability could still point to it and say, “Yes, like that film, but reality is kind of different…” Without that film, they’d have to explain from scratch and risk being dismissed as completely fabricating their disability, which is unfortunately common. (Heck, it’s common even with frequently portrayed disabilities.) In a way, representation in media helps “validate” us. It’s disgusting that people need that in order to believe us when we discuss our experiences, but it’s one of the few positive sides I can see.

      I think the downsides outweigh the upsides, though. Alas!

  2. I think we also have to consider what is accurate representation? For example, the drug Hazel takes in TFIOS is not in any shape or form a real drug. Should that book be decried for its inaccuracies?

    Speaking as someone who does have a rare disease, I think that knowing you’ll never be part of the larger media conversation hurts just as much as bad representations. But it also forces you to look at those representations in a different way, because you know there will likely never be another. I should mention that I do not expect writers to pick up my disability. There are literally millions of rare disabilities and within each of those there are subcategories. Even between my friends who share the same disability we are not similar. But back to the topic.

    The one time, I found myself staring at a girl like “me” on the TV I was simultaneously angered and elated. Angered because it was completely inaccurate, but elated because for once I mattered enough to be put out there. I understand the need for accurate representations, and the tropes that hurt hurt the overall community. Truly bad, trope filled representations should be stopped. But think of it like this: for most of you, from what I have read on this website and seen on Twitter, it seems that there are an abundance of representations of what you deal with. You will know more closely what it is like to be misrepresented than to not be represented at all. There is a difference. I don’t think you understand how alienating that can be to someone who knows they will never be in media and thus never able to take part in most of your discussions here.

    For me, yes I am still angry at the representation of what I have, because it was wrong from start to finish, but it is the one instance in all of media where I was there. Here’s the thing, it failed medically. It provided surgeries that did not–and still do not–exist. It inaccurately portrayed every single medical thing. You cannot bring this Grey’s episode up in my group of friends because we will yell and possibly break things. It failed medically, but it succeeded emotionally. Part of my anger was because that girl–and it was TV–was allowed to say things that I was not. She said things that I felt, that I have internalized and people listened to her. It was the best thing I have ever heard. People listened, people cared.

    So medically, yes inaccurate, emotionally accurate. Where do we draw the line?

    • Emotional accuracy is a really interesting point. I actually find that I relate emotionally more to a book like North of Beautiful by Justina Chen than I do to most books about limb deficiency, which most people find odd. But my experience of disability is mostly one of appearance rather than actual ability. So the real emotional connection isn’t always from reading about what someone thinks life with one hand is like.

  3. I agree that bad representation is harmful, but I wish you’d have addressed partial successes. I suspect any writers reading this blog are going to get a lot right, but may still fail in some important ways. What are the failures that shouldn’t be accepted? Are their virtues that can make up for problems?

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  5. I agree that poor representation is harmful, but is it more harmful than none at all?

    Even as a kid, I can’t count the number of times I found myself being very concerned with the well being of the villain in some piece of fiction because that was the character I ended up identifying with. Problematic as that might be, I’d rather have that bit of negativity if the other choice is being completely invisible by virtue of having no representation at all.

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