Surfing through Netflix is a time-honored tradition. I mean, who among us hasn’t spent the time we planned to spend watching something just scrolling through trying to decide what to watch? I’ve taken up knitting again and have been watching and rewatching things while I knit. Something has become clear to me: I find that I am less and less interested in watching white-centered stories, particularly white Americans. Don’t get me wrong! I still love Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though they remain white-centered despite some notable improvements. But I’m finding that for new franchises and series, it’s a lot harder for a less diverse cast to grab my attention.
In my latest round of binge-watching, I watched season two of Luke Cage, and the first season of Netflix’s One Day at a Time. And somewhere in there I rewatched Black Panther because that’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite movies ever. It hasn’t quite knocked Captain America: The Winter Soldier from the top of my MCU favorites, but it’s a tie. (I am a Sam Wilson stan for life. And a Bucky stan. And a Sam-and-Bucky stan, ifyouknowwhatImean, god bless AO3.)
Bear with me here, because I’m going to make this about my experience with representation for a minute. I am a white, fat, queer middle-aged woman with a mental illness. The closest I have ever come to seeing a representation of myself in anything was the mom in Who’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and I am still seething about that (granted, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t queer). Bad representations of mental illness drive me up the wall. Bad representations of bisexual women, aaagh! Bad representations of fat people… also drive me up the wall, but sadly, I’ve come to expect them and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere anytime soon.
Even good representations of women in general in my favorite genres have historically been pretty rare. Yes, Leia is awesome and Carrie Fisher will always be a role model for me. But Leia was strong to the point that Lucas felt the need to objectify the hell out of her in that damned gold bikini, and I will never forgive him for that. (And do not get me started on what he did to Padme.) Yes, Ripley from Alien. I know. Ripley was amazing. But Cameron also felt compelled to strip her down to her underwear at the end of the movie.
The first time I remember having that moment of OH. THAT’S HOW THAT FEELS was when Rey ignited Luke’s lightsaber in The Force Awakens. I had literally waited my entire life to see a woman be the central hero in a Star Wars story—without winding up in her underwear. (Do not screw this up in the third movie, JJ.)
The next time was the No Man’s Land scene in Wonder Woman, where I literally burst into tears watching it. I turned to my friend and asked, “Is this how guys feel seeing superhero movies?” See… I knew, intellectually, that good representation mattered, but those were the first times I felt it viscerally.
But in all the above cases, while the representation might not have been great about me specifically, the culture I grew up in, the prevailing whiteness, has dominated entertainment for pretty much forever.
Anyway. I didn’t sit down and say “All right, let’s watch some stories about people of color!” I’d just been meaning to catch up on Luke Cage forever, and had been meaning to watch ODAAT forever too. And I had the same realization that I had when I watched the first season of Luke Cage, and the first time I saw Black Panther:
This story was not created for me.
And you know, that’s an unusual feeling for a white person. But in my case, it was a good feeling. Being able to watch those stories feels like being invited into someone’s home for dinner: it’s not my home, and as a guest, it would be rude and out of line for me to start demanding that they justify their decorating choices or what they’re serving. I’m just there to hang out, have a good time, and get to know people. That’s a problem that I’ve seen with how many white critics approach diverse media by diverse creators. They try to judge everything by their own frame of reference. If something doesn’t make sense to them immediately, they see it as a flaw, rather than trying to understand where the creator was coming from. There’s a sense of entitlement that says if something doesn’t fit into their cultural framework, then it’s no good.
I don’t understand this mentality. Why wouldn’t you want to see/read stories about people who are not like you? I mean, the whole reason a lot of people read fantasy and science fiction is to see into worlds and cultures that aren’t theirs. Meanwhile there are cultures right here on Earth that they ignore. I suppose maybe in the case of white men, they’re so accustomed to seeing themselves reflected that seeing another image is threatening. For me, one of my favorite things is knowing that there are things I am missing because I lack the cultural context. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like I can feel the depth of meaning that’s there, and I love that it’s there for someone else to appreciate.
Of everything I’ve been watching, I’ve connected most with One Day at a Time. I literally cannot say enough about how wonderful this show is. Every episode, I’m guaranteed to both laugh out loud and get sniffly. (Or flat out sob. The season one finale broke me. I ugly-cried for ten minutes—but in a good way!) One of the reasons I’ve connected with it so hard is that it offers solid representation across multiple fronts. Penelope, a single mom, is a former soldier with PTSD—and let me tell you, season two has one of the most accurate depictions of a depressive episode that I have ever seen on television. I felt absolutely seen. And Elena, the oldest daughter, is a smart teenager who wears glasses and struggles to fit in at school and with the realization that she’s gay. My life was nothing like hers, but seeing her is almost like seeing a version of me that received plenty of love and support to be myself. It’s incredibly cathartic.
And of course, ODAAT has everyone’s favorite apartment sitcom trope, “the bumbling building super of a different background than the main characters”—white trust fund hipster Schneider. I absolutely love how the show treats him. Here, white people are the “other,” and the show pulls no punches about that. Schneider is clueless about racial and economic issues, completely unaware of his own privilege, and as a result says some really dumb, sometimes insensitive and/or racist, crap. But when he gets called on it—or occasionally listens to the words that just came out of his mouth and realizes he screwed up—he’s willing to learn and work to do better. Schneider holds up a mirror to the white audience, asking them to consider if they’ve said some of that same dumb shit, and asking them to be better. While, of course, making you laugh your head off. Which is a damned good trick.
Good representation is slowly getting easier to find (too slowly). And of course, I can’t point to things and go “this is good representation, this is bad representation” if a story depicts something I am not. And I know that even solid representation can have flaws. But by listening to others, it’s easy to see what rises to the top. The sense of absolute joy that surrounded the release of Black Panther was so exciting to see, and made me want to see it even more. Hearing Latinx praise One Day at a Time also caught my attention. Basically, if someone is telling a story about people like you, and you’re excited and happy about it? Then I wanna see it. I want to come sit in your dining room with you and learn more about who you are.