When it comes to criticism on matters of representation – gender representation or race representation or any other group – It’s important and kinda tricky to make sure, we do not debate the real life people and their choices, but keep the focus on the representations of them in media.
It’s more complicated, than one might think. Here is why and how.
Criticism towards representation can easily slip into criticism of the people who are represented. The criticism is about design decisions and goals. It’s about how creators chose to conjure up fictional characters in order to serve a specific communicative goal. It’s about how fictional characters are made to look, made to behave, and are framed by creators, not criticism about how real life people look, behave or the situations they find themselves in. While this sounds rather obvious, in practice this distinction gets easily overlooked.
For example criticism about sexualization in media – pointing to heavily sexualized female characters – can easily be read as condemnation of real women who choose to present themselves sexually. Rejecting pinkification in media and merchandise can easily be understood as an attack on women and girls who choose to have pink as a favorite color.
Criticism about media representation challenges systems and memes which perpetuate oppressive paradigms and confine people into boxes. This is the exact opposite of criticizing individuals and how they decide to present themselves. Feminist criticism aims to enhance the ability of women to exercise autonomy over their own body and life, not scold them for it.
An clear example where critics often fall into that trap is debate around skinny fashion models. The beauty ideal created by the extreme skinniness in media – often preferred by fashion magazines, fashion companies, tv stations and pop music marketers – can have a harmful effect on the body image of women and girls, which can result in self-esteem issues, anorexia, bulimia and encourages fat-shaming. You see critics often promote an alternative beauty ideal in order to counter that.
Though often wording is used like “this is how a real woman looks” or “real women have curves”. The target then is completely missed and criticism towards an oppressive system (or at least oppressive meme) turned into skinny shaming. Skinny women – often already burdened with issues that drove them into anorexia – then are treated like “not real” women, stigmatized, which is as much oppressive and normative as the media perpetuated beauty ideals are… just with another flavor.
Same goes for the representation of ethnic minorities or lgtbq people. Effeminate gay men for example are often stigmatized and marginalized and could use some equality and positive exposure – but an effeminate gay male character in certain contexts can be a negative and harmful stereotype and deserves a critical look. Know the difference.
Stay on topic!
It’s important for critics to be clear in their wording and take a second to eliminate possible confusion, while it is equally important for the individual reader to try to keep the two issues separate as well.
I frequently find myself failing at this task, but I try to improve myself and hopefully this statement will help me or you to keep the debates on topic in the future. Thanks.