‘Hey, that’s me’: Shared stories of representation in pop culture
Story | Brionna Scebbi
Turn on the TV, scroll on social media, open a book. Representation in popular culture is influential in how people perceive others and themselves. Finding a clear reflection of your identity or a blatant mockery of it can impact your understanding of that identity.
In a discussion of how pop culture has influenced their idea of self, these young people explore how media has challenged them to embrace their identity with unapologetic pride.
Taylor Banks & Aloe Wise
For 23-year-old Taylor Banks, seeing a nonbinary character of color who wasn’t skinny — a character who reflected themself — was important in their unapologetic acceptance of themself. This is something they hope to see more of as the current narrative surrounding transness is far too narrow, they said.
Banks, a Bowling Green, Ohio, resident, is finally in a place in their life where they can live authentically as a nonbinary Black person.
Aloe Wise is Bank’s 23-year-old partner. They see the terms transgender and nonbinary as less of labels for others to use to understand them and more as titles of affirmation.
“I am real,” Wise said. “[Labels] are less of a nametag and more of a flag I fly.”
Seeing folks who share the same labels in popular media has been just as affirming for Wise and Banks. “Steven Universe,” an animated Cartoon Network series about a group of androgynous heroes who go on magical adventures, is everything they wish they had when they were young and closeted.
“It was important in my journey to fully, outwardly identify as a trans person,” Wise said, describing the show as a safe escape from the world.
Wise said they would love to see more realistic trans characters rather than dramatized stereotypes to help them and others feel more affirmed by the media they consume.
Banks offered advice to anyone not finding the reassurance they’re looking for in pop culture.
“There is no timeline to figuring out your identity, and it’s no one’s business. … Take your time figuring yourself out; there is no deadline because everything’s a spectrum,” they said.
Surrounded by friends of Asian heritage and international students has introduced Emmy Batchelor to the Chinese culture she didn’t experience with her adopted family.
Batchelor, a 20-year-old illustration student at Parsons School of Design in New York City, has found a better understanding of her own culture since starting college.
This new-found knowledge of Chinese holidays, food and language has empowered her with a new appreciation for diversity.
She valued her identity as a Chinese woman more when she could see that identity reflected in the shows and movies she watched. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” allowed her to consume an honest fictionalization of Asian and indigenous cultures and several strong female characters.
While she said a lot of the social media she scrolls through bombards her with stereotypes, cultural appropriation or unreasonable expectations for women, “Avatar” and movies like “Frozen II” or “Lilo and Stitch” gave her characters she could see herself as.
Valentina Loaiza Henao & Morgan Schauer
Valentina Loaiza Henao, a 20-year-old architecture student at New Jersey Institute of Technology, emigrated from Colombia with her family four years ago. While being an immigrant has recently become an influential piece of her identity, being lesbian and Latina is something that has shaped her worldview her entire life.
As an immigrant, she said she has faced false narratives about her sexuality and her future in the United States. Her mother’s idea of gay people was heavily influenced by “horrible depictions” that painted images of drug use, partying and dropping out of school, she said. This negative impact of popular media on Loaiza Henao is coupled with the false hope pop culture has given her about life in the U.S.
Morgan Schauer, Loaiza Henao’s girlfriend and a 21-year-old education student and hockey player at Long Island University, has a more recent coming-out story that’s been heavily impacted by the pop culture she’s consumed during her college career.
While some movies might feature an inclusive range of representation, they are often written by men and inaccurately sexualized, Schauer said. It’s this type of hypersexualization of lesbian relationships on screen that makes her uncomfortable publicly displaying affection.
Loaiza Henao agreed that movies create expectations for how lesbians should behave. As a more masculine woman, she struggles with the contradiction between needing to act like “the man” in the relationship and having a sensitive connection with her emotions that’s considered more feminine.
Movies that portray a “loving and nurturing” relationship that isn’t overly dramatic or sexualized have validated their feelings, Schauer said. She cited “Portrait of a Woman on Fire” and “The Danish Girl” as more realistic representations of lesbian love.
Megan, a 23-year-old recent college graduate, describes her identity as the aspects of her life that she’s found strength and community in.
As a proud Chicagoan, woman and lesbian with a passion for helping others, she was influenced by the coming-out stories of TV show characters when she was in middle and high school. With shows like “Glee” and “Pretty Little Liars,” she finally felt invested in the relationships of characters because they weren’t straight.
She saw herself in the women who came out to family members and friends as part of the shows’ plots. Being closeted at the time, those scenes of loved ones not accepting characters for who they were helped mentally prepared her for the conversations she would eventually have with family, she said.
As pop culture has evolved even in the past decade, there are far more shows that include lesbian characters in their stories. Steffen said while this is a step forward, she wants to see more lesbian characters and more diversity in those characters to further normalize those relationships in media.