Representation as a Mirror

There are a number of reasons I care about diversity in fiction. One reason is that having diverse characters leads to more interesting stories because there’s more variety. Another reason is because fiction can act as a window, letting us seeing other countries and cultures, letting us experience the struggles others face, letting us look through the eyes of people who are different from ourselves. If people read books from different perspectives and see people from other cultures or in other situations as diverse and interesting and as human as they are, that’s got to be a good thing.

But for me, the biggest reason I support diverse fiction is that books (and other media) can act as a mirror. People can see themselves reflected in the characters of a story. They can see that people like themselves can be heroes, can get a happy ending, can play an important role. In some cases, they see that someone like themselves exists.

I had a conversation a few days ago with some people at work. Somehow, the subject got onto sex education and one of my co-workers talked about how sex education lessons should include discussions about different sexualities. I said that they should include mentions of asexuality because there are a lot of people who don’t even know that asexuality exists. Naturally, another co-worker asked what it was because she’d never heard of it before. I gave a very short definition and her reaction was, “Oh my god! I think that’s me!”

She was thrilled and excited because suddenly she had a label for things she’d felt (or not felt). This wasn’t the first time I’d had a conversation like this. A month or so ago, I was talking to a woman about sexual attraction and her comment to me was, “I always just assumed I was broken.”

This was a woman in her fifties, who’d spent decades believing she was broken, because she’d never come across the concept of asexuality.

But books can help. People can find themselves between the pages and understand something about themselves that had always been a mystery. I read an autobiography by an autistic woman who was undiagnosed until well into adulthood. The first time she realised she was autistic was because of a book. She and her husband were reading a book with an autistic protagonist and they both recognised some of her thought and behaviour patterns in that character. Because she saw herself reflected in a character, she understood what she was.

This is why representation is important, because books can help us understand ourselves. I think representation is especially important in children’s and young adult fiction, because no one should spend decades believing that they’re broken.