It’s time for a new Representation and Health 101!
I took a break from writing for longer than I expected, and sometimes I feel it was longer than I should have. Yet, I also recognized the intense difficulty at getting words out, at being able to express myself in a way I felt was any semblance of adequate.
The election took the wind out of my sails, that I cannot deny, and thus I found it hard to push through the cloud of sadness and anger in my endeavor to cling to hope and be productive. So, after a couple of weeks of thinking, I figured we’d take things back to basics.
This installment of Representation and Health 101 will look at the underlying theme across each of my articles: the value of those who look like us and what it means to intently and deliberately read them.
Many, if not most, theories of psychology and counseling assert that healing is not an automatic process. Even if it feels as though it just gradually happened with no input from the individual, further probing finds this isn’t the case. So, when it comes to comics, characters, and how they can be therapeutic, one thing is to remember that there’s some process that creates the bridge between the two words that mark the title of this column, representation and health.
Any time you come across a character who speaks to who you are as an individual or member of a group, you are utilizing mental frameworks and connections that are the building blocks to healing and change. These same processes underlie the reality of therapeutic change in the context of counseling.
Why does this matter? Well, 2016 has been a veritable dumpster fire of oppression, bigotry, and justifiable defensiveness from marginalized people. As each month has passed, many of us have fought tooth and nail to feel as though the world won’t turn to shit overnight, though in many ways it felt like it did three weeks ago.
We all recognize the reality or threat of oppression and violence, and this is something we must constantly battle whether we are walking down the street, sitting in class, or doing what it takes for us to survive financially. How do we make sense of this? How do we deal with a world that only seeks to hurt us, or if nothing else, hurt those we love? We need reminders, and comics can be that.
Sometimes, we just need something to help us get by. Such a reality is common in treating people with serious or chronic mental illness. Full remission and recovery is often not a sustainable goal, as there’s too much evidence to support some kind of relapse of symptoms in the future. So, finding that one small thing that helps to assuage symptoms is integral to therapeutic work. Comics can be that one small thing.
While I feel there can be value in almost any story, it’s important that the stories we read do reflect our reality. Why? They’re easier to connect to. The major caveat when it comes to representation is making sure that stories are organic and respectful. This doesn’t mean that one story must be everything at once, for not all people of any group can speak for everyone at once, but it does mean that having a better gradient of narratives increases their utility for a wider range of people.
Yet, comics don’t have to be a small thing. Consider the stories that come to mind when your day is rainy and overcast, when you’re pissed off and you need an escape, or when something shitty happens and you need someone, somewhere to either be okay or tell you things will be okay.
When we connect to any world that isn’t our own, we create the capacity for change. We can find meaning that is valuable and curative. As such, you may have one issue of one series that means the world to you and from which you can touch upon a reservoir of hope and power. Comics as one form of bibliotherapy can move us to find lessons and catharsis, whether someone’s in a cape or a spaceship, whether they have superpowers or not. But, let’s not gloss over one of the most important facets of this conversation.
Comics need to do better.
Yes, we can love and connect with the cisgender, heterosexual, white man, but we need more than that. 2016 has been a year not just for our entire society, but for the comic industry to look at itself and dare to put a salve on the pock marks that drive people away from something they love.
I appreciate series like Kim&Kim, The Backstagers, Goldie Vance, Jonesy, Midnighter & Apollo, Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur, Wonder Woman, and many others that I am not fully capable of pulling out of my memory. These comics are a shining beacon of what could be and I sorely wish there were more of them in number.
But there aren’t. To add to this dilemma, many creators are not as on board with changing the face of comics as they need to be. Their behavior, writing, response to criticism, or simple presence on social media creates a stubborn block to making more representative comics, and these same people are routinely supported by the industry.
The fact that so many of us continue to love comics, whether we are still down with the Big Two or we justifiably decided our money is better spent elsewhere, is a testament to our tenacity and hope for change. Imagine if the industry had the same effort put toward progressive change as its most ardent readers and critics, many of whom push the industry through reviews, critical inquiry and analysis, and through their own understanding as marginalized people.
Comics are already helpful for many people. I like to envision a world where creators fully understand their duty as being at the helm of a form of media, and follow through with dedication, respect, and humility toward their readers. We need this from comics, and maybe it’s time they followed through.
Stories are powerful, and they are yet another tool we use to cope with the dank, dismal parts of our everyday lives. Comics, through their worlds and characters, provide a safe avenue for people to explore identity and to cope with real life stressors even if there is no direct analog for them on the panel or page. Whether a floppy or digital copy, a comic can be that shining spot which helps someone manage the difficult reality of oppression and marginalization.
Plenty of stories do that now, but, as others have countlessly said before, comics could move beyond a low bar and make new stories that reflect the reality of reader demographics and the demographics of a global world. Representation needs to improve, and then maybe more people will find a new bastion of healing.
For the past three weeks, I’ve had Wednesdays that light up my week because I get to read something I love. I hope you’ve had the same experience. I hope that your passion for comics is not dismayed by shitty creators or shitty people in general. I hope that, at a time when we aren’t sure how things will turn out, you have some story that you can lean on for solace.
Though the industry and the stories it tells all need to improve, may you have one that is near and dear to your heart and which fuels your desire to play a role in a brighter tomorrow for those who need it most.
What do you think it means to love comics and find a home in their pages when the world outside of them is less than welcoming? What do you recommend for readers, or even the comic-curious, about using these stories to heal and cope in our current social climate? I’d love to discuss this with you on Twitter, so hit me up at @80Grey!