There has been a lot of talk about media and representation of marginalised groups over the past few years. As much as I don’t like reading negative comments from reviewers, publishers and writers, as well as the whole thing about calling producers of media with problematic topics every “-phobe” and “-ist” available, I am generally quite grateful for the discussion. It has forced me to re-examine how my perspective on media affects my consumption of it, and taught me about a lot of “uncomfortable topics” that for the longest time, was rarely outwardly addressed.
That being said, I’ve grown quite wary of the methods of approaching discourse used by all sides of the debate. There are a lot of complicated issues regarding it that I A) don’t feel qualified talking about and B) really don’t feel like talking about. For today, I’ll just be addressing something that I’ve been seeing quite often in fandoms and that is what I like to call “claiming”.
I haven’t really read up about the exact terms that would be appropriate to describe this phenomenon, so I’ll do my best to explain it. “Claiming” is something that some members of certain marginalised groups do when a character or celebrity is shown to be similar to them. Representation is important because it helps to give an individual from a marginalised group validation that not all of them are “bad” like how stereotypes make them out to be. For the most part, I can understand why someone would want to claim certain characters to celebrate that representation. However, a negative that is strung along with “claiming culture” is the fight to invalidate anyone else from another marginalised group trying to “claim” that character too. For example, if a person is from a marginalised race, but is also mixed raced, there are at least three types of people that would theoretically be “allowed” to claim this representation — a person who is a member of that marginalised race, a person who is mixed race, and a person who is a member of that non-marginalised race (that the character also is). It is valid for every one of them to “claim” this character.
However, I’ve recently been seeing a lot of people from either of the groups insisting that characters are “their” representation and no one else is allowed to view it as representation for themselves. This honestly confuses me because the last I checked, people weren’t only one specific thing. Characters should be multi-faceted because that’s how people are. If someone wants to claim a character as a representation of their marginalised group, they are free to do so as long as it isn’t meant to hurt anyone. Going along the same vein, I believe that if a character’s traits are open to interpretation, the character does not have to only be representative of one marginalised group only and can cover multiple at once without it necessarily being problematic. For example, if a character is coded as a “person of colour” but neither their appearance nor description pinpoints a specific race, it’s fair game for any person of colour to think that that character is representative of their group.
This topic is something that I’m sensitive about because I’m mixed race and I was often told that if I did something wrong, it was because of *insert negative stereotype* and if I did something right, it was because I wasn’t completely *insert race with negative stereotype*. I’ve been told that I should “embrace” one of my races while simultaneously being shoved out of the community because I wasn’t “pure blooded” enough to understand the struggles. It makes me uncomfortable in real life and it isn’t any less uncomfortable that it is quickly becoming the norm for characters to be treated similarly — if characters aren’t perfect representation of groups, or aren’t perfect characters if they are coded as a being from a certain group, they are quickly vilified and treated as irredeemably problematic characters.
Fiction doesn’t have to represent reality, but it seems that the way many of us are treating fictional characters is highly derivative of how we treat people like that in real life.