How I learned Representation Matters

“Representation matters.” Google it, and you’ll find it’s a hashtag. It’s a movement. It’s a message. It’s the idea that all people have a place at the table. These two simple words have numerous applications. People of all races, nationalities, and income levels should be represented in democratic government. There shouldn’t be a gender gap in (to use my day job as an example) software development. And our stories should reflect the diverse world we live in, too. No, that doesn’t mean the characters of every story must check off as many demographic boxes as possible. But nor does every hero in every story need to be Caucasian.

I’m a white, privileged male, so admittedly, this was a problem not immediately apparent to me. But who can forget this Tumblr user’s post about seeing Star Wars: Rogue One with her Mexican father?

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Diego Luna as Cassian Andor
Photo credit: StarWars.com

When the film was over and we were walking to the car, he turns to me and says, “did you notice that [Cassian Andor, portrayed by Diego Luna] had an accent?” And I said, “Yeah dad, just like yours.” Then my dad asked me if the film had made a lot of money. I told him it was the second highest grossing film of 2016 despite it only being out for 18 days in 2016 (since new year just came around). He then asked me if people liked the film, I told him that it had a huge following online and great reviews. He then asked me why Diego Luna hadn’t changed his accent and I told him that Diego has openly talked about keeping his accent and how proud he is of it. And my dad was silent for a while and then he said, “And he was a main character.” And I said, “He was.” And my dad was so happy. As we drove home he started telling me about other Mexican actors that he thinks should be in movies in America. Representation matters.

The issue became much more personal for me when I had a conversation with a co-worker, Sarah, in which we got on the subject of Ghostbusters (2016). We talked about how we felt the film was underrated and about how many of its critics didn’t seem to critique the film itself but rather the fact that it starred women. And of course, we talked about how Kate McKinnon’s completely bonkers Jillian Holtzmann is one of the greatest Ghostbusters of all time. Of all time!

And then Sarah told me something that this father of three little girls will never forget.

holtzman She told me how, when she was young, she had all the Ghostbusters toys — the figures, the car, the fire station playset. “But,” she said, “it never even occurred to me that I could be a Ghostbuster since the Ghostbusters were all boys.”

Now I get it that no one, male or female, can wield an unlicensed nuclear accelerator and capture a ghost in ecto-containment. But that’s not the point. The point is: Sarah never even pretended to be a Ghostbuster because she’d never seen a female being one.

Now imagine if a young girl never sees a woman perform a particular real-life profession. Do you think that girl will say to herself, “Well, I’ve only ever seen men do that job, but I suppose I could do it, too”? Some do, for sure, but not all. Not even most. After all, there’s a reason women like Amelia Earhart and Elizabeth Blackwell are heroes.

And then it got personal
But even after all of that, I’d only learned how much representation mattered to others. I still hadn’t personalized how affirming representation feels.

Then I came upon a particular paragraph buried deep in Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbriger. It’s a 1000+ page book, the third in an epic fantasy series that so far tips the scales at 3000+ pages, but this passage is the only one in the entire saga I’ve so far highlighted. This passage is written from the perspective of a relatively minor character, Renarin Kholin.

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Renarin Kholin fan art by ExMachina from 17thShard.com

Renarin wears glasses. He’s soft-spoken and doesn’t like conflict. He’s curious. He takes his time before speaking. And this is how he sees himself:

Indeed, he still saw the world differently from everyone else. He was still nervous talking to people, and didn’t like being touched. Everyone else saw in each other things he never could understand. So much noise and destruction and people talking and cries for help and sniffles and muttering and whispering all like buzzing, buzzings.

And I felt it: the warm glow of representation. Because the person that was just described? That’s me. That’s totally me. Renarin Kholin represents me.

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Cather Avery art from the Rainbow Rowell Wiki

Another example: I read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell because I was intrigued by the idea of a story about a fan fiction writer. I don’t read many “chick lit” books — and by not many, I mean zero — but nevertheless, I adored Fangirl. It’s been a year-and-a-half since I read it, and I still think about it all the time. And the main reason why is the book’s main character, Cather Avery. She’s obsessed with the Simon Snow books (a thinly-veiled Harry Potter-like series). She loves to write. She’s shy. She stays home every Friday night. And she nearly starves at the start of her freshman year of college because she doesn’t know where the cafeteria is, and she’s too self-conscious to wander around looking for it, or worse, to — gasp — ask someone for help.

I feel so represented by Cather Avery. And it feels magnificent.

And that’s how I learned representation matters. Renarin Kholin is an introvert like me, but he’s also a Knight Radiant. If Renarin can do great, heroic things, maybe I can, too.

Cather is as withdrawn and as hard to get out of her shell as I am, yet she wins a prestigious award for her writing. So maybe my writing can find an appreciative audience, too.

eBook Cover
On sale December 11, 2018

The main character in my new book, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, also represents me in many ways. Fritz Reinhardt is quiet, a reluctant leader, and a lover of all things breakfast-related. His introspection and intuition make him something of an odd stick to most folks, but they also help him both change and save the world. My sincere hope is that real-life people like Fritz — people like me — can find in him a character they can relate to. A character they feel represents them.

Because for the love of St. Pete, this is important. Everyone deserves to have some stories in which they see themselves. Stories should show our beautifully diverse world as it is — and, where our world is lacking, they should show what it could be.

Stories can teach little girls that only boys can be Ghostbusters, or they can show those young women that they can be anything.

Society and Monsters and Introverts

Simcha Fisher wrote a great article titled “Who’s Your Monster?”

Want to learn something about a society? Then take a look at what sort of fictional monsters are currently in vogue. What we fear tells us what kind of people we are.

Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein (subtitled The Modern Prometheus) expressed, among other things, the early 19th-century concern over how far man should go in trying to tame and manipulate the natural world. …

The first Godzilla film, featuring a grotesque monster accidentally resurrected by nuclear experimentation, is a walking, smashing embodiment of the anxiety of a nation who had just been flattened by nuclear war. No secret decoder ring needed there. …

Vampires? I’m tired of talking about vampires, so I’ll just say: Inverted Eucharist. AIDS epidemic. Glamour of evil. And so on.

ZombieWhat’s the current monster in vogue? At this point, I’d like to hand this article over to Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries to sing, “Zombie! Zombie!”

Fisher goes on to describe a conversation with one of my favorite writers, Mark Shea, on why zombies represent modern society’s fears:

The guy who beats the zombies, says Mark, is very often the rugged individualist type — the kind of guy who ignores government directives and relies on his own wits and strength. Most tellingly, the enemy to be feared is not so much the individual zombies themselves, as the contagiousness of the virus or disease or whatever it is that’s causing zombification. There is no one you can run to for help, because the bigger the crowd, the greater the chance there is of contamination. When there are ghosts or vampires or werewolves or sea monsters after you, you seek out allies, and make yourself stronger by banding together with anyone who can fight. But when it’s zombies? You can’t trust anyone; you may be required to turn against your own friends and family in order to save yourself. The only hope, really, is to wall yourself up safe inside some fortress. The worst possible thing that can happen is for people to spend time together, travel, encounter people they haven’t encountered before.

The monster is, in short, community itself — and the solution is to hide, survive, and wait for everyone else to eat each other.

I thought this was spot-on and very true. I definitely think there is a portion of today’s society that fears zombies for just this reason. But I don’t believe it’s universal. In fact, I think there is one part of society to whom this most definitely does not apply. And ironically, it is a segment of society that many probably think it applies to the most.

Introverts.

Susan Cain’s book Quiet launched the Quiet Revolution, an ongoing discussion about introversion and what it means to be an introvert and/or a highly sensitive person (HSP). The fruits of that discussion have been life changing for many people. And I don’t mean that as hyperbole because I’m one of them. I have a better quality of life armed with better knowledge of who I am and how I best function. But the discussion has also led to less desirable fruits.

This article from the Onion — “Report: Only 20 Minutes Until Introverted Man Gets To Leave Party” — is hilarious. But it also reinforces the stereotype that introverts don’t like people.

introvertsUnitePictures like the one on the left have a lot of truth to them and make me smile, but they also make introverts look like misanthropes.

And then there was the time that a newspaper featured a blog about highly sensitive people (Hi, Kelly, keep up the great work!) under the headline “In Other Words, Leave Me Alone.”

Community does look like the ultimate monster for introverts, but only for the stereotypical introverts that don’t exist anywhere except in funny meme pictures.

Real life introverts crave human interaction.

Yes, when we’ve had too much of it, we need alone time, though for many of us “alone time” doesn’t mean solitary confinement. It means either solitary confinement or quiet time with our spouse or partner. (I often tell my beloved Rose that I do need to be alone often, but time spent with just her counts as time alone.)

Yes, we don’t like large groups because they can be loud and overwhelming. But a cup of coffee or a meal with a small group of friends at a quiet cafe is the stuff of our daydreams.

Yes, we don’t like “fluff” conversation like small talk or showboating, but a good genuine conversation is immensely satisfying. (I often think Holden Caulfield was an introvert based merely on the way he used the word “phony.” Well, that and the fact that he was created by the most reclusive author ever.)

So have some good-natured fun with introverts’ need to separate from the community from time-to-time often. But don’t mistake it for hatred for that community.

INFJ, not INFT

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Photo by Mayur Gala

Introvert, Dear recently posted “10 Signs You’re Actually an INFJ Personality Type, Not an INTJ” by Jenn Granneman and it was so me I thought maybe I’d written it and somehow forgotten. Like Granneman, I once took a Myers-Briggs type that identified be as INTJ. When I looked over the description of the typical INTJ, I said the same thing Bruce Wayne said in Batman (1989): “Some of it is very much me. Some of it isn’t.” A later test labelled me INFJ and — tada! — I’d found the key to greater self-understanding that knowing your Myers-Briggs type can tell you.

Here are two of the signs that you’re INFJ, not INTJ:

Conflict is distressing. You take disagreements and criticism personally. Your feelings can be hurt by what others say. You may find yourself ruminating on an off-hand remark a loved one makes or a negative comment your boss gives you on an evaluation. A romantic relationship or a friendship quickly sours for you if there are frequent fights, drama, and a general lack of positive feelings. INTJs get their feelings hurt too, but they view criticism through the lens of logic, not emotion, so they are less likely to take harsh words to heart.

You use your emotions and personal values to navigate the world. It’s more important to you that your decisions feel right rather than make logical sense (although as an INFJ, you rarely lack common sense). You not only take your own feelings into account but also the emotions of others, because you care deeply about how your actions affect those around you. Of course, INTJs care about others too, especially those closest to them, but they make decisions by asking what works or what makes sense. They value using time and resources efficiently more so than catering to people’s personal preferences.