This is a post for people like me: white middle-class cishet mainstream/casual-Christian folks without visible disabilities whose family has been in the United States for generations. You know, The Default. We are everywhere in media. We have been for centuries. “Draw a kid,” you tell someone, and unless that someone is particularly Woke or a goatherd, they draw a white middle-class cis child without visible disabilities.
We don’t even realize there’s anything wrong with this, because we’re so used to it.
But if you’re the one whose identity is curiously missing from the stories you’re surrounded by, you do notice, if only subconsciously. You get the feeling maybe you don’t belong in these stories you love (I use the word “stories” throughout this article to refer to books, movies, TV, etc). You’re an outsider. It’s discouraging. And it’s not fair.
I’ve been working on a project for my library that revolves around the “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” concept of books. Part of it involves putting together a relatively small traveling collection of picture books showcasing the widest variety of childhood experiences possible. Children who come from different countries. Children whose relatives come from different countries. Children who are adopted, or who live in non-traditional families. Children who are poor or homeless or dealing with an incarcerated parent. Children who are neurodivergent or disabled or gender-nonconforming. Children living at the intersection of two or more of these experiences. But all of them children feeling like children, universally.
The idea is that all children who read the books can relate to the universal dilemmas and emotions and in the process grow to empathize with children who, on the surface, are different from them. But it also lets children who aren’t the Default see those non-Default aspects of themselves on the page. It tells them their differences don’t exclude them from stories.
I address this article to people who are The Default because this concept of representation can be hard for us to understand.
When people call out the representation, or lack thereof, of “people like them” in culture, there’s a tendency for people in the Default to brush it off. “Surely they’re exaggerating, there’s plenty of representation!” —though statistics say otherwise.
“What about us?” the Default are tempted to say. After all, I am putting together this collection of books for kids to see themselves in and not one of those books is about a kid who is The Default. “How can you say the purpose of this is for every kid to see themselves on the page, but you don’t include kids like us? Pushing for More Representation of Other People discriminates against stories about people like ME!”
Because the Default is already out there. That’s what makes it the Default. Those stories don’t get erased by adding different stories to the mix. There is no room for books about Default children in the library collection I’m building, but that doesn’t mean there are no, say, white children. There’s a couple white children who are neurodivergent, one or two who are gender-nonconforming, one who is adopted by two dads. No one is being excluded. There’s something, somewhere, for everyone to identify with.
“Well why can’t they just identify with other aspects of the characters? I identify with characters who aren’t exactly like me.”—well yes. They probably do. I’ve been identifying with characters, regardless of how like me they are, all my life. It’s why I got to love books so much. But there’s a reason I emphasized “no visible disabilities” in the first paragraph. “No disabilities, period,” is the actual Default, but I, personally, do have experience with INvisible disabilities, which is one reason I’ve actually gotten to experience the shock and joy of finally seeing myself in a story, too.
Even I, who on the surface have had more than enough representation of my very Defaultish self in fiction, still had a sneaking suspicion that people like me couldn’t be heroes in a story. I was too absent, too odd, too motivated by different things than the typical hero. Sure I’d identified with characters before, but they all had some elusive quality I didn’t. Even Meg Murry, who came closest to feeling like me, had an aggressive side to carry her through heroism. Then, as I’ve written here before, Luna Lovegood came along, staring past people, exhibiting unexpected emotional reactions, and seeming to wander into every place she was by accident. Even though she wasn’t the main character, she still showed me that it could be done. Weird slightly-autistic but feminine girls (I mean, too often the awkward girls in stories acted just like awkward boys) could have fantastic adventures, too.
I started thinking about this article watching my own children react to reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Yes, my children are relatively Default, too, but there’s one aspect of their lives that doesn’t get so much authentic screentime, that they share with Percy: ADHD. They are visibly delighted by Percy’s impulsivity, dyslexia, foot-in-the-mouth outbursts. Sure, other stories (in print or on screen) may mention ADHD as some sort of synonym of hyperactivity, but these books get it. These books understand what it really means to have ADHD, show them a hero with the same struggles as them (and, well, a few more), and the suggestion that this is all a clue that they might really be demigods is just ambrosia on the cake.* It’s a story made for them.
Representation is not simply about seeing yourself in stories, it’s about seeing aspects of yourself that you don’t usually get to see. The more Default you are, the more aspects of yourself are readily visible in popular culture, and so representation may not seem so important to you. If you still feel like your story is not being told, it’s probably because there’s some NON-Default aspect of you that’s itching to be seen. It didn’t matter if the characters I’d been reading about for 25 years beforehand looked like me or came from families like mine or places like where I lived. Part of me still felt excluded, because until I found Luna, I didn’t know there was a place in fiction for slightly-autistic space cases. If you feel excluded for being Default, you need to ask yourself: why? What part of my story needs to be told? It’s that part of you that feels excluded. Not your Defaultness.
Now, how much more intense would this feeling of disenfranchisement be if nothing in books looked like the real life you knew? If you never saw people in books that looked or spoke or lived the way all the people in your community lived, it would feel like the books were from some other planet. Many kids don’t even realize there are other aspects of the stories they can identify with, because the surface differences are too widespread to get past.
Or what if everyone in stories who did look like you or come from the same place as you acted in ways you didn’t? Stereotypical representation can be as bad, or even worse, as no representation at all. And again, I know how that feels from my milder Default settings, too. I have always had an affinity for awkward, unattractive blonde characters. I was a blonde girl in a cultural world where blondes tended to fall into two (sometimes overlapping) camps. The “dumb blonde” is obviously a negative stereotype, and I was a brainiac, so I knew it was ridiculous. But there was also the “Blonde is Beautiful” flip side. The Barbie dolls and the princesses. The beautiful, popular characters were blonde. The awkward nerds were not (unless there was a MAKEOVER! scene coming up for them later). I just wished somebody would let a blonde girl be an unpopular nerd like me. (Luna came to my rescue in that respect, too. In the books her hair is a darker blonde than Evy Lynch’s, like mine, so it really was a whole picture identification thing). The perfect Barbie image, though more positive than the “dumb blonde,” still felt like such a lie. To this day if I’m writing a blonde girl character, I make an effort to point out that she’s not beautiful and popular. It feels like a necessary correction to the broader pool of characters.
So again, imagine that on a bigger scale. What if all the stories told me that a kid like me was always violent or stupid? What if all the stories told me that a kid like me was always a super-smart overachiever, or a wise and gentle inspiration? Bad or good, if that “representation” tells only one story, it’s not such great representation after all.
My little examples of representation-craving are small potatoes to people whose identities are more marginalized than mine, but that’s why I’m addressing this to other Default-seeming people. If we’re having trouble understanding what marginalized people are saying about representation, it may help to look back on the moments you may have felt, suddenly, seen, and imagine that feeling tripled.
*When I first read the series, pre-kids, I cracked up because I recognized my husband in Percy. My husband went to a private boarding school for dyslexic kids with ADHD in Upstate New York. In the very first chapter of The Lightning Thief, Percy is getting kicked out of a private boarding school for dyslexic kids with ADHD in Upstate New York. I determined quickly that my husband is definitely not the son of Poseidon, but with his general nerdiness, leadership abilities, and tactical flare, most likely the son of Athena. Our daughter also claims herself born of Athena, but mostly for her rivalry with Arachne, and our son is clearly the son of Hephaestus, which you don’t hear all that much about, but dude, he’s a builder, what can you say. I don’t know who I’m the daughter of.** Maybe Inattentive Type ADHD doesn’t grant one the same demigod status that Hyperactive and Combined Types warrant.
**Possibly Demeter. I do like to garden. But you’d think I’d kill less house plants, then.