We ended last week discussing the differences between visibility and representation. Differentiating between visibility and representation is required to understand and deploy the different mechanisms that are essential for societal change especially when talking about the relationship between media, culture, and politics.
Whereas visibility refers to the extent to which a group is present, representation refers to the extent to which the needs of the group are actively addressed in other societal institutions. Just because a group is visible in culture does not mean that they are accurately represented politically, economically, or socially via media.
We began the discussion distinguishing between sex (biological), gender (social performances), sexuality (emotional and physical attraction), and politics (advocating on behalf of group-related issues). For some, these concepts overlap and can be confounded, resulting in pervasive stereotypes. A person born with a penis is supposed to identify as a man and be attracted to women; a woman who identifies as a feminist is expected to hate men; someone who fights for marriage equality is assumed to be gay. However, each of these words means something very different and addresses a different component of a complex issue.
Visibility is the first step to representation. This is why events like National Coming Out Day (Oct 11) and Gay Pride are political events. They are designed to bring attention and visibility to a community that is not necessarily visible. Coming Out to loved ones and publicly draws on Allport’s Contact Hypothesis, which states that, “under appropriate conditions, interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members.” By demonstrating visibility in numbers, or with the support of other group members, a group can hone a cohesive voice through which to demand representation, political and social. Consider other prominent marches occurring regarding police brutality sparked by the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, May Day for workers’ rights and immigration reform, and, as mentioned in class, St. Patrick’s Day, which originated “as an act of solidarity with the Irish in their fight for independence” and flourished during the early 20th century as the Irish were fighting ethnic hierarchies (Ignatiev).
The relationship between cultural visibility, political representation, and media representation is complex and interrelated. More information regarding political representation is addressed in the political science research regarding descriptive representation, or the extent to which elected representatives represent the expressed preferences of their constituencies (or the nation as a whole) and those of their descriptive characteristics that are politically relevant, such as geographical area of birth, occupation, ethnicity, or gender (Pitkin, 1967).
The relationship between visibility and media representation is referred to as symbolic representation or annihilation. If a group is not visible in media, or the symbolic representation of culture, then the group can be omitted, trivialized, or condemned in mainstream media, thus cultivating and reinforcing stereotypes within viewers. When a group is not visible, the effects of these media representations can proceed without outcry. Consider the recent conversations regarding the word, “Redsk!ns,” or the changing language around special needs children; these groups have become more visible (and more connected, thanks to social and interactive media) in their need for representation.
The relationship is further complicated when discussing the best ways to achieve robust visibility and how it relates to institutional representation. For some, fitting in with mainstream ideas of how a group member should behave is the best strategy. The term, “homonormativity” is used to describe social expectations that LGB individuals should adhere to heterosexual gender norms; in its most extreme, this can be criticized as passing, but can even be deployed between in-group members as advice (See The Politics of Beneficial Bigotry). For others, the right to express oneself should not conflict with the right to be treated as a citizen with equal rights. This issue of representation and political strength can often be at the heart of accusations of betrayal against those that disavow labels or attempt to “pass.” This intragroup dissension is present across many groups, consider the recent responses to Raven-Symoné’s comment that she is “not African American” and Greta van Susteren’s questioning of Gwenyth Paltrow as a “working mom.”
The complicated nature of visibility and representation leaves many with the question: Is there a “right” way to be gay? Or feminist? Or Black? This struggle for “group-appropriate” behavior can cause questions of one’s authenticity, especially when expressing ideas or identity that are not rhetorically correct. Does one have to identify as African American? Does being gay mean you have to be out? When visibility is considered essential to political and social representation, yes.