Friday, 11 January 2013

"I don't know what that means": why media representation matters

Conversation between my gentleman admirer and myself, Tuesday evening:

GA: "The new David Bowie song is amazing, right?"
Me: "Bowie released a new song? Huh."
GA: "You are literally the last person in the Western world to hear about this. My three year old niece has heard about this. Your mum has heard about this. The queen has heard about this. There are people who have been in comas for the last decade who have heard about this."
Me: "I know loads of stuff. LOADS of stuff. If you really want to go for a knowledge-off, what do you know about the First Balkan War, eh? EH?"


Conversation between my gentleman admirer and myself, Thursday evening:

GA: "You know that picture of Harry Styles on Richard Branson's island - "
Me: "Who's Harry Styles?"
GA: "Wow."


This is one of many reasons I enjoy the popular television series Bones. In response to almost any pop culture reference, lead character Dr Temperance Brennan (played by Emily Deschanel) replies, "I don't know what that means." She's socially awkward and conversationally inept and overly literal and often offensive and I love her.

She is, basically, a wonderfully refreshing contrast to every character that the other Deschanel has ever played.

It's unusual that stories get better during the transition from book to screen, but I found Kathy Reichs' books plodding and uninspiring - definitely the least thrilling thrillers I've ever encountered - with none of the zip that enlivens that Detailed Science in the TV show.

What's even more unusual is a female character getting more abrasive, less personable, and more cynical in that transition.

Brennan refers to marriage as "an antiquated institution", frequently professes her lack of interest in a long-term monogamous relationship (though her commitment to the single existence begins to shake on the sixth season), enjoys frequent casual sex, is a vocal atheist, refuses to pander to other people's definitions of how she should behave, performs no emotional drudge-work, is unabashed about proclaiming herself to be attractive, genius-level intelligent and extremely good in the sack. Basically she breaks every single rule in the Sympathetic Female Character Handbook - and is still portrayed as lovable.

Her social ineptitude is played for laughs, sure - but in an affectionate way. The joke is in that it is Not Acceptable to be an openly confident woman, but - in contrast to every other female character I can think of whose confidence is a major facet of their personality - this does not make her a Bitch.


It's comforting, somehow, to see a character who reflects elements of yourself in fiction. We're always searching for representations of ourselves - for reassurance that we're normal; to fantasise about living different lives; for that sense of well-being that identifying with another person brings.

It's not that we want characters to be us, exactly - to be honest, a drama about a brown-haired knitter who spends 90% of her free time in bed eating cheese and blogs to deliver herself from frustrations and is undergoing a mid-20s crisis due to her Revolutionary Road/Seth in The OC-style "I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO BE BRILLIANT AT BUT I AM SURE I AM, SOMEHOW" mind-gunge would not, actually, be that much of a thriller, and would probably just make me want to tetris myself to death. But recognising points of commonality with other people is sort of the point of fiction (or one of its points, at least).

And the further the character is from your own experience, the harder you have to work to feel that kinship. So, if you are a lady who fancies ladies but never sees lady-gay kissing on TV, you can still slot yourself into fictional romances, but with a bit more effort. If there's one lady-gay relationship on TV (that kiss on Brookside which SHOOK THE NATION), you have to ignore everything about that relationship that doesn't ring true for your own experiences. If there's a hundred lady-gay romances to choose from (The L Word! That thing about Lipstick! But I'm A Cheerleader! A load of others!) - it's a bit more likely you'll find the one that tugs on your specific heartstrings.

And no, this isn't the only point of fiction, obviously. The flipside of the search for commonality is the search for something new: for instance, I will look for fiction which deals with particular societies, groups of people, historical periods (etc) which I'm interested in learning more about, because it's a low-effort way of getting a grasp on a new topic. For areas I'm already familiar with, it adds depth and humanity to drier, more academic research. In this way, I'm 'using' fiction as a way to learn about people/situations/etc which are different from me, rather than looking for ways in which the characters mirror myself.

But when there's just one of you - the only gay in the village, say, or the only socially inept cynic with different cultural reference points to everyone around you - finding a character who shares those traits can feel like a lifeline.


I still don't know who Harry Styles is. I'm okay with that.

Edited to correct the location of The Lady Gay Soap Kiss Which Shook The Nation, and Harry Styles' name, which I managed to get wrong in the process of writing a post on how I didn't know who he is. Styles. Not Stars. Still don't really care.


  1. I really enjoyed reading that, it was both funny (I love your tone) and insightful :)

    As a fan of Bones (and someone who's occasionally clueless about pop culture, though not always) I found it really interesting, although I think I enjoyed the books more than you did.

    1. Thank you, I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I've only read a couple of the books (206 Bones and Deja Dead) so if there are better ones I'd be open to suggestions...