I never knew what was missing.
Or that it mattered that I missed it.
Or that it was a thing to miss.
Maybe I should start with what I am talking about but I am afraid that once I say the words most of you will just keep on scrolling, no judgement, because this concept, in a way, is now becoming saturated in our social media feeds. But, that doesn’t make it any less important, poignant, or pertinent to those of us who are used to being under-represented in the media.
Oh, whoops. I said it. That is the writer’s equivalent to a nip slip.
Anyway, I am talking about representation and how, nay why, it matters. I mean Netflix has this whole line of “Representation Matters” movies and shows so obviously this is something worthy of discussion.
Let me backup and give a little background of who I am and why I am talking about this topic. I am an Arab-American and to be honest I don’t even know if that’s the term we are using these days but it is the one I grew up saying so old habits die hard and here we are.
I was raised in a combined Muslim-Christian household. From a physical standpoint, I’m not tiny and petite- well, height wise I am on the shorter end of the spectrum but from a horizontal perspective, I am what should be considered average sized which is to say I have grown into mid-sized women’s clothing. For reference, I am not blonde haired or blue eyed.
In fact I am the exact antithesis of everything I always saw on television and movies growing up.
I have crazy and coarse hair especially if I don’t use the right products which I still am trying to find by the way. I’m not sure if my hair is curly or straight; it is largely dependent on the weather and my hormonal cycle.
I have bushy, coarse brows. I mean I had no idea that soft brows existed. My eyebrows are like wires, literally they feel like the string you use to go fishing. My dark eyes are coffee colored, my hair is somewhere along the lines of mocha and my skin is caramel colored.
Let’s just say that growing up in the 80’s, I stood out in the crowd from the other children on the playground.
Then, at the tender age of eight years old my family and I moved overseas to a tiny country known as Kuwait AKA where my dad was born. The craziest thing is that everyone there looked like me. I mean blonde hair and blue eyes was a vast minority in those parts. Almost all of my friends not only looked like me but also had an Arab parent and an American parent and a Muslim parent and a Christian parent.
To clarify, that is still just two parents per child.
Our values aligned and the way we were being raised was similar. Looking back and reflecting as one does as one becomes older, I think that is why I look so fondly on my years there.
I really fit in. As much as we want to promote independence and individuality and diversity we were made for community and there really is something to being part of one; especially as an impressionable child.
I didn’t know that was what I liked about living overseas until I came back at thirteen and once again was the odd duck on top of being an awkward teen. I am the nose that makes me look like a boy and obviously Jewish. Those are just some snap judgements that were made based on my physical appearance. For the record, I was convinced I would undergo rhinoplasty before I turned twenty but somewhere along the line, I have embraced the schnauzer and actually like it.
Again, I digress.
I was also the girl with dark upper lip hair that had to be bleached in secrecy before I graduated middle school and heaven forbid anyone ever.
Honestly, I thought that was a secret that I would take to the grave. Thank goodness dermaplaning has become a fad we talk openly about. No more white cream burning into my upper lip while I wait the excruciating 15 minutes for good measure to disguise the hairs the good Lord gave me only to find that there were six or seven stubborn hairs that refused to conform so bring out the tweezers to remove those bad boys.
Needless to say I was not popular with the boys despite my mother’s insistence that “boys would be knocking down our doors.” They in fact, did not.
All that to say that the shows I watched confirmed that what I looked like was not desirable. Often the person with a darker complexion was somehow a villain in whatever story was being told. The princes always seemed to fall for light skinned and light haired princesses. Disclaimer: I am not saying that is a bad thing I am just saying that was how it seemed.
Magazines always seemed to have the delicate beauties on their covers. Tiny, under sloped noses with perfectly sun kissed hairs and ocean like eyes. Tiny chests and tiny waists with flat stomachs. All the things that my body fought against becoming.
To be honest, I am just realizing at the age of 36 how incredible it would have been to be represented in the world and in the movies.
Enter Julie and the Phantoms.
One sleepless night, my kids asked to turn on Netflix and we all snuggled up and started scrolling through our options. The beaded jacket on the cover of the title caught their attention and against my better desires I agreed to turn it on. They fell asleep after two episodes and I stayed up until 3 am binge watching a show I could not turn my eyes away from.
Not only is it fun. Not only is it incredible. Not only can I not sing along with the music. Not only am I blown away by the talent. But the main character, whose story the show centers around reminded me of how I looked as a child.
She has the most beautiful black, corkscrew curly hair I have ever seen. Her skin complexion is perfectly olive.
Not to mention, her dad has an accent. Like mine did.
There is also a gay character. And it’s just part of the story.
And they are all talented. And successful. And celebrated.
Not to mention, my tween self is thrilled at the fact that the “villian” in the story is a blonde haired light skinned darling. Is that an immature response? Yes. Yes it is. But apparently I have a lot of pent up repression that I am just now recognizing and processing so work with me.
The point of this whole story is that I think we undermine and undervalue the importance of being different. Sure we say we celebrate differences and diversity matters and all that crap. But when we really look at what is put out into the world, does it reflect those supposed values?
I have seen plenty of the token-different-person; you know the one looks different than the rest but who is thrown in for comic relief or killed off pretty early on in the series or what not.
But true representation…where the main characters are still telling the same story…that is what has been missing.
These main characters and their stories and their physical appearances and their different backgrounds are refreshing and validating and inspiring and encouraging and I just hope it continues because kids deserve to know that they are capable of the big things regardless of their physical appearance and cultural background.
Not only are they capable, they are center stage worthy.