By Gabrielle Blonder
As a tween, I spent many a weeknight watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I loved the creepy-crawlies, I loved the witty banter that was always ever-so-slightly over my level of understanding, and I loved the campy fight scenes. But most of all, I loved Willow Rosenberg. In Willow, I saw my own awkward nerdiness reflected back. I saw a girl who somehow managed to acquire a close-knit group of friends despite these characteristics (a goal I had yet to achieve in my small middle school community). I also saw my first queer character. In season four, Willow (spoiler alert!) begins a relationship with Tara, a fellow student, witch, and woman(!) at her university. Although I didn’t fully realize why at the time, Willow’s story remained lodged in the back of my brain for years.
On some level, I’ve known I liked girls for almost as long as I’ve known I liked boys. For a long time, I also didn’t know that was a thing I was allowed to do. Since all of my reciprocated crushes were on males, I assumed that the attractiveness of girls was just a universal fact. I had boyfriends, so I must only be interested in men.
Even after learning the word “bisexual”, I struggled with its meaning. I continued to have relationships with men while simultaneously lusting after women. Neither my gay nor straight friends seemed to know what box to put me in (and usually ended up packing me tightly in the ‘straight’ box, with my then-monogamous hetero-presenting relationship as the bow).
When I was 25, I went to a bi-themed variety show. It was the first time I’d seen people directly talking about bisexuality and what it meant – and on stage, much less! With an audience! That night I went home, followed each of the performers on every social media page I could find them on, and re-watched videos of some of their performances until I nearly had them memorized.
I have privilege on a lot of counts – I’m white, thin, and cisgender. I can turn on the TV and see women who share many of my characteristics. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I began consciously noticing characters who stray from the mainstream narrative. A person of color as a main character. A protagonist who has traditionally-unattractive physical or emotional flaws. Becoming aware of these opened up a Pandora’s Box – I now can’t not notice when a narrative breaks the molds.
I still get excited when I see a Jewish character on the screen. Even more so when Judaism is portrayed as an incidental part of their personality, rather than a convenient plot-moving vehicle. The same goes for visibly queer and gender nonconforming characters. Had I seen bisexuality on TV when I was discovering my own sexuality, perhaps I would have been able to come to terms with it sooner.
I have friends who didn’t realize they were trans until their 40s; friends for whom finally learning the concept of ‘genderqueer’ was a mind-blowing revelation into their own inner workings. Friends who, like me, cried upon discovering there was a whole community of people like them. How much less time would we have spent struggling if we were told it was okay to be who we are?
I hear a lot of people groan through conversations of depiction and representation in the media. After all, “it’s just a movie/TV show/book”. And that’s not incorrect – there’s so much more to life than media. We, as a culture, probably do need to take a step back from all media (social and otherwise) in order to work on living our own most authentic lives. However, the things we create become snapshots of our lives. The things we consume become integrated into our bodies like food.
So, fellow creators, let’s do our best to reach out to the underrepresented. Use models of color for your paintings. Write queer and trans characters whose storylines *don’t* include a dramatic coming out. Portray neuroatypical and disabled characters without making them pity cases or the butt of jokes. Let’s delve more into experiences that differ from ours and create the role models we’ve needed in our pasts. Let’s make art for everyone.