There is a, now better known, story told that after the first season of the Original Series of Star Trek. The actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura, planned to leave the show to pursue a career on the stage. When he heard of this, the civil rights leader Doctor Martin Luther King came to visit her in her studio one day to ask her to reconsider. He encouraged her to reconsider, saying that her role made Star Trek the only show on television in which Americans could see a black women in a position equal to that of a white person, respected for her expertise, and treated as an equal. Nichols later reported that King had called her role vital to young black people and young women all over the nation and that “once that door was opened by someone no one could ever close it again”. She decided to continue the role and Star Trek went on to conduct the writer Roddenberry’s vision of a future of greater equality for generations afterwards. Some female astronauts have credited Nichols as their inspiration, notably physicist Mae Jemison.
Compare this to the role of Princess Leia Organa of Star Wars. Despite the sexist past of many of the tropes that surround and make up her character, actress Carrie Fisher succeeded in making the role powerful and commanding. In the original Star Wars film, Leia reverses her rescue attempt by Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, taking the vacant leadership role and rescuing them from their mistakes. The character’s conflicting romance with both characters is resolved by herself and her own choice. Throughout the films she is often shown as a lone voice of wisdom, a leader, and a warrior. Thanks to the commercial success of the film’s merchandising, Princess Leia action figures were among the earliest in American toys to depict a women in an action role. Recently, the actress Carrie Fisher revealed that Leia’s escape from Jabba’s slave chains was entirely her choice. Director George Lucas had left the resolution of Leia’s capture open and Carrie Fisher reports to have asked that Leia not be saved by anyone but herself, moreover, killing her enslaver with the chain restraining her.
Representation is important in nerdy media and it is important to more than just the audience that is represented.
Firstly, inclusion of oppressed groups and depicting their struggle, either directly or metaphorically, strengthens support of that struggle and helps privileged classes understand the suffering of that group. Class differences, once quite stark in America, still exist, but too often are only seen as the a graph or set of data. Instead, class and class conflict are made aware to young adults (and adult fans) through fictions such as Avatar: the Legend of Korra.
I find the development of society within the Avatar universe between the Last Airbender Series and the legend of Korra series to be historically profound. In the Last Airbender, the world is set in a pre-industrial feudal/tribal social system. The three surviving nations are lead almost completely by royalty and a warrior aristocracy, most of whom are benders, just as our world was before the Enlightenment and Imperial eras. Class is cemented by the martial bending abilities. The only world leader who is not a bender is the Earth king, who is depicted as ineffectual and weak. However, in the Legend of Korra, society has undergone an industrial revolution, science and a single world government has made war less important. Industry and invention has made bending immaterial in gaining wealth, which is a far larger indicator of class than bending ability. This mirrors the class shift underwent by many countries in our own world; industrial and scientific advancement make the martial aristocracy less crucial in war and politics. The underprivileged classes struggle to be represented. This is shows as the Equalist movement in The Legend of Korra, a revolutionary group willing to use violence to make political advances for non benders in society. Though they are depicted as an antagonist group to the bending main characters, their points are consistently shown to be valid: non benders are bullied by the bending powers of the police, non benders are not given representation in the council of Republic City, and in the end (SPOILERS) their movement is shown to have led by a manipulative bender who cares nothing of their struggle. These storylines inspire audiences to reconsider their notions of good and evil, as antagonists are shown to be the victims of injustice, and bringing violence to them does not resolve the conflicts they represent. Scenes of non benders protesting and being beaten by the police mirror images on the news of Occupy protests. Depicting antagonists as victims of oppression offers privileged viewers the chance to identify those oppressed in their lives - people with whom the viewers would not normally identify.
Representation of the underrepresented is also very important in inspiring members of those groups and including them in geeky/nerdy culture. I have already given an example of inspiration arising from including under represented characters, and I invite readers to fill the comments with their own stories. If we hold these stories to be true, we must have accepted that such inspiration is possible, but how is it possible? The answer, I believe, has a lot to do with depth. There are well rounded underrepresented characters, and then there are characters whose minority status is their only defining feature. Pacific Rim’s Morri Mako is a well rounded character, unique because of her experience and drive. Smurfette’s only defining feature, on the other hand, is that she is a woman. Such characters as Smurfette serve only to support the presumed non female audience’s external views of women, in the same way that the characters on “Meet the Jeffersons” often served only to support the presumed white audience’s external views on African Americans. (And the Big Bang Theory only exists to support stereotypes about us. -Ed) Such characters are not generally inspiring, they tell the people they represent to keep their head down, don’t challenge stereotypes, accept being an outsider. Deep and well-rounded characters give normalcy and sympathy, allowing these characters to inspire us with their heroic actions. Welcome to Night Vale’s Cecil may help homosexual fans feel safe and accepted, because the character is not defined by his homosexual feelings or relationship, and thus those parts of him are not shown as “other”.
But to be accepted in the "Other" cultural group of nerds can be be very valuable. Too many of white, male, heterosexual, and Cis-gendered geeks take this inclusion for granted. (Just in case there's some of you out there who don't know this term, "Cis" means comfortable in the gender you were born with, basically. - Ed) Such folk have almost always felt a part, of this culture at least, and do not consider how our culture could be exclusive. Female, nonwhite, gay, and trans geeks are often excluded, especially by being underrepresented in Nerdy fiction. Full, rich, and three dimensional characters of these types counteract this exclusion in two contrasting ways. Firstly, these characters help underrepresented geeks feel welcome and accepted. Appropriately, the second reason is that these characters normalize such groups to “mainstream” geeks and influence the latter to accept the former. In essence, diversity and cohesion of deep and multi-faceted characters in media creates better acceptance and cohesion amongst audiences. This leads to a stronger social group in nerdom, better writing as audiences become creators, less infighting, and happier nerds.
Finally, representation in geeky/nerdy media helps the “mainstream” understand the relationship they personally have with oppressed groups, as well as the advantages they enjoy as a member of the majority or non-oppressed group. This is often called “Checking your privilege”. When people understand the privileges they take for granted, it is easier to be aware of these factors as they relate to fellow geeks who cannot rely on these privileges. Those who do not understand privileges they enjoy do not see the systems that give them this privilege (such as white audiences having so many protagonists to which they can relate), and react negatively when those systems are challenged (such as when nonwhite protagonists become more popular). Because the power dynamics that divide us are so variable, it is rare to find someone who does not enjoy SOME privilege.
|Rather, Privilege is when you are INCLINED to think thus, having no experiences to the opposite|
Being white, I enjoy considerable privilege, despite how liberal the area I live in is thought to be. Specifically, I live in a predominantly Asian neighborhood, where I am a minority. That minority status can provide disadvantages (such as getting servers attention in certain restaurants) but in most cases, my skin color puts me at an advantage. For instance, while walking down the street, no matter how crowded, if my Asian American neighbors can see me, they move out of my way. I just have to indicate where I intend to go, and they will yield to me. It’s incredibly frustrating, but I can’t very well blame them. People who look more like me than like them have made their lives difficult in this country for over a hundred and fifty years. Over time, I imagine, the laws, behavior, and assumptions of white people have made confrontation with white people not worth the effort for the ancestors of my neighbors, and that attitude may have been passed down culturally. The root causes are subject to research and debate, but the effect is quite real before me: I am given deference in my walking space because I am white. I point this out specifically, because I cannot say I would have noticed this for sure if this situation was not copied almost movement for movement in the books of my favorite author Terry Pratchett as he used fantasy races to model real world racial tension. The plight of nonhuman races in the predominately human city of Ank-Morpork, written as if they were real people and not forces of the environment with which the human protagonists much contend (as in certain fantasy books that shall go unnamed), broadened my thinking when I was younger. Other books depicting the disadvantages of characters that were not just like me in every way allowed me the insight to understand my own privileges.
As flame wars and game room debates rage across geekdom over the bigoted nature of this or that comic book, the racist depiction in such and such movie, and/or the sexism inherent in myriad industries, further awareness can only help ease these tensions and resolve factions. Representation of underrepresented groups in nerdy media does wonders to bring this awareness, as oppression and the struggle against oppression is revealed in these works. Self-awareness and actualization can be achieved by geeks excluded for their various outsider statuses as they are inspired and given confidence through new role models. Conversely, those on the other side of the divide are given avenues to sympathize with and understand their counterparts through exposure to these characters. Such characters are not only important, but are important to me and have changed my mindset completely.