What You See (and Read and Hear) is What You Get

When was the last time you saw a person of color in a commercial? Quite recently, I’m sure. How about a biracial child? More and more present. An inter-racial couple? Less frequent, but surely there. I know I have seen a few advertisements of late that are inclusive in this regard.

When was the last time you saw two women in bed together in a hotel commercial? How about two men at the breakfast table? When did you last watch a little boy snuggle up on the couch with his dads in a cable commercial, or a child present her improved grades to her moms? How about a dating commercial where a woman hosts speed dates to both men and women? A back-to-school ad that shows two boyfriends holding hands?

These types of homo-normative visuals don’t exist, at least not around me.Well okay, they do exist around me, but that’s only because I live smack-dab in the middle of one of the gayest place in America (Boystown, Chicago). I’ve chosen this place specifically for its radical inclusion, tolerance, and celebration of non-hetero lifestyles, but once I leave my little gay-mecca niche, I do not see that mirrored elsewhere around me.

This is not to say that people in other areas are not accepting and even supportive of LGBTQ folk. There are many places (like Chicago) where discrimination has begun to ameliorate and overall tolerance has increased. Gay couples are beginning to feel more confident about walking down the street hand-in-hand without fear of open ridicule or violence. But tolerance is not the same as celebration — not even close.

Why does this matter? Why is the permeating lack of LGBTQ visual image in our society a problem?

Because what you see is what you get.

Take, for example, the much discussed female-model-body issue. Why do magazines use such waif-like models? Because their interpretation (through data collection and general observation, as well as personal bias) is that their audiences do not want to see overweight models (we can debate the truth of this ’til the cows come home). They use slender, “classically beautiful” women to model their clothes instead, knowing that this will be widely received and attended to. In return, the readers of these magazines see this portrayal of beauty as a reflection of the ideals of our society. We have discussed ad-nauseum the affect this has on young girls and boys, as well as adults. Perceiving this as the social standard, we attempt to change ourselves to fit in with what we think we are supposed to look like. The more we, as consumers, buy into this ideal, the more we empower those who create the images to continue making the same decisions.

Art imitates life, and life in turn imitates art. We are inextricably caught up in a commentary about our society which shapes the very society it comments on. The process is beautifully ironic. It is also highly problematic.

If you are a child of two gay parents, or one who identifies attraction to the same or both genders, where do you look to see your life reflected in a normalized way? You might find a few progressive television programs made for adults, or a stellar kids show that has incorporated a gay character, but the overwhelming mass of media does not reflect you. You do not belong there. You have been left out of the conversation.

What does that communicate to you, a child who is shaping yourself by observing and understanding the world around you? What does it say about your legitimacy as a daughter or son? As a person?

I feel pained for the children of today who still do not see themselves included in the lenses of our media. Even more so now that we as a society are slowly becoming more tolerant of non-traditional relationships, and children are growing up in beautiful families with openly same-sex parents. Where do those children look to see themselves represented? Where do they find their own reflections, not just included, but celebrated? How will this shape the way they feel about themselves, their loved ones, and their futures?

And the kids who themselves would identify as queer — where are they in the prom dress ads and the sports magazines? Where is their reassurance that they belong in this culture along with everyone else? Although the general discussion of LGBTQ issues has increased, advertising and much of our media seem reluctant to catch up. In a reality where we can be exposed to over 5,000 advertisements each day, we cannot overlook the importance of tangible, visual inclusion.

People shape society as society shapes people. Adults teach children. Children grow up to be adults. The process is unending, and yet we do not seem to see it. I am comforted by knowing that there is a growing mass of people who are consciously raising their children and teaching others’ children, but true progress will not be made until our society as a whole wakes up to the incredible importance of dignifying each and every human life.

We all matter. We are all worth representing. Black, white, fat, skinny, four-eyed, one-legged, loud, deaf.

Straight or gay. One mom or two.

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