This week, a profile on Caitlyn Jenner and some amazing photos were posted in Vanity Fair. Caitlyn hit 2.16 million followers on Twitter at the time of this writing. Major news organizations are using the pronoun “she” in reference to her, something that wouldn’t have happened not so long ago. The story about Caitlyn’s upcoming ESPY award on my site had relatively few negative comments. President Obama tweeted in support. I’m proud of the Internet today. Oh god, I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.
This weekend, I attended the Critics’ Choice TV Awards. (Full disclosure, I’m a board member of the Broadcast Television Journalists Association, which puts on the awards.) I was struck by Jeffrey Tambor’s acceptance speech for Best Actor in a Comedy Series for his role in “Transparent,” where he plays a father who comes out as a transgender woman: “I’d like to close by saying I had an acting teacher who said, ‘When you act you have to act like your life depends on it.’ I was given the gift of a role where I have to act and we have to act because other people’s lives depend upon it.”
And that, right there, is really the point. People’s lives absolutely do depend on representation in media. For some of us, it’s seeing ourselves on screen that gives us the confidence to be what we want to be. Obviously for me, it was seeing Princess Leia, a strong woman who didn’t take crap from the guys she was with, that mattered. For some of us, it’s Doc McStuffins, inspiring little girls to be doctors. For others, it’s how “Will and Grace,” a show that had lead characters who were gay that made their parents less afraid of their coming out announcement.
All of this — all of it — is because someone was brave enough to take a step in terms of representation. Bruce Jenner talking publicly about transitioning. A studio that took a risk on a show they didn’t know would be well-received. Comic book companies that were willing to run a series about a Muslim superhero, and a girl, no less.
There is nothing we as humans handle worse than fear of the unknown. Putting things out there in the entertainment world is important. That’s what gets people talking. The more something becomes familiar, the less it scares us. It doesn’t matter if we’re drawn to stories like this because of curiosity, because it’s trending on Twitter or because it’s in our favorite TV shows or a reality series. When that little girl who is getting teased for loving superheroes sees another little girl in a TV series who feels the same, it helps. If a single transgender person sees him or herself represented on screen, they’re not alone. In the end, representation is important and it can change and save lives.