During the Baltimore uprising, I made this post with some brief reactions I had at the time as well as a collection of articles for more in-depth reading. I reflected on how the kind of criticism I do on this blog is easy, in a sense, because narrowing down the broad topic of intersectionality to its presence (or lack thereof) in fictional stories is easy. Representation matters. Absolutely. However, we rarely see any direct connections between representation in fiction and real-world change. It’s great to have more shows with more black characters, for example, but those shows don’t have a direct impact on laws or on fatal police encounters. Any positive changes that diverse representation makes are more long-term and formative, especially for children who will one day grow up with whatever lessons today’s stories have taught them.
Yet I think so many people are passionate about discussing, unpacking, and calling for intersectionality in fiction because we all know that fictional characters are powerful icons and role models. Such power ought to exist in more than just able-bodied cishet white guys. Also, because fiction is so often a gateway to understanding and loving people who are different from you, it easily becomes transformative and empowering when it does diversity well. Some characters rise up from the screen or the page and become symbols of the larger struggles our culture faces.
I snapped this photo of a slide during one of the Bronycon panels I went to. Just a couple weeks before, this Garnet mural by artists Markus Prime and Ivben Taqiy went viral. It’s a provocative piece that effectively shows why representation matters and how a character from a children’s cartoon can become an empowering figure that embodies the zeitgeist of a generation. Garnet–a black, queer woman who is literally a manifestation of queer love–is a cool, amazing character in her own right. She’s definitely a great example of the kind of intersectional representation people need and respond to well. Prime and Taqiy responded to Garnet’s existence by creating this mural and overtly connecting Garnet to a real-world movement that is no doubt deeply personal to them. It’s a little safer to make Garnet this resistant icon because she’s fictional, and because she’s also well-known and well-liked, she draws more attention to #BlackLivesMatter.
The thing is, this fanart might not have ever been made if Steven Universe was full of white male characters. But because the creators wanted to showcase non-white and non-male people, the characters become icons for fans to use to speak to the wider culture. This is one of the beauties of reader-response criticism. Once a story is out there for audiences to respond to, any part of it has the potential to speak potent messages like this because works keep living as people keep responding to them.
Garnet is a hero, literally in the show but also figuratively. As a Crystal Gem, she always saves the day and that’s why the world believes in her (and Amethyst and Pearl and Steven). She shows that black women are desirable, that black people can be interesting, complex characters just like anyone else, and that queerness need not be tragic or dramatic. It makes perfect sense that she would inspire this kind of mural.
This is why fictional stories and fictional characters actually are powerful and can be agents of change. This is why diversity in fiction is important. Most writers dream of their work changing the world or making people think somehow and shows like Steven Universe are good examples of how to do that.