Representativeness matters! But what does it really mean?

The white male heterosexual norm influences perception throughout society

When the Chilean actress Daniela Vega took to the stage at the 2018 Oscar ceremony, she helped reverse a historic misconception reinforced by Hollywood movies: that trans women are men. Giving cis people the role of trans characters is like a rite of maturity in the film industry, by proving an actor’s capacity to metamorphose. The problem is how it influences society’s perception. 

“[At the 2014 Oscars] I remember seeing Jared Leto in a white tuxedo and a full beard [receiving the award]. It was very clear to me, at that moment, that the world saw him as a man, even though Rayon [a trans character] was portrayed with beauty and sensitivity in the movie Dallas Buyers Club,” recalls the actress and screenwriter Jen Richardson in the documentary “Revelation”, which addresses the importance of trans representativeness.

“I realized that this is part of something bigger. The public thinks that trans women are men with pretty hair who dress up and wear makeup. And this is reinforced every time we see a man who has played a trans woman off the screen.”

But how important, after all, is representativeness? 

By becoming the first trans woman to present one of the Oscar categories and being part of the winning team of the best foreign film, Daniela Vega demonstrated that trans women and transvestites exist. And this is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to the demands of people fighting for their basic right to live.

In Brazil, according to Antra (National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals), for example, in the first two months of 2020 alone, the country saw a 90% increase in murders of this population group compared to the same period last year. 

The low representativeness of trans people in the media reflects their low representativeness in politics, in business and in the decision-making process in general, which helps form a vicious cycle of marginalization kept in place by people who see no urgency in changing a situation that benefits them. But the problem extends to everyone outside the white male heterosexual norm. 

Data from the Black Women’s Movement, for example, reveals that the number of black women elected in the 2016 municipal elections was less than 5% – a paradox considering that they represent 27.8% of the population. The situation is even worse for native populations, as the only (and first female) indigenous representative currently in Congress is the lawyer Joênia Wapichana, who was elected federal congresswoman for the state of Roraima in 2018.

According to the political philosopher Djamila Ribeiro, when we build an imagery of violence associated with groups that do not occupy places of power, not only do we make them invisible by affecting their subjectivity and self-esteem, we also provide the necessary justification to exterminate them without remorse.

In a video published by Boitempo, she said: “When we speak of representation, we speak above all of these images that have been built to cast us as non-humans and relegate us to a condition of marginality”. Representativeness, therefore, is a matter of survival.

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