In 2017, it can be easy to believe that there isn’t much left that we haven’t seen. We’ve launched astronauts into space. We’ve mapped the human genome. We’ve harnessed technology in such a way that it has become an integral part of our everyday lives.
While we all theoretically know that there are heights yet to reach, the world seems accessed and accessible in ways like never before. Many of the stories we tell are thinly veiled retellings of stories already told—creative, but not even attempting to be original. Everything seems attainable, yet we find ourselves regularly returning to that which we have already attained.
Perhaps this normative recurrence of the same old tropes is why an experience a few weeks ago stood out to me so clearly, an experience in which I saw something that I had never seen before. While sitting on the couch in my own familiar living room, a new story played out. What I witnessed wasn’t a scientific advancement, nor a political achievement. In fact, it wasn’t even real. It was a fictional depiction of something possible in the real world, but yet to be seen. And it captivated me.The power of a represented voice joining in unison with underrepresented voices was especially clear to me the night of the Scandal episode.
Two women, and two women alone, were standing in the Oval Office. One of them was playing the President of the United States; the other, her advisor.
Wide-eyed, I clumsily exclaimed to my husband, “I have never seen anything like this before. I’m kind of having a moment.”
It didn’t matter that the two women depicted were Mellie Grant and Olivia Pope, characters whose arcs on the Shondaland series Scandal have been marked by anything but clean living. The moment wasn’t about considering the realistic versus unrealistic likelihood of their characters rising to this level of power. Rather, it was about the fact that I had seen hundreds of fictional Oval Office scenes, countless more real images and recordings from the Oval Office, and not once had the subjects of them been women, and women alone. This was a new imagining, a new possibility. Silly as it sounds, the moment flooded my heart with a child’s sense of wonder that echoed inside me, shouting, “Look what girls can do!”
Swept up in the emotion of the scene and my visceral response to it, I picked up my phone and navigated over to the Christ and Pop Culture Members-Only Forum. I explained what I had just watched and admitted that, even as a 30-year-old woman, it was still as powerful as ever to see someone like me in a story line and role that had always been narrated and embodied by someone not like me. I asked if my fellow members could recall scenes viewed in childhood that they thought of as opening their eyes to who they were or could become, or scenes in adulthood that were special to them because they felt represented.
The comments began appearing immediately, and they did not stop for a long time. Nearly everyone who replied was a woman. Every example related to how women and girls are shown on the screen, and the emotional power of seeing them depicted in unexpected ways. The thread became a monument to “look what girls can do” moments.
Queen Lucy the Valiant.
Strong, creative women and girls who defied the odds stacked against them were mentioned again and again. The majority of the characters repeatedly named were fictionalized in such a way that they could not exist in real life—magic or superpowers enhancing their abilities. Even then, they were some of the only female characters of their kind.
The topic of gender representation has risen in the public conversation over the past few years. It’s an issue full of issues, comprised of layer upon layer of difficult realities that are often seen differently based on a person’s vantage point, or bodily characteristics, or place in the world. It’s an issue with no quick fix, and one that many believe does not even need fixing. While I disagree, and strongly, with those who seek to shut down the gender representation in media conversation, I empathize with the desire not to call a disparity a problem that requires fixing. Problems that don’t directly harm me are often easier to avoid, because I know seeking solutions will cost me something.
For Christians, however, the option to ignore a problem that does not seem to directly harm us is not one we should entertain. Our mandate to imitate Jesus does not allow us to avoid pain we do not personally feel. We are to be looking forward to the kingdom we believe will come, and that looking forward should include recognizing when certain groups of people have been marginalized, then raise our voices in unison with theirs, just as our voices will be raised together in eternity.
The power of a represented voice joining in unison with underrepresented voices was especially clear to me the night of the Scandal episode. Fellow Christ and Pop Culture member Matt Poppe commented on my forum post with a few stories of realizing how underrepresented strong women are in television and movies. He wrote of how saddening it was that he’d grown up with a special connection to countless representative, formative characters, while little girls saw far fewer female characters of the same caliber. Matt then shared:
“The first season of Master of None was eye opening. There’s an episode where [the main character] Dev learns how guys will walk up to a group of men and women and only introduce themselves to the other men and ignore the women. I asked Jessica [my wife], if that’s really true. And of course she told me yes. I thought of how that scenario played out in every church lobby I’ve ever been in, and how I had contributed to making my sisters in the church feel like second-class disciples.”
Just as the Scandal episode embodied my heart’s longing to see women represented on the screen, Matt’s comment embodied my heart’s longing to see women recognized for their inherent worth and value in my everyday, real world. Matt made a connection that women often see yet find misunderstood or ignored when they voice it. Representation is not merely a media issue. It is not merely a workplace issue. It’s a church issue. It’s an everywhere issue. And because it’s an everywhere issue, the longings to see women depicted well on screen, and represented in the workplace, and valued in the church, are interwoven.
Two women in a fictional Oval Office shocked me. What does not shock me is when a man only introduces himself to my husband and not to me, or when I say something in a group conversation that is later restated by a man and the group responds as if those words have never been heard before. More often than not, these actions have no harmful intent behind them, and may even be thought of as rooted in something good, like respect or safety.
But, as anyone who has had relational discord knows, positive intent isn’t enough. Innocent as intentions may be, women are constantly being reminded that there are appropriate places for them, predetermined by men, and that it matters little if they feel fully seen or represented.
In order to begin understanding how women (and other marginalized groups) experience the world, we’re going to have to start ending more sentences with question marks, asking for answers and stories we may prefer not to hear. There is a pressing need for Christians to be on the front lines of listening to the ways women experience the church, media, and the world at large. Jesus embraced women, both literally and metaphorically, in a culture where women were not simply treated as though they were second class, but labeled as such. His love for them and treatment of them was motivated by an understanding of who they were—the image of God in every way that a man was. Ours should be too.
Perhaps, to begin, we consider the simple yet life-altering words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” like Matt did when he realized how formative being represented on the screen had been for him and wished the same for women. He did not stop at wishing, but allowed the questions he was asking himself to affect his everyday life. He allowed the questions to require answers that would cost him something. He did not merely observe stories, but considered how he could become part of embodying a better story.
We must be willing to ask ourselves costly questions about what we see, and what we don’t see, and how we’ve participated in cultural stories that elevate some while marginalizing others. And alongside introspection, and with great respect and gentleness, we need to ask others for the gift of their stories, fully intent on becoming responsible for what we learn, and committed to raising our voices in unison with theirs.