In Your Face Jam: Why Representation Matters to Me

Wed, February 5th, 2014 at 12:58pm PST

Comic Books
Brett White, Assistant Editor

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With the new "Ms. Marvel" challenging mainstream perceptions of who can be a super hero, Brett looks at his own journey and media's place in it

Get ready, readers, because things are going to get personal in this week's IN YOUR FACE JAM. The forecast says that this week's entry will hit somewhere in-between memoir and Bravo reality show territory, with the light dusting of MSNBC host speechifying-slash-preaching that you're used to every time you travel into this neck of the woods. Today I'm going to get into why my brain cloud is constantly ready to rain down my specific thoughts. This is incredibly self-indulgent, but there are external reasons why this is happening today. It's apropos of something.

Two somethings, actually. One: today's the day that Marvel releases "Ms. Marvel" volume 3 #1 by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona. The issue's notable because it's the only ongoing series at Marvel to star a Muslim character, a woman of color, or a person who lives in New Jersey -- and Kamala Khan is all three of those. Two: The CW ordered a pilot for "iZombie," the kinda-recently departed Vertigo series by Chris Roberson and Mike Allred starring, duh, a zombie. Both of these topical items pertain to the topic of representation, and the latter story explains why I care so much about the former.

RELATED: Five Reasons to Get Excited for the "iZombie Pilot"

I'm gay. That's not a secret around these parts, because I talk about that a lot. Please do not develop a drinking game around my admissions of gayness. But while I was most certainly always gay, I wasn't always aware of the fact. I think other gay people from the suburbs can relate to this, specifically if those suburbs were located below the Mason-Dixon line, and especially if conservative religion gets added into this repression cocktail. When you grow up being told that being gay is one of the worst things you can be, with no out gay people around, and -- here's where representation comes into play -- none depicted in mainstream entertainment, it's incredibly easy to tell yourself that you're probably pretty straight, despite your growing fascination with male news anchors. I would later come to realize that "fascination" basically means "crush" when translated out of the closeted gay language. Also, holler at me sometime, 1998 Keith Olbermann.

But middle school and high school me was clueless. The late '90s and very early '00s were nowhere near as diverse and inclusive as 2014 -- and that's saying something, because things are still not ideal. Back then my notion of homosexuality was based purely on "Will and Grace" and whatever gay men would pop up in flashy supporting roles on sitcoms, or tortured roles on medical dramas. None of these men were as awkward as I was. None of them were as physically "meh" as I was. I didn’t like show tunes. I didn't really know who Barbra Streisand was, but I knew who Mon Mothma was. The humor I employed was based on being weird, not based on being catty. I wasn't fabulous, flamboyant or fierce.

Here's the thing: I'm describing what passed for a lot of mainstream media portrayals of gay men in the late '90s, portrayals that utilized a lot of gay male tropes that have been around for a long time. I feel really weird writing the contents of that last paragraph in 2014, because I personally believe that mainstream media has done a lot to prove not only that there are gay men who are none of what I listed above, but also that gay men are many of the things I listed above and are still individuals, not stereotypes.

That was not my experience growing up, though. I couldn't see myself in the gay characters I encountered, so I denied it in myself. If either of young Brett's two heroes, Chandler Bing from "Friends" or Xander Harris from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," had come out as gay, things would have been a lot different for me. But instead I just related to Chandler because everyone assumed he was gay the same way they assumed I was, and then I watched him marry a woman and become a lot less funny. I assumed that was my trajectory, deadening sense of humor and all.

I didn't come out until my senior year of college, when I was confronted with the first guy I ever met that lived in the Venn diagram overlap of "chubby dude I find attractive" and "guy who is into other guys." I was at least eight years behind all my other friends, who had been dating since middle school, and I had no idea what to do -- but I finally realized that it was okay for gay men to not fit into the stereotype that was forced into supporting roles on television sitcoms.

As I came to terms with my homosexuality, the media's portrayal of gay men started to change. Cameron and Mitchell on "Modern Family" were both different from each other, both comprised of a lot of gay stereotypes but also possessed of traits that set them apart from their predecessors. I mean, Cameron's a flamboyantly gay Missouri farmboy who played high school football and was once a professional clown. On the other end of the spectrum existed Brian and Steve from "The Sarah Silverman Program," a gay couple of bearded, bespectacled dudes obsessed with playing video games. Gay men were also allowed to be single, like the lovably schlubby Max on the canceled-too-soon "Happy Endings" and Oscar, the low-key voice of reason on "The Office." Now we have Andre Braugher, a tough-as-nails police chief on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." There's no one type of gay man on television anymore.

Spot's discovery of his own sexuality in "iZombie" resonated with Brett in a way other characters had not

So where do comics fit into this?

The only gay character in all of fiction that I really relate to, that I really see my own experiences in, is in "iZombie." I got introduced to the series thanks to my work at CBR, when Vertigo editor Greg Lockard told me to check out the series because it featured a character in the process of coming out. I picked up the series and was introduced to Scott -- or Spot, as he was indeed a were-terrier. While reading Scott's story, I noticed so many parallels to my own life. He too had developed a habit of forming crushes on girls instead of actually dating them, a way to safely maintain a heterosexual identity while never having to pursue it. He found himself thinking about one guy, constantly, in an unexpectedly romantic way. He didn't go on his first real date until he was well out of high school, and it was as gloriously awkward as my first real date was with a guy after I moved to New York. It felt great to root for a character going through the same struggles that I had just overcome. I had felt pretty self-conscious about not coming out until my senior year of college, like I was a newbie gay in a dating pool filled with vets; it felt validating to see a fictional character in the same situation. I formed a real connection with that character, and I finally understood why representation was so important.

I got to live the first two-and-change decades of my life as a straight white guy, and I thought I related to a lot of characters. There's no shortage of them out there, so whether they were the joker I wish I could be (Multiple Man) or the cocky charmer I wish I could be (Gambit), I had a lot of guys to root for. Acknowledging my gayness put a little bit of a distance between my favorite characters and myself. The mutant metaphor resonated a lot more strongly, but Cannonball could still get legally married in every state. Hawkeye could perform snow archery (a real Olympic sport -- don't look it up) in Sochi without fearing for his safety. I still love those characters a lot, but I now realized there was a little bit less of me in them. A character like Spot filled a void I didn't know existed, and it opened my eyes.

The thing is, I'm still white and I'm still a man. I still benefit from the overwhelming amount of systemic privileges that white men benefit from. Even though there's still a lot of work to be done in regards to bettering the representation of gay men in the media, there are a lot of other groups of people that need the same type of representation that I did and do -- and Kamala Khan represents a big step. Just read the letters published in the back of "Ms. Marvel" #1 for evidence that this is a character that needs to exist. Kamala shows that people of any gender, faith, and color can become super heroes that bear the publisher's name in their title. A Muslim girl from Jersey City is Ms. Marvel. That's representation and validation, and that's empowering.

Wilson Looks to Defy Expectations with "Risky" New "Ms. Marvel" Series

But Ms. Marvel is just the first step. There are more gay men on television than there were when I was growing up, and shows like "Sleepy Hollow" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" are showcasing more and more people of color in a wide range of roles. More female-led titles are on their way from Marvel Comics, but there aren't any on the big screen. "Loki: Agent of Asgard" looks to be the first Marvel ongoing in a long time with a bisexual man in the lead role, but there's still no A-list lesbian character like DC's "Batwoman." There are also precious few asexual and transgender characters at either company that aren't that way due to an alien culture, artificial intelligence, magic, or other comic book MacGuffins. Coming out stories like Spot's in "iZombie" are also few and far between in mainstream comics, which is one reason why it resonated so much with me. It's time there were more, and it's time that they were allowed to take the spotlight in the same way that characters like Northstar and Kamala have.

Comic book readers should be able to see themselves in a hero, but representation also isn't a checklist. Kamala Khan's existence doesn't mean that other Muslim superheroes, like Monet in "X-Men," shouldn't exist; we're not done with them. Comic creators had to come up with a lot of gay characters before they finally hit on one that resonated with me. The same holds true for every part of the human race. There needs to be multiple transgender characters, asexual characters, differently-abled characters, all different types of characters -- because one character can't bear the burden of representation alone. One character is a solid start but a horrible finish.

There's a lot of work to be done still, and "Ms. Marvel" is a captivatingly written and gorgeously illustrated first step toward representation. I'm on board for this series, and I hope that Spot/Scott's story makes it to the "iZombie" television series, should it get a series order. I know that if it did and fourteen year-old Brett saw that show with that character in that storyline on the air, he might have started dating a lot sooner.

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

TAGS:  in your face jam, ms marvel, izombie, gay heroes

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