From politics to pop culture, Kinzah Khan discusses how representation can forge empowerment.
Black Panther is the highest grossing superhero movie of all time. It raked in a staggering $897 million worldwide and has recently received six Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, a feat even The Dark Knight did not achieve. The political impact of Black Panther has been tumultuous, and the continued success of the lm in the subsequent year has visibly empowered the international black community. My favourite example of this is a video of two young boys pointing to the movie poster and identifying themselves with the different characters. The empowerment of the black community is inspirational proof of the power of representation.
So, when it was announced in 2018 that Kamala Khan’s Ms Marvel, a female, Pakistani Muslim superhero, would be featured in the Marvel cinematic universe, it is no surprise that the Pakistani community erupted with excitement. Being a female, Pakistani Muslim myself, I felt this euphoria and was thrilled that my eight-year-old sister would have a character which embodies herself. Finally, our community would be shown in a positive, powerful light.
We could argue that we are currently in the age of empowerment: looking to the future, to create an environment that reflects the diversity of the human race. Empowerment through representation is a vital element of this process, especially as the white, straight male has often been framed as the ideal formula of power and success. It is only through exploration that we can find people who defy this framework, but this requires independent motivation, something that is not stimulated until much later in life. The role of the media and pop culture is undeniably influential in the way we perceive power and success, as can be seen in the impact of films like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and Love, Simon. Representation is a key debate in the current political environment, but what is its importance, and how can it lead to the empowerment of the next generation?
The whole concept of empowerment seems to be underplayed and patronised by people like Piers Morgan, who believe that representation is not a key aspect. I disagree. I see representation as a legitimisation of one’s identity: to see yourself reflected in the achievements of others bolsters self-belief. A lack of representation passively enforces insecurity in our own identity, subtly restricting us in ways we may not even be conscious of.
The role of representation is vitally important for the empowerment of the next generation, and for the normalisation of diversity in our society. But if you think about it, representation in terms of policy-making serves a common sensical purpose: to voice the demands of minorities that the majority of white legislators might not consider. I’m not talking about outrageous requests, but the basic rights of minorities.
The debate on birth control has fuelled a huge debate in a America, where Trump’s changes to Obama’s Affordable Care Act have made it considerably harder to access and afford contraception. The lack of female representation in policymaking has led to the demise of policies that cater to women – no one in the room can understand the health requirements of women. Policies are made in the interests of those who make them, instead of the people they are supposed to help. The debate encompasses issues faced by many minorities, not just the matter of women’s rights. Consider the lack of progress made in the Black Lives Matter movement, or how long it took for gay marriage to be legalised. There were no legislators who were truly emotionally invested in these issues. Even if some were, they would have been overpowered by those whose collective attention was diverted away from the issues of minorities.
Of course, a lack of representation cannot be used as an excuse for passivity; the people we call role models broke boundaries and forged social change without the presence of representatives. But the re inside those people had to be ignited by someone. The point of empowerment through representation is to provide a tinderbox for that change.
In short, empowering representation can legitimise the dreams of kids who lie outside the socially constructed identity of ‘success.’ In diversifying the characters kids look up to, they see their own identity in those who achieve great things, daring them to not only believe it can be done, but that they can do it in the face of the overwhelmingly white majority.
Now, if you are paying attention to American politics (and if you are not, I really would not blame you because the situation is infuriating), you followed the mid-term elections. The results were historic, because this congress is the most diverse in all of US history: the first black, LGBTQ+, Native American and Muslim women have been elected to the House, and 112 women have made their way to Congress – the highest number of female representatives ever. Photos of the newly elected congress are truly astounding, and are a total deviation away from the sea of white faces we would expect. The results tell us a lot about America, reflecting the confusion of their political identity in the juxtaposition of both Trump’s administration and the newly elected Congress. Truly, this is a milestone in global politics. We wait to see what these trailblazers will do not only for the US, but also how this avalanche of representation will empower future generations. This really is what we’ve been waiting for. But there is danger here too, and it’s danger we have experienced before.
We, the electorate, tend to take social achievements for granted. We unconsciously put ourselves in danger of believing that once we have reached a milestone, the fight has been won. When Obama was elected President in 2008, it came with an overwhelming sense of social achievement. Racism is gone! We’ve done it! We‘ve achieved Martin Luther King’s Dream. Well done America. Problem solved. Right? Wrong.
After the 2016 elections, the success of Trump was described as a ‘white lash’: revenge from those who emulate America’s deep-rooted hatred of diversity. Regardless of your views on Trump, you cannot deny that his election, directly after Obama’s term, demonstrated a leap backwards for America’s progress in accepting diversity.
The trap has another layer to it: when minorities are empowered, and find success as a result of empowerment, their success is often belittled to be exclusively due to that minority characteristic. In the 2016 elections, Trump referred to Clinton as playing the ‘woman card’, implying the only credential people could base their vote for her on was the diversity appeal. The ‘card’ criticism, whether it be the race or gender card at hand, is often used to patronise the success of minorities, in turn simulating the controversy around affirmative action. I think this works as a form of reverse psychology. By implying the reason you are voting for someone is based on a personal characteristic, you are less likely to engage with that person, unless you are critical enough in your own decisions to securely place that vote. This is why empowerment and representation is so vitally important in our society: diversity needs to be normalised so the doubt that may arise is virtually non-existent.
The point is this: the steps we take for diversity are a key part of our civic engagement. We need to engage in politics to alter the course of our global representation. But when those steps lead to achievement, we cannot sit back and believe the war has been won. Furthermore, diversity and the acceptance of different races, genders and sexualities need to become normalised. They should not even be considered a factor when judging someone, good or bad. Never forget the civil rights movement is only about 60 years old, five colleges at Oxford University only began admitting female students in 1979, and the first black ensemble cast to win an Oscar did so only two years back. Steps for representation are being taken, but so far we have only reached checkpoints. The final destination is still far away. This task needs to be passed from generation to generation: each needs to be empowered by the one before, so their progress may exceed ours.
Change in our society is coming, and empowerment is the most valuable method to stimulate a whole generation to rise up, to provide a tinderbox for change. We have to show them progress is not only achievable, but that it can be achieved by them.
This article was originally published in Issue 723 of Pi Magazine.