Pandering to the People: A Note on Visibility

January 10, 2017

 

 

Merriam-Webster defines pandering as “to do or provide what someone wants or demands even though it is not proper, good, or reasonable.” Just by reading that definition, it is obvious to see how subjective the term is. It also has a very negative connotation. It is often thought that someone is simply writing to appease some minority or to be thought of as forward thinking. For some reason, no one thinks this has more to do with the changing climate of the audience. 

 

We are not pandering. Pandering suggests the stories that are being written are stories that should not be told. Writing stories about and for minorities is less about pandering and far more about visibility. All these groups want is to see themselves, and they want to see themselves represented well. No one wants to look for themselves and see a caricature. For so long—several centuries—people who were not white, straight, wealthy, cisgender, and male rarely saw themselves positively represented in media. 

 

Until recently—and by “recently,” I mean within the past couple decades for film and the past century for literature barring a few well-known works—it was nearly universally agreed that stories about anything other than straight, white men wouldn’t sell. The wealth of these characters were actually subject to change, but the poorer characters were often only the lead in comedies. A person’s lack of ability to provide for themself and their loved ones is sometimes considered the height of hilarity. Laughing at another’s misfortune makes one’s own seem less imposing. Luckily for the dominant class, the struggles of minorities are used as comedic material through stereotypes. Examples include the uneducated poor person, overly flamboyant gay men, the mocking of non-standard English, and the predatory gay person. These are only stereotypes used for comedy. It is by no means an exhaustive list of all stereotypes; it obviously excludes the ones depicting violent tendencies. 

 

When faced with these stereotypes, there are generally two reactions: one, accepting the stereotypes as truths, usually resulting in lower self-esteem, and two, rejecting the stereotypes and either searching for proper representation or creating it themselves. The only problem with the second reaction is that these minorities generally do not have enough power in the media industry to dictate the narrative of “proper” works. As a result, their stories are presented through nonprofessional ways because that’s the only form they have access to. While these nonprofessional ways may have less worth in the eyes of the big publishing houses, many of the common people do not care if a story made it through the gatekeepers or not. They care if the story is good. 

 

The most important thing to publishers has always been to make books that will sell. Selling books is important because the authors need money, but there are also other methods of getting work out there without going through the publisher gatekeepers. The audiences have seen these books that may not have made it past the gatekeepers, and they’ve found how much they like the stories. 

 

Some people who do have power in the media industry have begun to notice the shift in the audience’s desires. These people have worked to correct it. Unfortunately, this is not the best conclusion, given that the stories are not from the mouths of the minorities themselves. They have to take what they can get in some cases, or at least that’s what they’re told. For the most part, they accept this statement as truth because the way things stand is troubling. The only way for things to begin to change is to have some sort of positive visibility. But it’s gotten to a point where visibility is no longer the issue. We are seen. Now the issue is being heard. Stories are being told from the people who have actually experienced them, but no one is listening. They would rather listen to the nice and clean stories written by people like them.

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