It's a conversation I see quite often.
Person A will post an article about Great New TV Show, pointing out that the most recent episode was sexist/racist/ableist/etc. Person B will comment on the post, saying (in essence) "LOL - it's a TV show. Who cares? We should worry about more important things. Let TV shows do what they want."
I often want to react to comments like this by tracking down the commenter and putting rabid hamsters in their socks. But, in an attempt to be more productive, I will instead take the opportunity to tell you all about my imaginary gay friend.
When you grow up without encountering a group of people, your image of them ends up rather abstract and stereotypical. At sixteen, what I knew about QUILTBAG folks could be summarised as follows:
1) They run around at Sydney's Mardi Gras wearing feathers and spandex.
2) They are not like me.
3) They are very different.
QUILTBAGness very rarely entered my field of vision. When it did, I would happily dismiss the whole idea as "unnatural", and feel very sorry for those poor misguided gay folks who were getting everything backwards.
And yes - I mean everything. They were gay; so they thought about being gay, and spent their time being gay, and were interested in gay things, and could have all gone around wearing t-shirts with "ASK ME ABOUT BEING GAY" written on the front, for all I knew.
You see, I didn't know anyone who was gay, and my idea of what being gay "meant" was entirely constructed from my own imagination. My very puny imagination, which somehow couldn't conceive of gay people having any personality traits whatsoever… apart from the whole gay thing.
Then I made a new friend.
Her name was Willow, and she liked computers. She giggled at word combinations like "clean clown", wore ghost costumes at Halloween, had stage fright, and was good at schoolwork. She'd been picked on at school. She was Jewish, but still watched Charlie Brown's Christmas every year. She had unattentive parents. She liked fuzzy hats in bright colours. She wasn't very good at standing up for herself, and tended to blame her friends for her own insecurities. And she could be pretty bossy if you got in her way. (She was also entirely imaginary - but nobody's perfect.)
…and then she fell in love with a woman.
Willow was a lot of things. Some I could identify with, and some I couldn't - but all of them were part of what made her her. And suddenly, my image of gay people wasn't abstract at all; it was Willow, my friend, with all her interests and ideas.
It made things… complicated. When you have a vaguely abstract idea of someone, entirely defined by a single aspect of them, then it's easy not to notice ministers telling you they're "insular and hedonistic", politicians complaining that they want to "bring down the family", and books speculating that they were "abused in childhood". But, suddenly, it didn't work for me.
Willow wasn't hedonistic. She liked families. And she wasn't an abuse victim. She was just… Willow. Willow who happened to be in love with another woman.
All my reactions to QUILTBAG-related issues were soon being measured by one thing: how would it affect Willow? What would Willow's opinion be? And what were these people's opinions of Willow? Being a fairly loyal person, I was prepared to stand up for my friend Willow if anyone criticised her - especially when they clearly didn't know what they were talking about.
Willow Rosenberg might have been imaginary. But she was still my friend; and her friendship had started having a non-imaginary effect on my life.
My TV is very persuasive, sometimes. It tells me that I should drink wine (just like Niles and Frasier), that I should listen to the Dixie Chicks (just like Fred), and that I should prepare a secret password for myself in case I ever go back in time and need to convince myself I'm me (just like… every sci-fi character ever).
It also wants me to care. To care that Ross and Rachel are fighting, that Ducky can't figure out what the victim died of, and that Crichton can't get back to Earth. But also, to care about QUILTBAG issues and how they would affect Willow; ableism and how it limits Toph; corporations obsessed with making money, and how they hurt people like Nate. These imaginary people have become imaginary friends, and I care when they care.
On the other hand, a TV show featuring problematic characterisations - whether unfair stereotypes, tokenism, or something more complex - can adversely affect me. It will confirm my biased (and baseless) opinions of a people group; even create prejudices where I had none before.
A well-written TV show will never be "just" a TV show. It will affect my emotions and thoughts - because that's what good writing does.
Watching Willow Rosenberg's imaginary life changed my opinions and actions enormously - for the better, I think. And the reason I care so much when TV falls short, when its depictions of marginalised people are problematic (or just absent altogether), is because it affects people. It can affect people badly, or well, but it will have an impact. And that's why I pay attention to what it says.
 Willow Rosenberg, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Along with her girlfriend Tara, one of the first lesbian relationships on prime-time television.↩
 Niles and Frasier Crane, from Frasier.↩
 Fred Burkle, from Angel.↩
 Ross Gellar and Rachel Greene, from Friends.↩
 Dr "Ducky" Mallard, from NCIS.↩
 John Crichton, from Farscape, who spends four seasons stuck in another galaxy.↩
 Toph Bei Fong, from Avatar: the Last Airbender, a blind character whose family treats her as helpless.↩
 Nate Ford, from Leverage. His employers used bureaucratic loopholes to avoid paying for his son's cancer treatment.↩
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