You don’t have to see it to be it!

The problem with representation

19th March 2021
Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams argues that our obsession with representation gives the cultural elite an opportunity to rebrand without changing the balance of power in society.


Meghan: Growing up as a woman of colour, as a little girl of colour, I know how important representation is. I know how you want to see someone who looks like you in certain positions.

Oprah: Obviously.

Meghan: Even Archie. Like, we read these books, and now he’s been — there’s one line in one that goes, ‘If you can see it, you can be it’. And he goes, ‘You can be it!’ And I think about that so often, especially in the context of these young girls, but even grown women and men who, when I would meet them in our time in the Commonwealth, how much it meant to them to be able to see someone who looks like them . . . 


Exactly how young girls in Malawi will be helped by seeing a Californian Duchess was not spelled out. It didn’t have to be. When Meghan Markle informed a global audience of the need for representation, particularly for women and people of colour, she perfectly articulated the zeitgeist. ‘You have to see it to be it!’ has become a frequently repeated mantra. It encapsulates how ideas around equality, diversity and social justice are interpreted not in terms of a redistribution of resources, or even a fundamental reallocation of power, but in relation to visual imagery and a numerical count of what types of people hold which positions.

In the same week that Meghan was interviewed by Oprah, President Biden echoed her sentiments:

I wanted to shine the light on these accomplishments for those women today because …  it’s hard to be what you can’t see.  It’s hard to be what you can’t see, but you’ll soon see. Today is International Women’s Day.  And we all need to see and to recognize the barrier-breaking accomplishments of these women. … We need women and men throughout the ranks to see and celebrate women’s accomplishments and leadership in the services.  We need little girls and boys both, who have grown up dreaming of serving for their country, to know this is what generals in the United States Armed Forces look like. This is what Vice Presidents of the United States look like. 


Biden asks us to recognise the accomplishments of women and, of course, it is good to celebrate achievement. However, Biden’s explanation as to why these women should be applauded takes us away from anything they have done and focuses instead on what they are. What’s important to Biden is what these women ‘look like’. Rather than celebrating their accomplishments, we end up celebrating their identity. Biden asks us to pay homage to characteristics people have little control over – gender and race – rather than ways in which individuals have exercised agency and shaped the course of their own lives or groups of people have struggled in a collective endeavour. 


If you really have to see it to be it, we would never have had female pilots, surgeons and prime ministers.


The phrase ‘you have to see it to be it!’ is attributed to the former tennis champion Billie Jean King. Speaking in May 2012, she argued that girls are inspired by seeing women participate in sports. King concluded: ‘You have to see it to be it!’ The previous year had seen the release of Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s film Miss Representation which aimed to expose, ‘how mainstream media and culture contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America.’ The documentary featured people discussing the cause of women’s under-representation and one contributor, Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund states, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ Edelman elaborated on this point a few years later: ‘Children of color need to be able to see themselves in the books they read. Just as importantly, all children need to be exposed to a wide range of books that reflect the true diversity of our nation and world as they really are.’ 




Arguing for greater – or more positive – visual representation for different groups has a long history. The campaign group inVISIBLEwomen notes that as far back as 1952, a correspondent wrote to the Times about the lack of women represented on statues. In The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, Betty Friedan argued that the images of women in magazines and advertisements limited female ambition and presented ‘young beauty’, ‘housewife’ or ‘mother’ as the only socially acceptable female roles. This issue was picked up by the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s. Second wave feminists were concerned with bringing about practical changes in women’s lives in areas such as employment, pay and reproductive rights. Nonetheless, there was also concern with how women were portrayed. The 1970 protests at the Miss World beauty pageant in London and an ongoing focus with the representation of women in books, films, adverts and magazines morphed into a more coherent campaign against pornography in the latter half of the 1970s and into the 1980s. This will be returned to below.  

In the 1980s there was much discussion about the need for positive representation in children’s literature. More books began to feature strong female characters as well as people of colour. Joan Drescher’s Your Family, My Family, published in the US in 1980, was one of the first picture books to show a same-sex family. More recently, we have grown used to calls for more women to be portrayed on statues, banknotes and in the pages of passports. Advertisers, publishers and film and television producers strive to show positive representations of women, black and LGBTQ people.


Constructing reality


The assumption underpinning many campaigns that focus on securing increased representation, and made explicit in the ‘you have to see it to be it’ meme, is that unless we actually see people who look like us occupying certain roles, it will not occur to us to aspire to similar postions ourselves. It is only when women are seen to be playing sports, or black people are seen to be in leading roles in the military, that others come to believe that they, too, can do these things. The simplicity of the message lends an air of common sense to the importance of representation. But, at the same time, there are some clear flaws in this argument. 

Someone always has to be first. If you really have to see it to be it, we would never have had female pilots, surgeons and prime ministers. On top of this there are positions that no one has ever held before: if you have to see it to be it we would never have had astronauts, nuclear physicists or computer programmers. And why should it be assumed that sex or race are the characteristics people identify with? Seeing someone from your home town, or school, or hearing someone who speaks with the same accent as you, may all be more important in determining our aspirations. 


It is taken for granted that the images we see daily help construct – rather than simply reflect – our reality.


Yet the importance of representation is returned to repeatedly in discussions about equality. It is taken for granted that the images we see daily help construct – rather than simply reflect – our reality. This idealism has a long history. For Socrates, the shadows in Plato’s cave become the prisoners’ reality. And although the shadows represent only a superficial truth, it is ideas, and not the physical world, that represents the highest form of truth. Far more recently, in the mid-twentieth century, a new generation of sociologists and philosophers rejected positivist assumptions that reality was objectively experienced and argued instead that our perceptions of the world are constructed through our collective knowledge and beliefs. This is a valuable insight into the nature of human understanding. However, when taken to its extreme conclusion – that there is no pre-existing reality outside of our knowledge and beliefs – and transposed from academia to politics, language and images becomes the focus for social change.


Which comes first, image or reality?


Critical theorists, initially associated with the Frankfurt School in the 1930s, focused attention upon the role of the culture in shaping the consciousness of the working class. Thinkers like Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin developed Antonio Gramci’s interpretation of Marxism. They were particularly interested in hegemony – or how a ruling elite makes ideas that appear to confirm their position into the dominant, common sense, view.  Adorno, together with Max Horkheimer, claimed that culture played a key role in legitimising existing social relations and that mass culture in particular had transformed the working class into willing accomplices in their own exploitation.

This focus on culture was taken up by the New Left in the UK and across Europe. It meant that their political failure to convince the masses of their cause, and bring about fundamental social change, could be reinterpreted as a failure of the working class. What’s more, for many around the New Left, this was an explanation that prompted a ready solution: popular culture must be interrogated and altered. For some, deconstructing the words and images used in advertising, children’s books, pop music, films and television programmes was a more attractive proposition than standing on picket lines or canvassing for elections. It became an end in itself. 


Culture, rather than economics, could become the focus of activism.


For others, once political activity was shorn of social class there was no reason for deconstruction and agitation not to run in tandem, nor for calls to change culture to be pitched in opposition to demands for more material change. The New Social Movements that emerged from the 1960s and 1970s onwards, for example, the women’s and gay liberation movements, were free to move away from more traditional left-wing concerns with pay and working conditions because they embodied the identity of their members as much, if not more than, their relationship to capital. Culture, rather than economics, could become the focus of activism. The successive defeats experienced by the working class in the 1980s, as well as the collapse of what was seen as the only alternative to capitalism, the Soviet Union, hastened the left’s retreat into culture. 


The cultural turn


Stuart Hall, a founder of the influential journal the New Left Review, joined the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in 1964 before taking over as the centre’s director in 1972.  In the 1997 primer he co-edited, Representation, Hall explains that representation is important for being ‘one of the central practices that produces culture’ (my emphasis). Representation through language, he argues, is central to the way that meaning is produced and, in turn, cultural meanings ‘organize and regulate social practices, influence our conduct and consequently have real, practical effects.’ As Hall makes clear, this challenges a more conventional view that ‘things’ exist in the world with a clear meaning outside of their representation. He notes that the ‘cultural turn’ within the social sciences challenged the view that representation occurred after meanings had been fully constituted. Instead, it was argued that meaning was constructed rather than ‘found’ and representation is as important to the process of shaping people and events as an economic or material ‘base’. 

The ‘cultural turn’ builds upon the insights of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure that the relationship between language and object, between signifier and signified, was arbitrary. Critical theorists go further and argue that language constructs, rather than reflects, meaning, with post-modernists extending this claim to encompass all cultural practices. Writing in Mythologies (1972) the French philosopher Roland Barthes considers everything from the marketing of washing powder to wrestling to be ‘signs’ that operate as language to communicate a range of meanings. 

In 1988, the French sociologist Baudrillard outlined four phases in understanding the nature of an image:

  1. It is the reflection of a basic reality.
  2. It masks and perverts a basic reality.
  3. It masks the absence of a basic reality.
  4. It bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

Few go so far as to accept that we live in a Truman Show-esque simulation. But a view that the images we confront daily carve out, organise and construct reality, or mask its non-existence, is far from controversial. By the same token, it is not just political radicals but teachers, health care workers, government behavioural scientists and human resource managers who assume that creating alternative, more positive, signs, words and images can help shift people’s understanding of reality and the meanings they draw from everyday life. This cultural turn is one reason why we see the tabloid press blamed for election results or for the UK’s decision to leave the EU. It is why toppling historical statues and arguing over what should replace them have become major preoccupations and why ‘harmful’ gender stereotypes have been banned from advertising. It is why new words and phrases like ‘cis’ or ‘chestfeeding’ are introduced into our vocabulary while older expressions, such as ‘mother’, are marked as prohibited at some universities.

Clearly, language and images help form our understanding of the world and the society we live in. Whether a chair is a throne or a cathedra, an armchair or a dining chair, depends largely upon the words used to describe it and the context in which it is placed. Phrases like ‘death tax’ or ‘peace keepers’ are expressly designed to shape our attitude to the phenomenon they describe. Campaigners against sexist or racist stereotyping in advertisements assume that images do not simply reflect an unequal reality but help create that inequality by normalising situations in which women and black people are seen to have a lower social status than white men. Advertisements, and other media imagery, are thought to limit people’s ambitions – if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. However, the relationship is not one-directional. A changed reality also prompts changes in how we describe and portray the world. 

Sometimes, adverts and other public images expose a stark contrast between the reality of people’s lives, hopes and aspirations, and their popular portrayal. Far from reconciling women to a life of domestic drudgery, the jarring contradiction between how women felt and how they were seen in the 1960s, has been described as one of the spurs to the development of second wave feminism. The 1970s cigarette advertising slogan, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’ was an attempt to catch up and reflect some of the changes that had taken place in women’s lives. Not being able to see it, gave impetus to women’s desire to be it.


From images to people


Today, left-wing movements are often more focused on identity groups – such as gender, race, sexuality, disability – rather than on social class. When the working class is considered at all, it is often as one oppressed identity among many, and not of any greater universal significance. Rather than agitating for revolutionary social change centred upon the material priorities and political concerns of the working class, activists instead argue for social justice for different identity groups. Kenneth McLaughlin, writing in Surviving Identity, explains that today, social justice is often defined in cultural terms with social injustice ‘seen as one of cultural domination rather than of economic exploitation’. This new approach to politics can be seen in the issues feminist and anti-racist campaigners choose to campaign around: for example, film and music award ceremonies that are dominated by white men; or books such as those by popular children’s authors Dr Zeuss or Enid Blyton that are said to promote outdated racial attitiudes; or fashions or hairstyles worn by white women that are said to ‘appropriate’ the culture of black women. In each case, the demand is for social justice through cultural change, rather than for economic justice through financial redistribution or changes to the labour market. 

We can see that the meaning of inequality has shifted from a focus on disparities in income or differential access to resources and broadened to include differences in representation. At the same time, the meaning of representation has undergone a further shift in recent decades, away from an exclusive focus on linguistic or visual imagery and back on to actual people. For example, campaigners focus on the number of women or black people on boards of directors, or working in the science and technology sector, in senior leadership positions or other high-profile, public-facing roles. Concern about film or music award ceremonies being too white is not simply about ‘the optics’ but a demand for black people to have more access to high profile roles and for those already in these positions to receive public recognition. Equality campaigners agitate for equal representation for different groups of people, perhaps through the setting of targets or the imposition of quotas. 


The demand is for social justice through cultural change, rather than for economic justice through financial redistribution or changes to the labour market.


In the context of a shift of focus from class to identity groups, this emphasis on representation might appear radical but it has lost any truly progressive potential. Whereas social change instigated by the working class would have a revolutionary impact on all of society and threaten the status of the elite, demanding equal representation for myriad minority groups does not. Not only is it possible – indeed highly likely – that top roles are filled by middle class, highly educated women and black people, but, more to the point, the existing cultural and political elite must largely remain in place to confer recognition on those previously under-represented. 

Representation has long been understood as involving people and not just images. ‘No taxation without representation’ is one of the oldest political slogans we know of. From the chartists to the suffragettes, campaigns for the vote were concerned with representation: citizens wanted their views to be represented, for a person they chose to represent their interests in parliament in their place. But under this older definition of representation, not only were parliamentary representatives elected specifically to relay the views of their constituents, it mattered little whether or not representatives looked anything like the people they purported to represent. By contrast today, representation does not just take place in the political arena but in all areas of life and looking like the people you represent is the primary qualification for the role.


Representation as reality


Campaigns against sexual harassment took off when feminists in the 1970s looked to the cultural sphere – and the attitudes and values it promoted – as the cause of sexual inequality. Pornography in particular was singled out for objectifying and degrading women. Writing in a 1974 essay, feminist activist Robin Morgan made the now famous claim that ‘pornography is the theory and rape is the practice.’ Catharine MacKinnon’s characterization of pornography as the active subordination of women found echoes in the work of the conservative campaigner against sex education, abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis Schlafly who likewise argued that, ‘pornography really should be defined as the degradation of women.’ Schlafly claimed pornography subordinates women for the sexual, exploitative, and even sadistic and violent pleasures of men,’ further sharing with MacKinnon a presumption that pornography might have a particular impact upon a man ‘who is already prone to violence against women.’ In this way, pornography came to be seen as harmful not just for what it represented – the pornographic images created – but for the degradation of women that took place in the act of production.  

Dworkin and Mackinnon argued that pornography was not simply speech or free expression but an act of discrimination and therefore it did not warrant protection under the First Amendment. This argument was partially successful in a legal attempt to get pornography recognized as a violation of women’s civil rights. In 1984, an anti-pornography civil rights ordinance was enacted in the city of Indianapolis allowing women harmed by pornography – even indirectly – to claim damages. However, this legislation was soon overturned by the Supreme Court that sought to uphold freedom of speech.

Not all members of the women’s movement agreed with what was seen as a censorious and explicitly anti-male turn in feminism. Nadine Strossen, author of Defending Pornography and former chair of the American Civil Liberties Union, says Dworkin and Mackinnon’s claim that women are ‘being manipulated as tools of “pimps” or “pornographers,”’ contains ‘at least as subordinating or degrading a view of women as does the pornography they decry.’ She sums up the feminist anti-pornography argument as being based on nothing more than speculation that it may lead to discrimination or violence against women and asks, ‘If we should restrict pornography on this basis, then why shouldn’t we suppress any expression that might ultimately have a negative effect?’ Two decades on and Strossen’s question no longer seems even remotely far-fetched.

To Dworkin and Mackinnon, pornography was both representation and reality. It harmed women in two ways: its production was an act of abuse inflicted upon the female participants and its product degraded all women. Pornography oppressed particular women and created a culture that degraded all women. By the same logic, having women in powerful positions – in the media, universities, the professions and sport – was a personal achievement for the women concerned but also, importantly, a victory for women everywhere. According to contemporary feminism, all women can take satisfaction from the triumph of a few because their success creates a culture that values all women. For this reason, the unimaginably high salaries of female BBC presenters are considered a cause for celebration as all women are thought to be empowered by their greater equality. Likewise, preventing women working as grid girls at Formula One tournaments or taking tips in New York restaurants are considered feminist victories because even though the individual women concerned may lose money, the overall representation of women is said to be improved – potentially leading to women in general doing better in the future.


Counting bodies


Today, getting members of historically under-represented groups into diverse positions is an all-consuming aim of campaigners for equality. In fact, getting women, BAME people, disabled or LGBTQ people into top jobs, public positions or, indeed, into any role, is no longer seen as a political goal but as a common sense aim for government departments, university admissions officers and workplace human resource managers. Each woman, BAME person, disabled or LGBTQ person recruited and retained is a success for the individual concerned and also a broader, cultural triumph over what is considered to be an oppressive white, male, hetero-normative, cis-gendered society.  Securing more equitable representation through diversity targets, quotas or positive discrimination becomes seen as a legitimate means of correcting historical injustices and instigating broader social change. In this way, representation stops being a first step to the achievement of social equality and becomes an end in itself. 

This focus on representation poses a number of difficulties. Goals of equality and diversity can easily come to be understood as a straightforward body count. Women and BAME people stop being individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses and complex life histories and are reduced to their biology. Their purpose is to exist and, in so doing, to allow for a tick to be made on a checklist and a target to be met. By the same token, statistical disparities between men and women, or between white and BAME people are presented as a problem, with prejudice and discrimination the only possible explanation for under-representation. 

A focus on representation creates an appearance of equality but it is equality as performance and can exist in the absence of any meaningful social change. For example, having more women professors or more BAME film directors does not in and of itself challenge class inequality. Indeed, it may well entrench class divisions further as a purely meritocratic approach to allocating roles allows for at least the possibility of social mobility. Just as when higher education first began to expand in the 1960s and places went to doctors’ daughters as well as their sons, so too can a checklist approach to diversity create more opportunities for those who are already economically privileged. It is possible to achieve equal representation without shifting the balance of power in society. Indeed, by giving the existing elite an opportunity to rebrand with a glossy and diverse new image, a focus on representation allows the current social and political elite to reinvent themselves. 

‘You have to see it to be it!’ makes for a snappy slogan. But it is not only inaccurate, it is also incredibly limiting. It prompts us to invest in the success of privileged Californian Duchesses while leaving everything else unchanged. It reduces individuals to group membership and negates individual effort and achievement. It prevents a world where all children aspire to be something they can’t see.


Joanna Williams is Director of Cieo.



Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash.