How Representation Helped Rescue My Mental Health

I’ve heard a lot about the importance of representation, but I didn’t used to think it really applied to me, largely because I’ve spent much of my life viewing myself as a straight cisgender man. My mental health during that time has mostly been poor, however, and I didn’t link in any way to what I was watching: my ongoing assumption was that the gender and sexuality society had assigned to me were correct. I’ve come to understand over the past few years that I’m a bisexual trans woman, and it’s become increasingly clear that entertainment’s focus on white heteronormativity is an obstacle to wellbeing.

Miserable men were the characters I identified with, and it’s no surprise seeing as they are at the centre of some of the most important TV and film releases of all time. Citizen Kane and its unhappy capitalist, Charles Kane (Orson Welles), are icons of cinema, with its straightforwardly affecting tragedy meaning that the film having often been regarded for nearly a hundred years as the very best. TV has Breaking Bad and its self-pitying drug lord Walter White (Bryan Cranston), and his dramatic descent into evil has similarly made waves and been showered with praise and attention. Our culture historically and presently elevates the experiences of those who are most privileged in society, and that they take up so much space is a suggestion to viewers that their experiences are universally relatable.

I grasped onto mainstream works about toxic men, not realising that my self-loathing and anger might stem partly from not having a grasp on my own identity. There are such a number of them that I’ve latched onto over the years, starting with the tale of wayward prodigy Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) in Star Wars, and more recently having been obsessed with the likes of Enduring Love, A Man Called Ove, and Listen Up, Phillip. The ubiquitous nature of these stories meant that I assumed that they told truths about how I was feeling, albeit terrible ones: that I was destroying myself through anger, pride, and selfishness. The predictable nature of these tales, usually ending in loneliness or self-sacrificial redemption, set in my mind a fatalistic idea that I was doomed to be a toxic man like the countless number I’d seen on the screen. I was unaware and unable to see alternatives that might push the weight of my mind from the quagmire of poor mental health.

A long-haired Anakin Skywalker looks troubled in this Star Wars Episode III still
Courtesy of Lucasfilm

Love is the Devil is another work very much in that vein, and one I had an affinity with because of another anxiety: my perpetual sense of professional and creative failure. The central figure in that film is definitely not a creative failure, the artist Francis Bacon (Derek Jacobi), but he shared traits I’d unwittingly cultivated of being cynical and hedonistic. Bacon managed to have a chaotic failure of a personal life but to channel that into visceral, bleak art that has become some of the most celebrated of the past hundred years. It encouraged me to actively lean into this poisonous image of myself of an inherently nasty man, as I saw the opportunity for at least some creative success amongst what I’d decided was inevitable misery. I was hardly conscious of how the film also planted the seed in my mind that you can be successful and unapologetically LGBTQ+ and did not know where that burgeoning realisation would take me. 

Russell T Davies’ work was the next step for coming to terms with myself, entertainment that was revolutionary because it was the opposite of handwringing, largely heterosexual creations. It was unashamedly queer and joyfully hedonistic. Queer as Folk and Cucumber are the shows that drew me in and focus on an array of characters exploring their sexuality in its myriad forms. They are chaotic  peoples and sometimes morally questionable, but the fact that they are willing to take risks and interrogate who they are provided inspiration that I needed. I came to realise that the work I’d devoured beforehand had been a hindrance to developing a sense of self and self-esteem. It felt like an important part of my journey towards coming out to accept that getting to better understand myself wouldn’t necessarily be linear or easy, but that it could equally be immensely exciting.

It’s been quite often the case, too, that things that don’t appear to directly represent me have often had more impact than I could have imagined. But I’m A Cheerleader is one of them, a comedy-drama that I watched because it was an LGBT+ movie, despite the fact that I did not identify as a lesbian. However, it’s a great tale of a high schooler, Megan (Natasha Lyonne), who’s sent for conversion therapy because those around her perceive her as a lesbian, and throughout the movie her identity becomes ever more accepted by herself. I found it much more affecting than if I were just appreciating someone else’s journey towards self-recognition, and in retrospect I know I saw something of myself there. I’m a queer woman who was just waiting on the right prompt to uncover that truth, one that had long weighed on my psyche.

Orange Is The New Black's Sophia stands against the wall in prison uniform, hair bobbed and straightened and eyes looking away from the camera
Courtesy of Tilted Productions / Lionsgate Television

Coming to recognise my sexual identity, and understand there was nothing to fear about it, was the first stage of my coming out. Getting to grips with gender took longer, though, and it was earlier this year that I came to appreciate that I am, without alternative, a woman. That was when I first felt like I’d had a watershed moment, though, in my mental health and identity, and once again the screen played an important part of that. Very shortly after coming out to my friends I re-watched the Love, Simon scene where the lead’s Mum (Jennifer Garner) tells him he can breathe, finally, now he’s not hiding. It felt applicable to me in a way that I hadn’t expected, and I cried with the understanding that I was freer than I been perhaps since childhood. No longer, too, was entertainment just a mirror for my darkest feelings, but it was instead a liberating force.

For trans people, there’s a great lack of much needed and desired representation. Trans woman Laverne Cox made waves in Orange is the New Black and Transparent was a hit for Amazon, but it’s still rare to see trans people taking major roles in arthouse work let alone multi-million-dollar projects. Perhaps if I was growing up today seeing the likes of Hunter Schafer dominating the screen in teen drama Euphoria might help me, though it’s hard to though what would have an impact on me. That lack of knowing what you need to see explains why representation of humanity in all its diversity is so important, as what we need for our own journeys is equally diverse.

Being able to see yourself on screen is important, but not as important as having a great breadth of representation. This isn’t just because of a valuable but abstract idea of equality, as it’s become increasingly clear to me that there are enormous mental health benefits to being able to see who you are and, particularly, who you could be. Representation is important because the screen has the power to shape how we see ourselves and the world at large, and at its best has the power to push us towards new possibilities. It’s crucial for our own wellbeing to not take our passions for granted and to maintain a curiosity for the world. Entertainment has to change, too, and we are all served by challenging the status quo — no matter how straight and cis we might be certain we are.

Header Image Courtesy of Red Production Company