Representation is important because everybody needs to see themselves reflected in art. It's validating. It tells us we have a right to exist. And more than that, it tells other people we have a right to exist. And the important thing is not that any one artistic version of a member of an under-represented or habitually erased group is perfect, because it's impossible for any single character to adequately reflect the experiences of an entire group of people.
See, the funny thing is, it turns out that people of color and queer people and women and genderqueer people and disabled people... we're not types. We're not categories. We're individuals with certain characteristics and we may have very different attitudes and philosophies and relationships with those characteristics.
So, saturation matters. We need a lot of stories with different kinds of people in them, and not just a token stereotype, one per book or movie or TV show.
And actually, finally seeing yourself as a protagonist or a significant character in art is a tremendously empowering experience. Seeing yourself reflected makes you feel real and noticed, and it's important.
Finding yourself in a story for the first time is like looking into a mirror and seeing that, at last, you exist. You take up space and you are real. It's incredibly exhilarating just to know you're not alone. Not the only one. And that other people see you and acknowledge that you are real.
I think a lot of straight white guys don't understand this because they have never not seen themselves. They have no experience with being marginalized, pushed out of the frame, unpersoned. There's five or ten white guys to every black guy or woman, and let's not even talk about the representation of queer, trans, Asian, Latino, or disabled characters... or any other even more vanished groups.
And if you haven't never seen yourself, it's very hard to understand how disempowering it is for other people not to see themselves in art.
So they don't get why people get excited to find a character they identify with, and might like a book or a movie just for that reason. It's not political correctness; it's not pushing an agenda; it's not judging a story by whether it reflects one's politics. It's being happy to find a place where you feel welcome and understood.
And that's part of what everybody looks for in art. It's just harder for some of us to find it, so when we do, we get even more excited.
Black people are not used to seeing futures on TV where they just exist. Women are not used to seeing worlds where we make up 51% of the fictional population. (We make up 51% of the real world population, so why is there exactly one woman with speaking role in some entire galaxies?)
And those men who are very used to not just seeing themselves, but dominating entire narratives--well, some of them are really great about it, once they notice what's going on. Some try to fix it and make room for everybody.
But some react defensively, angrily: some see it as chipping away at their space when other people get some too. Rather than realizing, "Hey, this feeling of there not being a place for me hurts. Maybe I shouldn't do it to others!" or thinking, "Hmmm, maybe this thing isn't for me, but there's stuff over here that is for me!" they angrily oppose the existence of the thing that challenges what they perceive as their right to exist.
It's just that for the rest of us, it feels like they are insisting on their right to dominate the conversation. Even in corners where nobody asked for their opinion. because we were making our own fun.
The thing is, art is a big tent, and it expands to include everybody. It's not a zero-sum game, especially in the current era of easy content flow around the traditional gatekeepers. The existence and success of Karen Memory does not mean fewer sales for Pat Rothfuss (and Pat knows this: he's enormously supportive of other writers.) It means, rather, that fantasy appeals to a wider range of readers--and a lot of them will like both.
It's also an unfair burden on the marginalized to expect them (us) to carry all the water of representation. I believe in reading widely, challenging my own default narratives, and reading stories by writers who are not necessarily speaking to or from my comfort zone. I believe in supporting writers who have come to science fiction through nontraditional routes or from nontraditional backgrounds. But I also believe in presenting diversity in my own writing. Because the world is diverse, and in writing that I am just writing the world I experience.
The true world.
So if you're feeling nervous that you might never get to be in the spotlight because somebody else is, don't be. At the very worst, you'll have to share it, perhaps. Or we can set up a lot of spotlights and shine them around.
I believe the future has a lot of different kinds of people in it, and it will expand to make room for us all.