People Who Look Like Me

by Rebecca Baumgartner

There’s a pervasive idea that there must be works of art and culture that contain “people who look like me,” where “looking like” is usually scanned as race, ethnicity, sex, or gender expression. This clique-ish attitude masquerades as liberalism and can twist your head in knots if you let it: rather than encouraging and reveling in different perspectives, we want a coterie of authors, creators, and fictional characters that can fill out a census form in precisely the same way that we do. No one is so foolish as to come right out and say, “I only want to read about people who have lives similar to my own,” but this is the unstated purpose of wanting books with more people who “look like me.”

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

There are a couple of problems with this idea, right off the bat. First, and maybe simplest, is: Get over yourself. There are as many stories as there are people on Earth, and then some. We all contain multitudes. Even someone exactly like you on paper will have a different perspective and different story – quite possibly not one you would agree with or find palatable. Second, you must believe there is an immutable essence to being or looking a certain way, otherwise what would be the point of insisting on having more of it? Author Jia Tolentino, in her essay “Pure Heroines,” says: 

“…my white friends would be able to fantasy-cast their own biopic from an endless cereal aisle of nearly identical celebrities…while I would have no one to choose from except about three actresses who’d probably all had minor roles in some movie five years back. In most contemporary novels, women who looked like me would pop up only occasionally, as a piece of set decoration on the subway or at a dinner party, as a character whose Asian ethnicity would be noted by the white author as diligently as the whiteness of his or her unmarked protagonist was not.”

There’s a lot here to sort through, but my initial thought is about narcissism. Does someone need to share visible, tangible attributes with us before we can identify with them, sympathize with them, like them? What about their non-visible, non-tangible attributes? If a character shares our race but not our generation, how much do we really have in common? If they share our biological sex but come from a different social class, how far can we identify with them?

If someone shares every conceivable demographic attribute with us, but they hold radically different political ideas, are we more similar than we are different? Where is the currency conversion table that can help us decide which characters we’re allowed to like? This tedious line of questioning is indicative of just how deep the hole can go and how pointless it is to reach the bottom of it. Artistic representation and characterization, provided it’s done well, is never just about how similar another person is to us. It would be a stunning failure of artistic imagination if a reader or viewer could only enjoy or understand a character that held up a mirror to their own life. What, after all, is the point of art anyway?

There’s also the issue of essentialism. The person complaining that no heroes or heroines look like them is assuming that any story coming from such a person would contain the essence of whatever mysterious quality “people like that” supposedly have, like a homeopathic tincture. Rather than taking a story on its own merits, the teller of the story or the characters in it must pass a purity test before it or they are worthy of our consumption. As John McWhorter writes in Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, there is a Catechism of Contradictions that one must believe in dogmatically in order to be considered non-racist, and one of these pairs of contradictions is “You must strive eternally to understand the experiences of black people” and “You can never understand what it is to be black, and if you think you do you’re a racist.” Another pair of contradictions is “Show interest in multiculturalism” and “Do not culturally appropriate. What is not your culture is not for you, and you may not try it or do it.” 

Representatives of every creed, race, gender, class, and nationality are to be invited to the subways and dinner parties of novels, but these invitations, per Tolentino, are necessary but not sufficient. If our personal made-to-order double in the fictional world only appears in one scene at a dinner party, the author has sinned (note that we will only be able to ascertain this if the author chooses to describe the relevant characteristic of everyone at the dinner party). Every phenotype of human must be the protagonist of every novel. A novel can never have too many protagonists. The only type of human permitted to be a minor character with a walk-on part in a subway is white males of indeterminate age.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

The idea that there need to be “more people like me” in our media and art is a kind of me-first thinking that McWhorter describes as “reductive, prosecutorial, and ultimately joyless.” Part of the delight and intensity of entering fictional worlds is seeing things from a completely new perspective. Some of my favorite stories are about a fifteenth-century king, a teenage boy, a Zoroastrian family, a Russian farmer, a golem, a butler, a clergyman, a Japanese woman, a twelfth-century mason, an orphan, and a wombat. As a middle-class commoner well past adolescence with two living parents, a woman, an atheist, and a homo sapiens, I have very little in common with any of these protagonists. They don’t look like me (especially, one would hope, the wombat). But this hardly matters. What does matter is what they say, what they believe, how they behave, what their motivations are, and how they change over time. Likewise, the majority of those stories were written by men. To people who keep track of such things, this could really only matter if you believe that the human imagination is so bound to earthly constraints that it’s incapable of seeing beyond those constraints. But of course, this is precisely what having an imagination allows us to do. The fixation on having role models who are molded to our precise dimensions is as psychologically unhelpful as it is politically retrograde. Ultimately, if we are to get any insight and value from the books we read and the media we consume, we should be open to the possibility that it may come from a messenger we weren’t expecting, and one who doesn’t look (or think, or act) like us at all.


The books referred to, in order, are:

Henry V, William Shakespeare
The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
Family Matters, Rohinton Mistry
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Digger, Ursula Vernon