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If you’ve spent any time on social media recently, you’ve likely heard the buzz around the latest Pixar film, Turning Red. The female-directed movie about a Chinese-Canadian girl who turns into a red panda when she’s upset has been praised for its originality, diversity, and lovingly detailed depiction of the city of Toronto.
In addition to a racially diverse cast of characters, Turning Red also makes history by including two non-central characters with type 1 diabetes (T1D) wearing visible devices on their arms. To learn more about the decision to include these characters, I strongly suggest you check out Alexi Melvin’s piece for Beyond Type 1 with Susan Fong, Turning Red’s technical supervisor.
Excitement around the film quickly spread around the internet, from reviews to enthusiastic social media posts. Much of this content centered around the same idea, and even the same phrase: representation matters.
This concept has always resonated with me, not just when it comes to T1D, but across all areas of life—gender, race, ability, sexual orientation and identity, and more. Still, even though the idea that representation matters felt true, I had never thought to investigate the research on this topic before watching Turning Red.
When I started researching representation, I expected to soon find a landmark study that confirmed the inarguable representation matters truism. After an hour of scouring Google Scholar, skimming abstracts, and being mostly denied access to academic resources on the subject, it struck me that my original expectation was a naïve one. After all, scholars in media studies, disability studies, and other related disciplines spend their entire lives investigating this complex topic—an hour of googling probably wasn’t going to do the trick.
While I didn’t uncover the smoking gun I was after, I did learn that researchers mostly agree that various forms of media—including films, television, and advertising—have the power to either reinforce or combat negative stereotypes about minority groups. Similarly, diverse representation shapes the way viewers think about the world, other people, and themselves.
One interesting idea I encountered was that of “symbolic annihilation”: the concept that by not depicting certain groups, or by depicting them poorly, media can effectively “erase” these groups from public consciousness. Depiction of T1D as a regular part of life, as it is shown in Turning Red, would achieve the opposite effect—and this seems to be exactly what people are so excited about.
The fact that T1D itself is not part of the story of Turning Red, but that characters living with T1D are, has received plenty of attention in the diabetes online community. One Reddit post garnered comments like, “I don’t know why when I see people in mainstream with diabetes gear on I immediately SOB. It’s like adult me says to 9-year-old newly diagnosed me, ‘Look! You aren’t the only one!’” On Twitter, some parents shared their children’s reactions to seeing diabetes devices in the film. “My 9 y/o daughter SCREAMED WITH JOY,” wrote one mom. A particularly heartwarming thread from @DiabetesCxns also included photos of children reacting and showing off their own pumps and CGMs.
Reading these comments and researching the value of representation made me think about my own reaction to seeing diabetes devices in the film. As someone who didn’t live with T1D as a child, my response was less emotional than some of the others I came across. Still, reading about other people’s strong reactions made me remember how, as a child, I had always identified most with characters that were similar to me. T1D wasn’t part of my life then, but the need for representation certainly was.
Even as an adult, I find myself cheering on the young female contestant on Jeopardy! or the nerdy girl in a Netflix drama. And I bet that if you were to stick a CGM on the back of their arms, my support would instantly double.
It might not be possible to scientifically prove that “representation matters.” At least, not in the way I was originally hoping for. Yet, as many reviews of Turning Red can attest, there is something special about seeing yourself in a story on screen—your T1D, culture, gender, race, or any other part of your multi-faceted identity. It’s not just about seeing someone like yourself: It’s also about knowing others are seeing that person, too.
They might see, for example, that someone like you could give Ken Jennings a run for his money. They might see that someone like you has feelings as vast and complex as their own.
Or maybe, just maybe, they might see that someone like you would be thrilled by the sudden appearance of giant red panda in your school restroom.
After all, representation matters.
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