But by the time my generation inherited these ideas, often two or three times removed, representation was no longer one tool among many, it was the key. In the absence of a clear legal or political strategy, we traced back almost all of society’s problems to the media and the curriculum, either through their perpetuation of negative stereotypes or simply by omission. Asians and lesbians were made to feel “invisible,” gays were stereotyped as deviants, blacks as criminals and women as weak and inferior: a self-fulfilling prophecy responsible for almost all real-world inequalities. And so our battlefields were sitcoms with gay neighbors who never got laid, newspapers filled with pictures of old white men, magazines that advanced what author Naomi Wolf termed “the beauty myth,” reading lists that we expected to look like Benetton ads, Benetton ads that trivialized our reading-list demands. So outraged were we media children by the narrow and oppressive portrayals in magazines, in books and on television that we convinced ourselves that if the typecast images and loaded language changed, so too would the reality. We thought we would find salvation in the reformation of MTV, CNN and Calvin Klein. And why not? Since media seemed to be the source of so many of our problems, surely if we could only “subvert” them to better represent us, they could save us instead. With better collective mirrors, self-esteem would rise and prejudices would magically fall away, as society became suddenly inspired to live up to the beautiful and worthy reflection we had retouched in its image.
For a generation that grew up mediated, transforming the world through pop culture was second nature. The problem was that these fixations began to transform us in the process. Over time, campus identity politics became so consumed by personal politics that they all but eclipsed the rest of the world. The slogan “the personal is political” came to replace the economic as political and, in the end, the Political as political as well. The more importance we placed on representation issues, the more central a role they seemed to elbow for themselves in our lives—perhaps because, in the absence of more tangible political goals, any movement that is about fighting for better social mirrors is going to eventually fall victim to its own narcissism.