Another hashtag has emerged over the past week where its relevancy rings true with the topics I address on this blog, and so therefore, I want to dwell into it. The hashtag is #TheFirstTimeISawMe. Diversity and representation of different lives – by way of race, sexuality, specific characteristics, etc. – matter, and Netflix started up this thread to celebrate inclusive media and diverse programming. If you look through the hashtag on Twitter, you’ll see people recall instances of the first times they saw someone like them onscreen, as well as people who are still waiting for that moment to happen.
It’s different from the #3FictionalCharactersICanDescribeMyselfIn from last year, where you based solely on the qualities of such characters by means of identity. But as you can imagine, this one is a little more on the nose and more visually inclined. I posted on Instagram the other day and today, I want to go over the first times I saw me. (NOTE: Both characters were previously mentioned in a listicle I did about five unfrequented strong female characters, so while there may be some rehashing, I also want to go more in depth on what these characters mean to me.)
From one of my favorite TV shows “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Katara is one of many reasons why that is the case. The only waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe, she and her brother Sokka travel with Avatar Aang (along with others later), as he masters all four elements, in preparation for saving the world from demise. Along the way, Katara grows as she becomes a masterful waterbender over the course of the series, and how she comes to deal with the demons of her past.
I was thirteen when “Avatar: The Last Airbender” began its run, and seeing Katara and Sokka bicker on screen, it was the first time where I thought to myself, “You know, if I put the same or similar get-up as them, I could probably look like a real-life member of the Water Tribe.” While I understand that their people are supposed to be modeled off of the Eskimo, it doesn’t mean that the resonance isn’t there. Seeing people with my skin tone go off on adventures was something that, until then, I never realized I was missing out on.
I also love the fact that Katara is such a strong character; stubborn, determined, occasionally hot-headed, and hopeful. She helped me become accepting of similar characteristics I inhibit, and I’m so glad I’ve had that experience of spending my adolescence watching a character like her come into being beloved by many.
The protagonist of “Whale Rider,” Pai is a young girl who’s destined to become the next chief of her Maori tribe. However, bound by tradition, her grandfather sees no use for a male-only role, and casts her aside as he searches for a new leader. Despite her deep love for her grandfather, Pai refuses to be ignored, and trains herself in the ways of her ancestors. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to gain his love, even if it means risking her life by saving Paikea’s original whale.
While “Whale Rider” was originally released in the States when I was eleven, I didn’t see it until I was, again, thirteen. Pai and her people stuck out to me visually, for it was the first time I saw people who kind of looked like me appear onscreen. No, I am not Maori, but with them being people of an island nation and I, being part Filipino, having roots tracing back to an island nation, a commonality is present.
Even more so was seeing a girl struggle against the sexism of her culture, imposed by a elder family member. Having faced the same issue in my own life, I recognized her quiet determination and understood her reasoning. It meant a lot to see a girl, who visually looked similar to me, combat a stigma in such a powerful way.
At thirteen, these two characters entered my life, and together, they were the first times I saw me onscreen. I will go to the ends of the earth in emphasizing to others how much they mean to me in my life, how I perceive and carry myself, and why through it all, representation absolutely matters!
When was the first time you saw yourself? Let me know in the comments below.