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Secondary Marginalization: Stereotyped or Erased

5 min read

by Sarah Buhrman

Anya in "The Body" (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Anya in “The Body” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

It just came to me, this idea of secondary marginalization. I was re-watching “The Body” (Ep 5-16, Buffy the Vampire Slayer[TV]) with my husband. As usual, the various scenes had me sobbing, particularly Anya’s monologue about death.

As with so many things, I started thinking about what it was about Anya, and that scene in particular, that resonates with me. When it hit me, it hit hard.

Anya talks about the social norms surrounding death like someone on the autism spectrum. Furthermore, she gets criticized by Willow for “still” not grasping the rules of being human just a few episodes prior. Her response is to say that the rules “are stupid.”

Autism isn’t always stimming

The chorus of “amens” and “preach” from those on what is often called the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum is overwhelming. (That entire visual is inherently problematic, but the better words either haven’t been coined or I haven’t encountered them yet.)

Some movies & TV featuring characters with autism
Some movies & TV featuring characters with autism

Autism isn’t always obviously avoiding eye-contact. Women who slipped under the diagnostic radar are excellent at either enduring the discomfort or faking the behavior well enough to just fall into the “odd” category.

Autism isn’t always non-verbal. Some people with autism are quite talkative. In fact, many have more trouble knowing when it is not appropriate to talk a lot than in talking. My oldest is on the spectrum and he will ask questions until my head spins while I’m trying to put on my noise-cancelling headphones – cuz I’m undiagnosed on the spectrum.

Autism isn’t always panicking when overstimulated. I get snappy and aggressive. My son gets quiet and restless. If either of us is actually putting hands over ears, we are experiencing more than normal-range emotional distress. This is often because we have high stress levels added to the mix. Mostly, though, autism is deep breathing and never going to Walmart and ordering groceries online for delivery.

Autism isn’t always being unaware of social norms. It’s more that people with autism often (but not always) don’t grok social norms. Many on the spectrum are actually really good at analyzing behaviors, determining motives, and naming the emotions. They just don’t agree with the behavioral choices, if that makes sense. For example, I get what you are doing and what motivates you to do it. I do NOT get why that’s the behavior you’re going with. So I get the why, but not the why-this.

Autism isn’t always the stereotypical behaviors and, when the less typed behaviors show up in media, it often isn’t labelled. This erases those people who aren’t “extreme” versions of the marginalized groups.

Not just autism.

This is true for a lot of groups.

Bisexuals are frequently just going through a phase or, if in a same-sex relationship, gay. If they are “allowed” to be bi, they are usually women and it’s for (seriously or humorously) male titillation.

Gay men are frequently presented with the coded behaviors of feminine clothes, ways of speaking, mannerisms, etc. While some gay men do behave like that, it does erase gay men who lean toward masculine behaviors. The mirror of this is the butch lesbian, which is more often portrayed over the femme lesbian.

Admittedly, the LGB characterizations are getting better, but there is still a ways to go. This is particularly true of the T, the Q and the +.

That isn’t how mental health issues work

PTSD isn’t always combat veterans. Women who survive domestic abuse are likely to have PTSD, and 10% of women will have PTSD while only 4% of men will. Pulling a gun is actually unusual with PTSD. Nightmares, cyclical thoughts, anxiety and depression are more common symptoms, though sudden anger can happen. Dissociation is just as likely a reaction as rage.

Depression isn’t always laying in bed. Sometimes it’s insomnia, restlessness, lack of concentration, or social withdrawal.

Anxiety isn’t just being overwhelmed and panicking. Some people have aggressive reactions, while others are just good at hiding their racing, cyclical thoughts.

So why would this be secondary marginalization?

When you get no representation in the media, it can feel very isolating and lonely. It is important to see others like yourself. This keeps you from feeling like the freak in the room, the outlier.

Still from The Virgin Suicides
Still from The Virgin Suicides

But when all the representation of your group is stereotyped or extreme versions, and that’s not you, you still won’t feel very represented. And representation does, in fact, matter.

Being the type that isn’t even mentioned when your overall group is mentioned can be even more marginalizing. When race is brought up, but only black men are presented, black women, native/aboriginal peoples, latinx, and Asians are all erased.

If depression is presented only as staying in bed and never showering, then the ones suffering their way through the day while presenting a relatively normal mask feel like their depression isn’t real enough. Non-veterans with PTSD frequently question whether their trauma was “enough” for them to actually have PTSD. When struggling with a psycho-emotional wound, the last thing a person should have to do is defend their right to be wounded.

That’s the crux of it.

Without the representation of less extreme situations, all people with autism become “specials” who are seen as a burden to their caregivers. Anyone else on the spectrum is labelled with qualifiers that can come to mean “not really austistic.” This is true of all the examples I’ve touched on. If you aren’t X enough, you aren’t really X.

And if you aren’t really X but you aren’t NOT X, do you even exist?

That is why representation matters. And, that is how media stereotypes create secondary marginalization.

1 thought on “Secondary Marginalization: Stereotyped or Erased

  1. Great article, Sarah! I have been working on something for a long time that I couldn’t quite get right, and you’ve managed to articulate it.

    I fall into a lot of those categories: bisexual (and let me tell you all about how lesbians in the 90s, when I came out, told us all to just F off and marry men, and stop “trolling their dates,” or get over our “phase” and just admit that we were lesbians too); undiagnosed on the spectrum (and my symptoms are *exactly* like yours and have been the bane of my life; not unusual for women on the spectrum, who present differently and therefore are often undiagnosed, as you have pointed out); and diagnosed with PTSD without being a combat vet (I was a mostly-emotionally abused child, with a few uncommon incidents of physical abuse in early childhood to add to things.)

    The representation issue is also huge because those who are not marginalized, don’t believe you when you say that you are; because your example doesn’t look like all the examples they’ve been shown in movies and TV. Worse, people who are better represented in the communities you fall into *also* dismiss you, either for the same reason, or because they believe that you’re not as marginalized as they are.

    Not that I want to get into the Oppression Olympics, but that’s just not true. I gotta tell you, I *wish* I could tell people, “Sorry I’m weird, here’s my doctor’s note saying I’m autistic.” It would resolve a lot of situations.

    Yes, representation *does* matter. Thanks for pointing it out.

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