Tucked away in some of my favorite in-between-class hideaways, I recently devoted spare moments of my time to reading “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Each time I began to thumb through its pages, the sight of me reading this particular novel seemed to spark multiple renditions of the same conversation. Roommates, friends, classmates and coworkers — usually sporting a perplexed look — approached me asking some variation of the question: “Haven’t you read this before?” Most tended to be satisfied (and some relieved) when I informed them that I was, in fact, re-reading it for a class.

Considering the book’s prominent, solidified position among the litany of texts students often read as a part of their high school or middle school curriculum, I can understand why some might find it odd if I was reading it for the first time. However, as my professor suggested, as continually evolving individuals, we experience aspects of a novel differently as time progresses and views shift. There’s merit in re-examining a world you originally believed you saw in its entirety. Yes, the same characters may be acting within the same plot, but just as it is with the world, one glance doesn’t tell the whole story.

To fully understand a book, a situation, an issue or even a person, you can’t rely solely upon your initial vantage point. A second, third or fourth look is necessary to uncover what you may have overlooked before, underscoring the notion that learning is a continuous process and, no matter how much one may think they understand or see, there’s probably something missing from the conversation.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is known for its discussions of racism, injustice, prejudice and empathy, and for capturing the atmosphere of an entire period of U.S. history. This isn’t what my class focused on. Instead, we talked about visibility. Our conversation centered on the interplay between who’s seen, who isn’t, who deserves to be visible and why they are or aren’t.

Sight and its accompanying array of dimensions and dynamics foster a prioritization of ideas and people. Visibility is arguably often a determinant of worth — what’s worth devoting attention to and what ideas stimulate action, receive support or are even publicly rejected. Who or what is seen in our media landscape, or in government, is a reflection of the balance of power and control in society as a whole.

Recently, Elle UK released a video online that plays with these dynamics of visibility. The simple exercise in Photoshop illustrates that what you don’t see is often more important than what you do. The video showcases photographic stills of governing bodies, producers, creators and other groups, and then it alters the image by removing all of the men within the picture to reveal a sparse scattering of women surrounded by multitudes of empty space.

The short video certainly succeeds in highlighting discrepancies with regard to gender representation. On one hand, one look at the unaltered images tells a viewer that female representation is present in a number of environments. However, when one looks again from a different perspective, vast empty spaces that a male majority usually occupies overpower this now-seemingly miniscule population of women.

While women are visible, the disproportionate representation of men leads to a problematic scenario in which a few outnumbered individuals are responsible for standing for their entire group. This scenario can be seen across numerous groups and communities. In the media landscape, the inclusion of diverse representation often results in another problematic scenario in which the select number of visible individuals in a group often falls within stereotypes that aren’t reflective of the group at all.

Visibility is a complicated issue with a variety of consequences. While making one’s presence known allows for the acknowledgement of their accomplishments, ideas and opinions, it likewise creates a space where one is like an ant thrust beneath the gaze of a magnifying glass.

Being noticed in the public eye creates an atmosphere of exposure that can invite scrutiny and make individuals susceptible to criticism.  

Yet without this recognition, unequal representation, in a multitude of areas, will continue to silence voices that have been neglected for far too long. Our perceptions of who “normally” is seen and heard within the public sphere inhibits debates and discussions. The underrepresented never even have the chance to exist. Even when representation exists and there’s a space for these discussions, a lack of diversity may lead to an absence of underlying conversations and issues.

Simply altering or slightly modifying the pictures of society that we see isn’t a sufficient method that we should accept when re-shaping society. Often in a book, the characters who truly force readers to consider viewpoints and ideas that deviate from the norm are those who are barely visible in the text. In fact, these characters are usually the ones readers don’t notice the first time through. If we truly want to address problematic issues and change society, we need to re-examine the larger narratives at play and increase the visibility of overlooked voices.

Melissa Scholke can be reached at melikaye@umich.edu.

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