“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep,” begins the pilot episode to the most popular podcast in the U.S. and several other countries around the world —“Welcome To Night Vale.”
Created and written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, “Welcome To Night Vale” is a podcast aired twice a month, done in the style of a radio show providing up-to-date community news on the isolated and bizarre (and thankfully, fictional) town of Night Vale.
It’s a town where the Sheriff’s Secret Police monitor their citizens at each turn and where there exists a dog park that absolutely should not be entered. The simultaneous voice of the podcast and of Night Vale’s radio show host is none other than Cecil Baldwin. Cecil is openly infatuated with Carlos, the newly arrived scientist, described as having dark and delicate skin, a square jaw, a touch of grey at his temples, teeth “like a military cemetery” and beautiful hair.
It is these two characters that make “Welcome To Night Vale” so central in giving media representation’s status quo of “white and heteronormative” a run for its money.
Why does this matter? Because media representation matters. Why does media representation matter? Because the media is a pretty central force and plays a vital role in society at large. Mass media in particular has the power to change or reinforce the habits of its consumers. It also aids in constructing worldviews of its consumers by reproducing reality — to an extent. Perception is the name of the game and it’s difficult to perceive what is non-existent — or in the case of POC and LGBTQ characters, severely lacking compared to the real world the diversity scale.
It’s undeniable that LGBTQ representation in the media — from television, movies, newspapers, magazines, radios, social media and more — is doing much better than it was about thirty years ago. In GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV” report for the 2013-2013 season alone found the highest increase in LGBTQ characters on broadcast networks and an increase in cable network television as well. The same could be said of POCs being visible in the media (not including ethnic media niches). But that’s where the bright side of this equation currently ends. Mass media is still dominated by figures of white, heterosexual men at every given turn. And even when a minority character does make an appearance in a mediated work, they still face the danger of falling into damaging, token stereotypes — the overtly flamboyant gay male, the black thug, the Asian joke — we know them well.
This is where Night Vale bucks the tiderend. It is a successful series with a rapidly growing fandom that has fondly latched onto the romantic relationship between the openly queer Cecil and Carlos, a POC, who in most recent episodes has returned Cecil’s affections. The best part is that their budding relationship is not treated as an issue or the sole, compelling character traits in relation to the overarching storyline. As a matter of fact, their relationship is perhaps the most normal plot presented in Night Vale’s dystopian (oftentimes humorous) richly scripted, thoughtfully subversive world populated by dark hooded figures and angels.
Night Vale’s example should be the future of television, film and other mediated forms of entertainment programming. Representation is key and representation is powerful. The people have spoken — despite its potentially “controversial” romance, “Welcome to Night Vale” is flourishing.