Thursday 31st July 2014,
Televisual

On Embracing the Burden of Representation

Aymar Jean Christian December 29, 2010 uncategorized No Comments

Thanks to Racialicious for reposting!

I recently had a conversation with a black director who fretted not putting any men of color in his film project. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t find anyone to play the role. In the end he told me: “I can’t carry the whole black community on my own!”

It’s a strange thing to be a writer, creator, producer, artist and belong to some kind of “other” group. Every one of us — I think — struggles with how responsible we are to our communities. It’s something I find myself having to deal with more and more. And I’m starting to develop opinions about it.

Writing about one’s identity group is not always a “burden.” Soon I’ll be writing a column for AfterElton about gay men of color in the media, and I couldn’t be happier! I hesitated a bit when I was asked. The old questions emerged: would I pigeonholed? Would I be “that black gay guy”? But ultimately I saw more opportunity than limitations. I care about that stuff, and it’s so often not talked about. Why not?

Still, for anyone who creates media, the burden can be tiresome. The truth is there are typically few people who are X identity in a given field — film, the academy, television, web production — that the few who exist are often asked to correct structural imbalances, even if they have other interests. It’s unfair, but it is the world in which we live. These burdens aren’t limited to the traditional groups of minorities, though they have to deal with it most; it spans genre identities (sci-fi, western, horror), ideologies (nihilist, modernist), styles (independent, art-house, fringe), basically anything with a dedicated core of minority adherents and members.

When I was younger and immature I used to wonder: “why does so-and-so only write/talk/think about X identity? They’re so unimaginative!” You know who I’m talking about: the showrunner who only pitches shows about women, the journalist who only writes about sexuality, etc.

As I grew older and started to participate in these various worlds, I realized it was often the other way around. The people who are “pigeonholed” are, more often than not, forced to or called upon to hold those positions. Since there aren’t a lot of academics in, say, economics, who write about race, those scholars are asked to write the “race essay” for the edited collection, or edit an issue in a journal. If they aren’t asked by the “powers that be,” they’re urged to by friends or colleagues.

Because, like myself, they want and are happy to oblige because so few people write about their communities. As they start to, they realize how many stories go untold and theories unexplored; it starts to get interesting. I blog and write a lot about black identity, gay identity and women. (See the tag cloud to the right). Some might say I’m falling prey to stereotype. But the truth is I find there’s a lot to say about these topics that isn’t being said by the mainstream media, or even prominent blogs.

When I first started researching web series over a year ago, virtually no one was writing about black web series and gay/lesbian web series, despite dozens being released each year. That’s why I started making the lists linked to above (though I can never keep up! I try to update about once a month). I felt compelled to and was happy to do it, to give producers/directors what little exposure I could provide (it’s not much!).

I always feel for those directors, producers, writers, etc. who “stray” from their communities and do other things. Occasionally they’re branded “post-racial,” “post-gender,” “post-gay,” post-whatever. Will Smith is a classic example — he’s planning yet another project in China. Some have avoided it: Spike Lee and Gus Van Sant do a lot of non-black, non-gay films, but make sure to come back home every once in awhile. A lucky few can be both responsible to their communities and do other projects while not being branded either way. But society demands shortcuts, and in the end, most of us have to take our label and wear it with pride.

The best do both. Some of the greatest artists and thinkers of the 20th century took their less-than-popular identities and used them to create bold works about the broader culture, about society and civilization, from Toni Morrison and James Baldwin to David Wojnarowicz and Judith Butler.

We should embrace the challenge. I used to think “label” was a dirty word. Even today, read an interview with any artist or writer, no matter their race or religion, no matter how singular their interest in a particular identity, and, without fail, they will inevitably say they don’t want to be labeled. Nobody wants to! But labels are a way of communicating to the world, a way of signaling something important. Any creative or intellectual person should relish the opportunity to take something presumed to be “marginal” and make it central and important to a conversation.

Should we accept our burdens? I think maybe we should. Carrying a burden only makes you stronger.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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