Cultural representation is fast becoming the Topic of the Century.
Everywhere we look, we see calls for representation, inclusivity and diversity in media. This is such an important movement in our history because it is making people of all cultures aware of the invisible price they pay for not participating in a global conversation.
To be fair, many cultures have not been allowed a seat at the story-telling, history-writing table. In fact, much of what we know about many cultures is knowledge assimilated and filtered through the lens of their colonizers and detractors. And only recently has it occurred to many of us to start questioning the sources that we gain information from.
In fact, that is the primary crux of this post, because as we start to explore how to bring other races and cultures into the public eye, we see a growing backlash against filmmakers representing cultures that they themselves do not belong to.
First, let’s be clear: Representation is important, because the world is made up of more than just a single race and that should be visible in all forms.
However, it is important to remember that there is more than one valid point of view in the world. The way Representation falls into Appropriation is when one cultural point of view is co-opted and used to advance the theories and concepts of another culture. Sort of like how Colonialism works.
Take, for example, Terrorism. Every decade since WW2 has brought us a new set of shows, movies and media that have held up and vilified individual cultures for a variety of reasons. The Germans are anti-semitic (or just evil incarnate), the Russians are conniving commies, the Japanese are crazed Kamikazes intent on world domination… so on and so forth. Since 9/11, it has been the Arabs and the Muslim world being represented as misogynist haters of all things good in the world.
This means, that even though each of these cultures is/was “Represented” in media, their culture is appropriated in a manner that makes them look bad, and promotes the prevailing theory of the time that the entire race is evil. Let’s remember that one man’s terrorist is very likely another man’s hero, and that these labels are entirely subjective.
Does that mean that a Director cannot make a film about anything other than their own demographic? Dear Heavens NO! It also doesn’t mean that Directors cannot criticize any culture other than their own either!
The real issue with Appropriation is not about who makes it, but rather, about how arbitrarily they Represent the other culture.
And it might be easy to say “hey, there are a bunch of movies/shows/stories out there that completely vilify white culture too”. Except for the fact that there is such a high volume of work that represents such a variety of white culture and ideologies, that any negative representation is tempered by the many works that add nuance and compassion for said culture.
This is true of Indian cinema too, which is an industry that regularly produces the highest number of films per year. There is such a high degree of representation of Indian culture in the world, it is hard to imagine Indians being vilified with a shallow label.
To add insult to unfair representation; artists and filmmakers from underrepresented cultures are often encouraged to create work that reinforces existing negative stereotypes. It is tough to pitch a “heartwarming coming of age story” in an alternate culture without being told that there isn’t really a market for such rosy drivel. No, because nobody is willing to imagine that a happy story can exist in the burnt tundras of desert dwellers or that happiness can exist in an imperfect world. So the only artists who get funding and global attention are the ones who trade on their identities for a shot at fame. After all, any representation is better than none, right?
That is the insidious nature of economically-dependent art. Toiling away in obscurity can feel like a jail sentence, and after a while, it becomes easier and easier to adapt your vision to start appealing to the masses. Yet, artists must realize they are not just representatives of culture, they are responsible for educating society of the ideals that they want to live up to. Artists can build bridges and bring hope and empathy into the world. But if we bind them with restrictions in the name of progress, even in the name of diversity, we are doing them a disservice.
It doesn’t matter who makes the art, it matters how they make it. Do they care about the culture they represent? Do they know enough about the culture to call it out? Is it fair to use their art to tar and feather an entire culture? When it comes to underrepresented cultures, Art has to bring perspective to a conversation, not rely on sad, one-line cliches and unremitting criticism.
There is a lot more to Appropriation than just the terrible misrepresentation of cultures in mainstream media and in art. But this is not a topic that can be summarized in a nutshell. We see Appropriation across the gamut, in fashion, design, music and literature. It is insidious in how quietly it can sneak up on a person, and the best way to fight it is to expand the conversation and move it past the limited description of who made it. Let’s include the why and wherefor and really start looking at whether our art is helping or hurting another.