The happiest moments of my childhood include seeing my sister for the first time and getting to watch the premiere of “The Cheetah Girls: One World.” Let me set the scene: I was a 7-year-old nerd with a broken arm, missing teeth and baby pink glasses. But when the Cheetah Girls released their final film, this time set in India, I felt like a woman. It was the most wonderful, emotional, magical phenomenon to witness — a revolutionary American girl group exploring my home country and culture. Bursts of energy charged throughout my body. My smiles and giggles grew. This is my failed attempt in describing what it means to be seen and heard in an American movie for the first time. To those who cannot relate, set a personal record for a mile run and then devour the greasiest New York-style pizza. That’s the feeling. It’s rewarding and fulfilling to see yourself on screen.
Back then, representation in the media was innocent. You saw yourself on TV, a few tears were shed (not an exaggeration, seeing yourself in a positive way was and is a big deal) and then you dreamed of being the “first” (insert any predominantly white and male occupation) of your community. Today, the relationship between an audience and the media is far more complicated because of the highly influential — dare I say dangerous — identity politics.
To clarify, identity politics is a method for people from a particular race, class, gender and other social groups to develop a “political agenda” or exclusive alliance for their respective community. In other words, all individuals of that particular community believe the same values, have a common enemy, share the same goals, etc. Identity politics was a catalyst for civic engagement and empowerment for marginalized communities, especially in the United States. My own endangered ethnic community in India used the basis of identity politics and protested against the central government for exploiting our land and natural resources (Indigenous communities are pissed on everywhere around the world all the time). One cannot deny the historical success behind identity politics. Yet, when Vice President Kamala Harris used her South Asian background to increase her popularity among people of color during her presidential candidacy, all while having a notably controversial history as an attorney general, the use of identity politics was manipulated. The term is uniting until it’s not.
So what exactly does identity politics have to do with representation in the media? Nowadays, there is an instant urge for people to judge, criticize and quickly indicate if a character from a movie or book is portrayed “incorrectly.” We assume that one character from a novel or film is a representation of their respective community. We assume writers represent their respective backgrounds and we are offended (sometimes rightfully so) when a writer fails to meet our expectations of properly portraying a character.
In one class, we read a novel with complex characters. All of the characters were people of color, artists, dreamers and there was one who was LGBTQ+ identifying. This character particularly stood out to me. They were incredibly funny, sharp-spoken and a mesmerizing singer. One of our discussion questions in class was whether or not the straight passing, female author did an accurate job of “authentically” portraying this LGBTQ+ identifying character. One student said that based on their own life, this character from the novel could have been portrayed better.
I think about this classroom discussion a lot. This is an example of how we’ve taken a brilliant, talented character, who also happened to be from the LGBTQ+ community, and pigeonholed them. The question of whether this author authentically captures the character’s nonbinary identity is inherently inappropriate to ask in the first place. Such a question directs us to believe that the one nonbinary character from the novel is how all nonbinary identifying people act and live. It is not my place to measure the authenticity of a person’s identity because I, and especially my white, male, and straight passing professor, have no right to generalize a minority group from a half-ass interpretation of a fictional character. Why are we taking a single character of the LGTBTQ+ community and assuming they are a representative for all LGTBQ+ folks? Do you see how unfair identity politics is? Especially in the creative world of fiction?
The one student in the class had every right to speak their beliefs and claim the nonbinary character could have been written or portrayed better. Yet, I wonder if we are misjudging fictional characters because we only compare them to our singular life. Is this a fair way of critiquing a text or film? Why are we easily offended when a fictional character that looks like us does not think or act like us? As a biracial woman, I can confirm, no brilliant author or filmmaker will ever get the representation of my life in a book or movie perfectly right. I have been guilty of believing that the fictional characters who share the same ethnic makeup as me could only have a story that was similar to mine. Our current political climate makes representation in the media a competitive numbers game rather than an intimate moment between you and the character. As Michaela Coel stated at the Emmys, we live “in a world that entices us to browse through the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to, in turn, feel the need to be constantly visible, for visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success.”
No. I refuse to live in a world filled with this competition where we assume fictional characters can only be an extension of who we are. I’m also not saying stay dead silent when a white director writes a character named “Ali” and he’s just a terrorist; that’s a completely different story. I’m simply suggesting, as someone with no political voice and authority here, that instead of criticizing the authenticity of a fictional character’s identity, we should let these characters exist on their own terms so that their narratives can grow. As thinkers, we should examine the significance of a character’s actions and how they influence the story, not limit them by their physical or cultural identity and question how “accurately” they are portrayed. And as people, let’s not burden fictional characters and writers with the responsibility of how we want others to view us.
Contact news writer Ananya Chetia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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