Representation done right

Opinion by Ethan Chua
May 9, 2017, 12:42 a.m.

In one scene of “The Colorado,” a multimedia blend of documentary and live concert staged two weeks ago at the Bing Concert Hall, the camera lingers on a shot of a native elder, walking along a barren desert and looking wistfully at the skyline. Though she stays onscreen for the better part of a minute, we never hear her speak; instead, the video is overlaid with the narration of British actor Mark Rylance, who describes the struggles of native peoples and their deep connection to the land. Though “The Colorado,” which aims to explore the storied history of the titular river, does a good job inasmuch as it recognizes the histories of indigenous people and their deep relationship to the land, it also falls into the trap of telling only a single story — that of the wizened native elder, dispensing wisdom to foreign onlookers.

That portrayal ignores the fact that indigenous communities are diverse and vibrant, and they comprise people of all ages — not just tribal elders safeguarding age-old secrets. In fact, much of the work behind cultural revitalization among indigenous communities is done by native youth, a part of the story I wish “The Colorado” had touched upon. In a winter quarter IntroSem, my class met a high-schooler from a California Indian tribe who’s been a passionate activist for indigenous rights. She was invited to speak before an audience including former first lady Michelle Obama and she told us how a speechwriter attempted to censor a part of her speech alluding to the genocide of indigenous peoples. When the event began and she was called onstage to speak, she brought it up anyway. This student is just one example of how native communities — and marginalized groups in general — are far more heterogeneous than their portrayals in popular media would suggest.

Representation is important, especially as America becomes increasingly diverse and multicultural. But representation isn’t as simple as including a single lesbian or person of color in the cast of a movie or television show; although that’s better than nothing, it’s not better by much. The danger of this limited representation, as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts so aptly in her TED Talk, is that we often only hear a single story — the grade-obsessed Asian mother, the Filipina maid, the wizened indigenous elder.

Faithfully representing the spectrum of experiences that belong to any marginalized group can be especially tricky when so little space is given to these characters in the first place. This can be a challenge when student groups adapt existing musicals or plays into on-campus productions, as in the case of Andrew Lippa’s musical “The Wild Party,” which was recently staged by Ram’s Head. In the original script, Madeline, the only character in the musical who identifies as a lesbian, has a comic-relief solo where she longs to be part of a “well-rendered, one-gendered/ lesbian love story with good old-fashioned sex in every line.” I’ll admit that when I first saw the Ram’s Head production, I was skeptical of this particular scene — Madeline’s character seemed to be playing right into the trope of the overly sexualized lesbian.

However, some conversations with members of my dorm who were involved in the production qualified my initial reaction. They explained the challenges of working within the constraints imposed by an adaptation and the need to be faithful to the original work while also challenging its more problematic aspects. They told me that Madeline’s sexualization was deliberately heightened to the point of absurdity in order to spark conversations about queer representation and its current deficiencies and how the production team also tried to highlight issues of the queer experience that aren’t often talked about — how, for example, sexual abuse can still occur in the context of queer relationships or how queer sexuality is often smothered instead of bravely declared.

Though the ideal scenario would have entailed more queer characters (and subsequently more looks into the variety of experiences that fall under that very broad label), that’s the fault of the original screenplay, not the adaptation. And that aside, the recent production of “The Wild Party” only foregrounds how important it is to create multidimensional characters in storytelling in order to avoid the danger of a single viewpoint or narrative.

Stereotypes emerge when we hear only one story about a culture, an identity or a people. And while representation is one of the best ways to combat stereotypes, it only works if close attention is given to telling a multiplicity of stories. If we include more people who identify with marginalized identities in our productions, shows and media, then we also get to witness a wider spectrum of experiences — leaving room for the fact that yes, there are sexually liberal lesbians and yes, there are indigenous elders who preserve community traditions, while making sure they’re not the only stories we hear about.
Contact Ethan Chua at [email protected]

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