“The more we critique, the less we create.” – Austin Purnell
I was watching an episode of Modern Family with a few of my friends the other day, most of whom were of color and queer. An argument inevitably cropped up about certain characters–namely those of the Colombiana trophy wife played by Sofía Vergara, and the gay male couple–and what having such characters in mainstream media meant for the communities they represented.
The debate went around and around, with certain parties arguing that having any representation of Latina immigrants or queer people was useful, because it challenged a climate of homo- and xenophobia, making it easier for Latin@s and queers to move around in the world. Others held that any limited representation–Latinas as sex objects, or queer men as monolithically wealthy and white–was disempowering, and rather than generating acceptance, presented oppressed people with more stereotypes to battle.
I listened to the talk, and thought about how many discussions like it I had participated in and overheard before, and how, though I saw important truths in both sides of the debate, I felt no real investment in either.
In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of time, energy and ideas spent on discussing representation–disabled people on Glee, queer Black men in Noah’s Arc, abuse and addiction amongst celebrities like Chris Brown and Rihanna, and the notion of a post-race society with the election of Barack Obama. Each of these cases was held as a narrative which, when properly dissected, would reveal something telling in relation to the people and communities being represented.
What frustrates me about these conversations, and makes me believe that they are fruitless, is that they place all their focus on mainstream politics, media and culture, treating them not only as feasible or accurate representations of our lives, but barometers for the critical states of our own communities and identities. Deferring to these celebrity icons, we pay little attention to what is going on in our own minds and hearts, much less amongst the other members of our larger communities. We allow our politics, our interactions and our own senses of self to be dictated by massive economic machines, ones which are inevitably more interested in our identities as consumers than as citizens, or as human beings.
More than any kind of media representation, delivered through any medium, I am interested in community representation. In other words, I care less about how I am being portrayed in a sitcom or music video, and more about how I along with the members of my immediate community are actively representing ourselves.
I think it’s time we devote less attention to mainstream media–which will always be corporate-funded, and ultimately support the vision which power already has of us–and focus on how vocal we can be, how aligned with and aware of one another we are. I think it matters less that we ask what the characters of The L Word mean for our lives, and matters more that we ask what our own civic engagement consists of, how we are organizing ourselves, accepting radical responsibility, how we are communicating with one another, and how we are challenging power in big and small ways on a daily basis.
I do not mean to imply that representation means nothing–that our portrayal in media has no impact on how we are treated, how our identities are understood in mainstream cultural conversations, or that these representations have nothing to tell us about the political climate which we are navigating. What I do hope to communicate is that these representations are dependent on the very powers which have always benefited from our silencing, simplifying and disenfranchisement. I care less about what new tricks these old systems have devised, and more about what we are devising to combat them.
These questions are of particular significance as we in the U.S. face down another presidential election (one in which I have not yet decided if I will be participating). For as oppressed people, we have about as much say in what the president of the U.S. does in our names as we do in how Time Warner and Viacom choose to illustrate our lives. And as uninterested as I am in rallying around any one candidate as a symbol of my own political vision, I am equally uninterested in glorifying any musician or TV show character as an avatar of my sexuality or cultural heritage.
Our ability to critique is important, but not as powerful nor potentially revolutionary as our ability to create–art, media, ideas, and organizations which truly represent us by democratically involving us. I care about movements which invest their energies not into the circular criticizing of inherently oppressive media, but rather into the capacity of our communities to articulate our own needs and desires, and to imagine and vocalize together how we wish to represent ourselves, independent of mainstream media or political parties. This matters more than calling out even the most debasing and oppressive caricature.
What I would love to see is for us to forget about what Nicki Minaj or Mitt Romney or Lady Gaga or Barack Obama are doing, and ask ourselves what we are doing to make our voices heard, and to advocate and provide for one another in a system which has never represented us.