Speak for yourself – Creating better representations
In a growing stream of artists called out for racism, Katy Perry’s American Music Awards Performance has been called into question. For those of you who missed it, Perry performed her song, “Unconditionally” dressed in a kimono, surrounded by a mix of Japanese and other borrowed Asian cultural elements.
An article over at Vulture regarding Perry’s performance, which basically reported Perry was being condemned as racist and then asking for comments, received reactions that included: ‘It’s just a performance.’ ‘It demonstrates the beauty of Asian cultures for those who have little regular exposure to them.’ And, thanks to Perry’s mixing of Asian inspirations, ‘it reinforces the stereotype that all Asians are the same.’
Then, one self-identified white person said that nobody other than the represented culture has the right to judge what constitutes racism or not. This concept, allowing people to speak and judge for themselves, got me thinking beyond music to film, television, and frankly, all the arts, and which voices are loudest in discussing issues of representation, such as racism, sexism or homophobia.
In regards to Perry, considering her performance is not still a topic of hot debate months later (I’m looking at you, Miley Cyrus), it seems Perry is off the hook for now. However, these conversations happening about music, and also film and television, bring up an excellent point. Are the voices writing about these issues a member of the community being represented? And if they aren’t, are they really able to give a fair and balanced critique on issues like racism, sexism and homophobia when these issues don’t directly affect their personal lives?
Not surprisingly, the mainstream media discussion is led predominantly by male voices, and while the field is diversifying, a lot of these men are also white. And these men are leading the criticism and discussion about all the music, film and television that permeates popular culture, therefore informing the largest number of readers on how to view and appreciate art. This begs the question, how could these guys REALLY understand what representations mean to women, the LGBT community or people of color?
Patricia Hill Collins, a well-respected Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and expert in intersectionality and feminism says, “Knowledge is based on lived experiences.” Often; however, the people writing about representations are not talking from personal experience. Taking an example from film criticism, a New York Times Piece, titled, “‘Blue’ Through Lesbian Eyes” is aggregated and written by a MAN, Tim Teeman. I find this slightly hilarious, as I have serious doubts this author, Mr. Teeman here, has lesbian eyes, seeing as a lesbian is by definition, a woman…
To their credit, many critics (including Teeman) get it right despite lacking personal experience. In Teeman’s article, he collects lesbian reactions to the film, Blue is the Warmest Color. He correctly reports, largely from his sources’ expertise, the male gaze that tends to permeate lesbian sex scenes in film. In addition, he in no way disparages the opinions of the lesbians represented in his article, thus his ability to respectfully and meaningfully comment on a community which he does not belong to.
But often times, reviews about art involving marginalized communities that come from mainstream critics downplay important moments of representation, fail to mention them at all, or worse, poke fun at them. Taking an example from TV, after the airing of a Glee episode called “Swan Song” in December 2012, which included disparaging, fourth wall breaking comments portraying lesbians as irrational, angry people, a review by Michael Slezak on TV Line lauded Glee’s harmful dialog as simply “meta hilarity” and “cheeky-good writing.” To which, the comment responses looked, and rightfully so, something like this:
Slezak, as a man, saw nothing wrong with Glee’s damaging comments during the episode. Perhaps if he were a member of the lesbian or queer female population, or took the time to educate himself on why Glee’s comments are hurtful, he might understand how deplorable his conclusions are, even in a comedic situation. Not only is Glee guilty of perpetuating harmful stereotypes, but critics such as Slezak who lack a depth in perception or personal experience further marginalize communities when they write off damaging representations which directly impact lived experiences, as “cheeky.” It’s in the comment section on articles like these and on social media where general audience members are left to discuss these issues of representation with more empathy and understanding than critics of the Slezak variety.
In an article titled, “Television as a Cultural Forum,” television theorists Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch argue that TV “functions as a forum in which important cultural topics may be considered.” (565) It has become part of television’s DNA to incite discussion, particularly around cultural and social issues. Newcomb & Hirsch also point out that the collective work of professional critics alone is not diverse enough to have a holistic discussion on the cultural meanings TV has for the diverse audiences it represents or fails to represent. It is the “ordinary” audience; therefore, whose voice is important to the conversation. These are the people commenting on articles and writing their own articles just out of sight of the mainstream media. “[Audiences] find in television texts representations of and challenges to their own ideas, and must somehow come to terms with what is there.” (569)
And this is exactly what is happening, largely thanks to social media and blogging. Audiences talk about TV representations through the lens of their own identity and experiences, creating a meaningful body of criticism that remains invisible to those who don’t know where to look for it. For example, surrounding FOX series, Glee (again), “ordinary” audience members comment regularly on issues such as the double standards between the show’s gay and straight couples (see above), or questioning the repeated and disturbing use of the stereotype all black people look the same.
In comedy, these damaging LGBT representations or moments of racism are sometimes intended to blow those stereotypes to pieces. But, as Kimberle Crenshaw, Critical Race Theory professor at UCLA points out in her article, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality Identity, and Violence Against Women of Color,” “The black community’s historical and ongoing criticism of such humor suggests widespread rejection of these arguments.” (1293) Without African-American voices—who are already talking about these issues online—reaching the mainstream media, shows like Glee, and other attempts at representing marginalized communities, will continue with harmful representations unchecked.
Again, the communities directly affected by popular representations of themselves in mainstream art are talking and writing about the arts that get it right, and those that get it really wrong. These voices should be leading the conversation when issues of representation are called into question. Furthermore, having a range of criticism from women, the LGBT community or people of color, affords a fair perspective. Too often one woman, one gay person or one person of color is tasked with commenting on behalf of entire, diverse communities that are more than their gender, sexual orientation or color of their skin, or any combination thereof. The same goes for issues of classism, ableism and beyond.
I am not implying only people from the represented communities have the right to comment. Diversity in criticism of popular music, film and television is vital. For this same reason, these important conversations already happening among audience members needs to trickle into the mainstream media discussion, and lead it. Allowing women, the LGBT community and people of color to speak for themselves—and more importantly, be heard—about the accuracy and effects TV, film or music have for their lives, will ultimately create better representations and a more equal society.