This post is essentially an off-shoot of my last post, about Hispanic representation in media. There I focused on how pop culture writers create Latin@ characters by coding with things like skin color, accents, names, et al, “defining” these identities by somewhat narrow parameters. I briefly mentioned how culture is an important part of Latino identity, not just superficial physical appearances, which leads me to this post—culture does not exist in a vacuum, it is by its very nature a fundamentally shared phenomenon. Sometimes the cultural unit is as small as a family (which can be as small as two people), but it can be as large as a whole community. Where are these communities on our screens?
I talked a little about Sense8 in my last post. One of many neat things about this show is that we get to see people of color in their natural habitat. Now, I’m being facetious, but also bringing up a real point. Lito and co. are firmly rooted in a Mexico populated by Mexicans (okay, I’m sure not all the extras are Mexican, but at least Latin@), Capheus the same in Kenya, and Sun the same way in Korea. (The one thing I don’t like about this is how English is spoken in all these places; I would much prefer to hear the original language and read English subtitles like they do in many shows—Heroes comes to mind.) What does this mean, and more importantly, why does this matter? It serves as a reminder of important truths: not all places in this world are white places. Not all stories are white stories.
For too long characters of color have only been included in American pop culture with a sense of tokenism; a solitary interloper inhabiting white spaces, a side character in a white story. “Token minority” characters are sad in that they can all too easily fall prey to stereotypes and generalizations (“we have to fit in all the stereotypes of this race into one character!”) and/or have the unnecessary burden to be a “spokesperson” for an entire race. Yet we’re still at a point where we applaud “diversity”, even if “diversity” only means inserting one or two faces of color in an otherwise monochrome setting. Oh, the white main character’s sidekick is a person of color! How far we’ve come! Though there have now been a tiny number of shows with PoC main characters, when they are surrounding with mostly white supporting characters, that’s still only half the story. What about stories rooted in communities of color? By only having “token” characters in white settings, there’s an insidious insinuation that characters of color are only palatable as a side dish to a white main course.
Here’s a surprising instance that illustrates the ideas in this post. October (a.k.a. Hallow-month) is almost upon us, and if you follow this blog, you know I love some good horror media. I finally got around to watching Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones a few weeks ago. I am a fan of the Paranormal Activity franchise, but really almost more on principle than reality: I thought the first one was great, the sequels decidedly less so. But The Marked Ones really gave a breath of fresh air to the franchise. Not only was it spooky, I found it genuinely engaging and interesting; having a new and very different cast and setting revived a stagnating franchise, and the fact the main characters are teenagers gives it a fun, youthful vibe that I love in my horror media (see: Buffy and Teen Wolf). What was so different about this cast and setting? There wasn’t a single white person to be seen.
The main characters—Jesse, Hector, and Marisol—are all Hispanic living in a Latin@ community. The casting of the extras, from the neighbors in their apartment scenes to all the students and families at the opening graduation scene, made it very evident that this story took place in a Latin@ space, not a white one. And you know what? The movie was still enjoyable, and I still cared about the characters and the story. While there were elements of Hispanic culture infused in the film (a Spanish-speaking abuela, some of the food and religion references, a brief mention of the cucuy), creating an unmistakable milieu, it was certainly accessible to all viewers. “Pisces, you just said you were Hispanic, of course you’d relate!” you might interject. But remember, I also said last time how most Latin@ representation is not like my family—The Marked Ones is set in southern California, so the main stream of Latin@ culture would be Mexican, not Ecuadorian/South American like my heritage. My point being: you can watch and enjoy a film set in a community filled with characters who may not look like you, who don’t share the same culture. You can do it! I have faith in you!
It’s funny though; The Marked Ones was marketed as a “spin-off” to the franchise, rather than the next installment. What, to keep the legacy of the other films from being “tainted” by too much ethnicity?! The idea that white viewers couldn’t possible enjoy a movie with non-white settings and characters? That a Latin@ setting/milieu is so foreign and exotic it would just be far too alienating for a white viewership without something to excuse itself? “Oh, was that too foreign and alienating for you? It’s okay, it was just a spin-off; so you can take it or leave it, unlike the garbage canonical fourth film with white characters that came before it.” Not cool.
We desperately need more films like this. We need films and TV shows that show us diversity isn’t just the one Black guy in your office building, the one Asian girl on your dorm floor; it’s whole communities of people with a shared heritage and culture. Added benefits—how many more roles would there be for actors of color if we switched from individual-token diversity to community-based diversity? You could literally fill a whole cast with actors of color instead of just giving one or two a spot. This kind of media would also give creators from communities of color a chance to share their authentic stories; though that doesn’t mean white creators can’t help spread this trend: The Marked Ones was written and directed by a white dude. (How white? Christopher B. Landon’s dad was the dad on Little House on the Prairie. That white.) This can be a new paradigm for showcasing the realities of diversity and stories of communities of color. I’ll repeat it again, because it’s worth repeating: Not all places are white places. Not all stories are white stories.