“Representation matters,” but not more than everything else
I went to film school chasing a dream of telling my story to a world that always seemed not to know what to do with queer Black bois like me. A dream of forcing the world to know.
But it was just a dream. At film school, I quickly learned that while you may be able to make a person see you, you cannot make a person know you. You cannot make them interpret your body the way you want them to when their own sense of sanity demands another interpretation of humanity. And you cannot ignore forever how the over-simplicity of the term “representation matters” often renders it useless, just like it rendered so much of my work as a young liberal artist useless, or at least un-impactful, before I knew these limitations.
We say ‘representation matters,’ but we rarely ask: to whom? What kind of representation matters? Representation in front of which audiences matters? How does it matter? These are the critical questions left out when the catch-phrase is used without intention, questions that illuminate a necessary and more nuanced look at how we as Black people define ourselves in relation to the world viewing us.
All representation is not created equally.
Afrofuturist artists like Octavia Butler have been writing the stories we claim matter to us, so why hasn’t this satisfied our desire for “representation”? Instead, we resent her relative obscurity. Instead, we want to see her work on HBO. We want to see her work in Hollywood. We want to see Lupita Nyong’o in the cast. All of these things would be amazing for a fanboy like me, but is there a difference between something that feels amazing and something that is freeing?
If representation simply mattered, if the power of seeing Black people in positions of power was self-evident, our journey to unearth independent artists who provide platforms for us to see Black people in those positions would never cease. There are so many already doing so with such tiny audiences. Often when we use this phrase, however, we mean “high-quality representation,” which generally requires resources that have been hoarded by those who are already in power.
Even more often, though, we mean “representation in front of others.” Seeing ourselves harnessing untapped power isn’t enough. We want others to see us as powerful, too.
What is the difference between desire to see freer worlds for ourselves and the hope that simply seeing is doing the work of turning those visions a reality? If we had the perfect Octavia Butler film, the perfect Black president, the perfect dolls of various shapes and colors and sizes, how much closer would we be to a world where Black people were free? And how many more films and presidents and dolls do we need to get to that level of perfection?
Hope and desire aren’t the same. Hope insinuates a deeper expectation of the future. Many of us hope for a world where white, cis, straight gazes do not dictate our lives. We know that they dictate with violence, and so we have become steadily louder in our calls to not give a fuck about those gazes.
But many of us really just desire those gazes to dictate differently. We want white people to see us as human, too. We want cisgender people to see us as alive, as well. We want straight people to understand the boundlessness of sexuality, and the freeing possibilities of this understanding. But we still want those who oppress us to do something, rather than create a world where whatever they do does not matter.
Perhaps I am a pessimist, but centuries of history are enough proof to me that what these gazes do won’t change, or at least not anytime soon. Perhaps accepting this is what will finally allow our hope for freer worlds and our desires to become aligned––evolving into a hope and desire for a deeper representation, one that really, truly, isn’t for anyone else. One that allows for an opportunity to say “fuck the white gaze” and truly mean it.
“Representation matters” cannot be the beginning and the end of the conversation.
Representation matters, but only when the white gaze doesn’t. Representation matters, but representation is not enough.
If our representation comes at the expense of what is enough, of what gets us to stop waiting to be redeemed in the eyes of those who have yet to find contrition for their own sins, then perhaps we have to learn to say “fuck representation” sometimes, too.