Columns

Take That! Representation, Schmepresentation

Jiaqi Kang is an Oxford Blue Film & TV columnist. Every week, join Jiaqi in discussion with friends, fellow cinephiles, and film foes on what they’ve been watching.

This week’s column is a little different – there’s no guiding question, and there’s no consensus. No amount of civilised questions is going to ‘solve’ issues of representation. I’m sick and tired of calls for surface ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ on the screen that don’t engender any tangible, structural changes within the entertainment industry, let alone all of society. Every awards season, the #OscarsSoWhite topic is rehashed without resulting in anything new. Who cares which millionaire gets picked by other millionaires to win a trophy? 

Even if the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group’s dreams came true and Awkwafina was cast to star as the next… say, Iron Man, what would that really do? The film would still be imperialist propaganda but with an Asian face on it. It might even be worse, because now it’s a person of colour advocating for violence in the Third World. The most radical thing a Disney film can do, really, is say ‘oppression = bad; peace = good’ – this, I admit, was done excellently in Black Panther – but it hardly fills the void that capitalism has created in our hearts. At the end of the day, I think I’d rather watch a silly heterosexual rom-com than a melodramatic ‘forbidden love’ gay film where someone dies.

I also think representation debates promote conflict between marginalised groups with various communities asking, “Wait what about me?”. If we all decided that none of this was worth our time, we could work together to seize the means of production, and then everybody would be able to make whatever they wanted. 

But not everyone is as cynical as me, and issues like this are deeply complex. To shed some light on ableism, which I have never experienced, I sat down at Skogen with a friend – who wishes to remain anonymous – about watching kids’ movies as an autistic person.

Jiaqi: George Miller made Happy Feet for his kids in 2006. When they grew up, he was able to go back and make Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015, which is awesome because it has a guy hanging off a giant truck playing a guitar in the desert. 

Anonymous: I prefer Happy Feet to Mad Max because it’s one of the long list of children’s films that speaks to me as an autistic person. Mumble’s dad is embarrassed by him because he can’t sing. Mumble’s mother doesn’t see it as as big of an issue, but his father thinks it’s because he dropped the egg – that’s why he’s not able to do the things the other kids can do. 

Jiaqi: I hadn’t thought of that before. 

Anonymous: They’re scared of him. He’s an outcast. But not being the same as the other penguins helps him to save their habitat. In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup doesn’t have the same attitude as the rest of society. This becomes a big strength. By getting to know a dragon: he learns a lot of their weaknesses and how to fight them. But ultimately they all learn that there’s a better way than conflict. It’s about not being good: even if you can adapt and fit in, you realise there are better ways to be. You don’t have to follow along with the crowd. 

Jiaqi: You admire these films because they’re optimistic, but in real life you’re reluctant to ‘out’ yourself as autistic. 

Anonymous: If Mumble had the option of being able to pretend to sing, he would probably do that. Because then everyone would accept him without him saving them. There’s a fight for acceptance. Both characters save the whole of society. It’s a utopian idea: ‘My weakness is actually the biggest strength any of us could ever have’. Most people can’t do that. 

Jiaqi: Children’s films can be quite life-or-death. There isn’t room for subtlety.

Anonymous: I think that’s a good feature of children’s films. I want happy endings. It’s entertainment. You appreciate that some of it is fictionalised. There are definitely weaknesses. I didn’t realise these films could be interpreted that way until I was around 14. 

Jiaqi: But wouldn’t it be better if they addressed autism directly rather than using metaphor? The racism metaphor in Zootopia, for instance, was clumsy because there is a real reason to hate predators––they eat prey. 

Anonymous: With a metaphor, it can apply to many different disabilities, not just autism – and feelings of being a misfit. Lots of different groups can see themselves in one character, and it avoids becoming labelled as a film “for them”. Also, people have tried making films about autism, and they’re not good. 

Jiaqi: There’s diversity in storytelling, and there’s diversity in employment in the film industry. I’m quite frustrated with the debate on media representation, especially as it’s pretty much the only topic discussed by the so-called Asian community. I feel like there are more important things to worry about in the world. It feels like a distraction: I don’t care who Scarlett Johansson plays. I want justice for the Essex 39. I want to stop deportations.

Anonymous: Films are always going to be made. Why not have representation?

Jiaqi: That’s fair. I’m not gonna pretend I wasn’t overwhelmed by the casting of The Personal History of David Copperfield when I went to see it on Friday. It was cool, and not just because Dev Patel is hot. It was revolutionary to see a film that actively centered BAME people yet wasn’t thematically concerned with racism or oppression –– it shows that people from marginalised groups can lead regular lives and tell absorbing stories that aren’t just defined by their marginalisation. We can be anywhere.