Representation is a funny thing, really. It both creates and reflects expectations of what is and what is supposed to be. Though it's merely an image, a type of fabrication, somehow it's also a reality, a blueprint of sorts. There's a sort of responsibility inherent within representation, too. There's a responsibility to create an artifice that seems so real to its audience that, even with irrifutable fact, still topples truth. There is also the responsibility to meet particular expectations, no matter how insidious the motivation. If the expectation is to reflect a desired reality and/or reinforce a model for specific types of desired behavior, then so be it.
Also intrinsic within representation is mimicry and ambivalence, concepts addressed by Homi Bhabha in exploring colonialist rhetoric. Mimicry is related to fetishization, a rather insidious aspect of representation, by which, according to Modleski (1997), there is a “play of presence and absence.” The greater culture absorbs the image of the people, but not the people themselves. This is typically deemed as cultural appropriation without social integration (Cripps, 1977).1
When it comes to representations on screen, expectation and representation oftentimes go hand-in-hand in a reciprocal relationship, for better or for worse. There is the idea of giving the audience what it wants, while telling the audience what it wants. No matter the realism or plausibility of a situation, representation can overshadow the limits of the real world. This is seen quite often where blackness is concerned on screen, whether film or television. Much has been written regarding the negative images of blackness in the early twentieth century. While shows like Amos ‘n Andy provided black actors with acting opportunities, these representations reinforced negative images of the black experience, painting blackness as ignorant. I had the pleasure of meeting Aurin Squire, creator of This Is Us, at a playwriting Masterclass held at Catawba College in conjunction with Lee Street Theatre. In regards to blackness and minstrelsy, he states, “Blackness allowed people to say naughty things, be perverse, be magical, transcend the dull confines of being white, while always being enslaved to the task of taking care of white people's needs. Blackness did not exist without an audience to perform in front of, and that audience was predominantly white.”
However, these representations have also provided an inroad for the creation of more appropriate images. When Langston Hughes wrote his poem, “I, Too,” he imagined an America that would eventually see the errors of subjugating African Americans and allow them a seat at the table. With the promulgation and expansion of black representation throughout a multitude of media platforms, the old tropes from minstrelsy have greater competition. No longer is the American audience at the mercy of seeing the Mammy and the Angry Black Woman (the Sapphire) as the only images of black womanhood; now, there’s Olivia Pope (Scandal) and Rainbow Johnson (Black-ish), and before them, Lt. Nyota Uhura and Ororo Munroe (Storm). Now, instead of the lazy black man and the criminal, there’s Jefferson Pierce (Black Lightning) and Randall Pearson (This Is Us). As Squire says, “Black characters can be dramatic without being tragic. When we are allowed to be our whole selves we avoid getting boxed into archetypes of the past. Black storytellers and creators have to have a knowledge of the past to know what to avoid, and a creative and dynamic outlook to create well-rounded characters.”
In this regard, despite the continued work needed to reach this ideal of a ‘post-racial’ America, especially as it regards media representation, it is encouraging to see that this struggle, this work, still is regarded as important.
1 Modleski, Tania. “Cinema and the Dark Continent: Race and Gender in Popular Film.” Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. Edited by Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, Sarah Stanbury. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, pp. 208-228.