Editorial: Representation Isn’t The Point

Progress is about more than filling in check boxes.

By Robert Marrujo:: I know someone who's taking a film class in college right now. She told me that the Pixar movie Coco was brought up for discussion and that the professor asked, "what was the movie about?" To which a sincere but misguided handful of students declared, "representation."

Representation isn't what Coco is about, nor should it be the goal of any movie featuring minorities, women, or the disenfranchised. Representation is a part of a larger picture. Anyone who walked away from Coco and thought it's purely about representation is ostensibly saying the movie was simply a cursory showcase for Mexicans and Mexican culture, and that's about it.

It's insulting, whether the students meant it to be or not. It paints the use of minority (speaking of course towards those considered minorities in the United States) culture and people as little more than tokens, props, and window dressing. It says, "Look! Brown people!" and assumes that's in and of itself progress. It isn't. Coco had a plot, had characters, and wasn't just about being authentically "Mexican." That was a part of the film, not its raison d'être.

 

As someone who's Mexican-American, it was very frustrating to hear this class of students be so off the mark about Coco. Did they also walk away from Moana, I wonder, believing that movie was about Polynesian culture and nothing else? Did they finish Lilo and Stitch and assume the movie was nothing but a vehicle to show off Hawaiian people? It's this mindset that people have been trying to steer away from for decades now, yet here we have a group of Millennials who are voluntarily applauding the idea of representation without depth. Which in the case of Coco is wildly inaccurate. There's a story in that movie even if the students couldn't see it.

I can concede that I'm possibly being overly critical of this class, but if I am it's not by much. It's unnerving to imagine that this assemblage of students isn't alone in its stunted perception of representation and diversity in media and entertainment. Representation isn't in and of itself the end goal. We've seen that already and it sucks. I mentioned it above: tokens. An all-white cast with a random black "pal." The Asian warrior/ninja. The Mexican fresh from the border. The Indian tech guru. That's what "representation" meant up until arguably the past fifteen to maybe twenty years in Hollywood. Watch an old rerun of a '90s sitcom or drama and these stereotypes are all over the place. Sure, it got people of color on the screen, but only ever in ways that fit a very narrow and stereotypical view of American minority cultures and sans any kind of dignity.

I don't speak Spanish and I don't like soccer. We didn't do a quinceañera for my sister; both halves of my family never have, going back at least two generations. We've been in the United States for about seven or eight generations. When I saw Coco was coming out, I knew Disney and Pixar would handle its use of Mexican culture with respect because both companies have demonstrated they know how to bring people of color into their movies without making a mockery of them. Yet, as exciting as that proposition is to many, it also is representative of the fact that representation still centers around separateness and not inclusion. Coco didn't speak to me on a personal level because I don't identify with traditional Mexican culture. I'm an American.

Representation in Hollywood and other forms of mass media needs to evolve a lot more than it has. The bulk of Hispanic characters I come across on TV and in movies speak with a Spanish accent. Often, the accent is forced; otherwise, the audience might be "confused," assumedly, to see someone brown speaking English just like a black or white person. It's insulting. On one hand it's nice to see someone who looks like me acting. On the other, it's almost always a stereotype of how a Mexican "should" behave.

Representation should be about showing people of every walk of life without pandering to stereotype. It should be about featuring people without relying on reducing them to a handful of tropes and convenient boxes. Coco, to me, succeeded on that front, whether I identified with it or not. I absolutely did not, however, walk away from that film thinking it started and ended at sugar skulls and chanclas. If that were the case then those students in my friend's class shouldn't have been elated, they should have been asking, "shouldn't there have been more to this movie?"

Authenticity of identity and culture in the US is a very multifaceted thing. There is no universal truth for minorities in this country. I've been on the brunt end of discrimination from other Mexicans because I don't speak Spanish or act "Mexican" enough to suit their liking. Growing up and living in the Bay Area I've seen African Americans push each other down by labeling each other as being "whitewashed" for something as simple as going to school and doing well. I've seen Asian store owners follow around black customers because they think they're more prone to steal. I've seen quite a variety of behaviors and lifestyles and interactions between minorities that belies the simplistic narratives that Hollywood is under the assumption that we follow.

These are parts of the life of a person of color that no one is yet prepared to deal with in any rational way in a national discussion, let alone on a TV show. So while I can applaud the strides that a movie like Coco has made for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who went to that movie and enjoyed seeing aspects of their lives on the big screen, I also caution that it's a smaller step than perhaps most would want it to be. If we really want true representation, show me more movies like Up.

Russell, who is Carl's unwitting companion throughout the film, is clearly Asian, but not once is that ever a focal point of his character. It's never outright discussed or mentioned. He doesn't talk about eating rice or coming from overseas. He's just shown as a kid. A little boy in the Scouts. That is representation. That is being inclusive. That is showing minorities and the disenfranchised that we're all Americans, that not just "white" people get to enjoy that designation. When I can watch an actor like James Roday not have to change his last name to hide he's Hispanic in order to avoid being pigeonholed as a Latino in every role he ever plays, that's when I'll cheer. When college kids can walk away from Coco and not think the movie is just about a shallow depiction of Mexicans I'll be happy.

But until then, let's be clear: representation isn't the goal. It's a part of the process of acceptance and normalization.

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