[Featured image by: Menellaos]
Several weeks ago I had the singular pleasure of substitute teaching for a course in the California College of Arts M.F.A. in Comics program. Yes, you read that correctly. There is an M.F.A. in comics. Where was this X number of years ago when I was on my Higher Ed journey?
The students were wonderful and were producing some interesting work. What struck me were the — for lack of a better/more accurate phrase — identity representations in most of the work. The queer student explored queer issues. One woman was writing and drawing romantic comedies. The lone Black student addressed blackness. But the white men told stories.
One was a horror guy, the remaining few created in either Sci-Fi or traditional superhero spaces. There didn’t seem to be a need or desire to represent whiteness and maleness. Maybe because whiteness’ and maleness’ superpower is that it is as transparent as it is omnipresent. It is the cultural default. It is akin to oxygen. We talked a little about this, but ran out of time to dig as deeply as I wanted.
On the way home, something was nagging at me. I wasn’t able to articulate it until now. I want to pose a question to you all:
Do marginalized creators owe anything to their fellow marginalized?
It is a heavy burden. Having to represent a body of (similar) people is some of the heaviest social lifting one can do. How can one person, and their art, represent all of the myriad dimensions, concerns, and intersections of what amounts to a kind of nation of people?
I know I’m a proponent of diverse media and feel strongly that representation matters, but I’m increasingly having trouble with the idea that an artist has to carry “their people” on their backs. It skates too close to the idea, by some illogical leap of imagination, that people are somehow a monolith. But this gives me pause.
On the other side, why wouldn’t one use whatever means and power they have to represent and speak to their people? In my case: Where in the history of the popscape have you seen/read/heard about a 6’1” tattooed Jamaican/Puerto Rican father and husband, a black belt in Judo, proficient in JKD and Kali, a tech enthusiast, AfroGeek with advanced degrees?
When I create, shouldn’t I represent that demographic? Well, at least the black and male and geek-y demo, as the other stuff is probably a bit too narrow. Geek culture is so overwhelmingly white, that it feels like an obligation to develop a strong and inclusive counter-narrative. But does this obligatory feeling dilute our creations?
All of us, whether explicit or not, create from our social and cultural positioning. All of the values, mores, traditions, language, hell, even the foods and songs we were raised on find their way into our work. But does trying to adhere to some cultural standard affect our work in ways it wouldn’t be affected if we were allowed to just tell stories?
If you’re white and straight and male, you get to tell stories. Since society has already set you up for success in multiple ways and consistently reaffirms your existence at every level, you get to write about heroic men doing heroic things. But as POC, or as women, or as Queer folks, there is another filter through which we have to push our art. But the question remains, do we have to? Should we have to?
I want diverse media, of all kinds. I want to see POC in comics. I want movies with loving black fathers who are still with their spouses and not the stoic single father that is so prevalent (shout out to Benjamin Sisko) — but I want those images, too, as we hardly ever see loving black fathers in our mediascape.
But I also feel for my artists on and in the margins.
The burden of representing for your people is nearly impossible. How can you represent something that has more facets than any gem? But we try. We try because we know that we have a voice and we have means and we have access and if enough of us do it, we just might become the new default and the burden of representation will be eased.