Diana, Wakanda and A.Ham: Representation Matters
It was well established early on that she could hold her own against even the greatest warriors in battle. And we’d already cheered as we watched her save Steve Trevor’s life in the alley (a brilliant twist on the classic “Clark Kent saves Lois Lane” alley scene).
So when Diana mounted the ladder and stepped into enemy fire in No Man’s Land, breaking all precedent in the bloody landscape of an unwinnable war, boldly assuming a leadership role driven by her sense of integrity and moral obligation, it took me by surprise to find myself wiping a copious watershed of tears from my face in the darkened theater.
I was teetering on the edge of an ugly cry here, people. In a sold-out, opening night audience.
Out of respect for the other paying members of the audience, I attempted to quiet my sobs, not yet comprehending why this scene was hitting me so hard. I knew in that moment that I’d have to see the movie again, partly because I was missing most of the visuals which followed (on account of the unstoppable fountains which had sprung from my tear ducts).
By the second and third (and fourth) viewings of Wonder Woman — still moved to tears each time — I started to feel ready to unpack the layers which were causing my emotional release.
It is relevant here to point out here that I was born in 1970, and raised by parents who taught me that I could be “anything I wanted to be.” And I believed them. I didn’t have to fight like the suffragettes for the right to vote. Nor did my generation have to fight like Hillary Clinton and her peers for other rights that blatantly weren’t yet women’s to claim. I grew up with an awareness of “glass ceilings,” but honestly I didn’t think much about them. I simply had a sense that if you wanted something badly enough you might have to work that much harder as a woman to reach it.
Such was my world view believing that, for the most part, progress for women and equal rights had already been made. Equality was ours, and there for the taking.
Then the election of 2016 happened.
And along with every other emotion that followed, a veil was ripped off to reveal that the forces that indeed still oppress women were far more insidious than we’d realized. Clarity formed around the tentacles of white, patriarchal superiority which were deeper and more far reaching than I had ever realized, or at least acknowledged.
One area in particular started to come into crystal-clear focus. One of the more subliminal sources in shaping our societal norms has always been in the narratives we share. Our art.
For better or for worse, there is a great responsibility held by those who write, produce, direct and act in the stories we consume. The people we see on stage and screen become the cultural role models of our time. Our aspirational touchstones. The mirrors held up to reflect our national identity.
Growing up as a teenager in the 1980s my friends and I watched a lot of movies. The movies we watched were almost exclusively told and acted by white boys, with white girls as accessories to the story. The fact that they were all heterosexual is an absolute given (words like cisgender didn’t even exist yet). Do a little experiment right now and google “1980s top movies.” Now look for a leading woman or person of color. There’s a token Eddie Murphy movie in there, and Spike Lee shows up at the end of the decade, but other than that, the landscape of film was blatantly, overwhelmingly male leading, and white. Even the romantic comedies gave the men top billing, always.
Of course what women there were in films, we most definitely idolized. Some of these women we actually saw as badasses, with their colorful makeup, big hair, sexy mind games and (wet) crop tops. The heroine (for lack of a better word) in Flashdance was a welder for crying out loud — she was a woman in a man’s world! What a pioneering narrative! (and with that cutting edge twist, who even noticed her utterly diminutive baby talk?)
< ugh! >
I’ve only recently started to notice as I rewatch television and movies from my youth that not only were we accepting of this narrative, I’m horrified to recognize that we were ignorantly complicit in celebrating and paying for these patriarchal paradigms. We rewarded them with ticket sales, which in turn taught studios to make more of the same. Not that we knew to ask for any alternatives.
Television, movies and plays were written with demonstrably better, deeper, and more nuanced roles for men. Heroes were men. More lines were written for men — a LOT more lines. More screen time for men. Stories written by men. Produced by men. Directed by men. With scenes that were acted by leading men talking to other men about important things. And if there was a scene that dared to break this rule and have only two women talking in the scene (an exceedingly rare occurrence): their dialogue was centered around the topic of, you guessed it: men.
Not just men: white men. Straight, white men.
So yeah. It was shocking as a woman in my mid-forties to see a battle scene where women — notably women of many colors, shapes and sizes — were not just holding powerful screen time, but with that time they were problem solving and battling as warriors. Not like sexualized objects designed for the pleasure of the male gaze. They weren’t even fighting like “girl” warriors.
This was a screen full of Women. And they fought like Warriors.
Strong. Fierce. Brave. Empowered. Heroic.
As I watched this film I couldn’t help but think: all hail director Patty Jenkins and the studios for hiring a female director to carry out her vision of this film.
As the narrative unfolded, I wondered how my life might have been different if I’d been watching heroines like this as a child, instead of idolizing girls who were either, A) boy-obsessed and pretending to be dumb, or B) intelligent, but not-sexy and/or prudish (cultural representation taught us that these were the two options for girls).
I wondered how the lives of my peers might have been different if we’d experienced stories like this as children, stories in which the women blazed trails with fierce integrity and confidence.
As if in answer to my thoughts, a few days later a friend wrote on Facebook about a conversation he’d overheard at a playground between a little boy and his sister after the movie came out.
“I’ll pretend I’m stuck in the elevator,” he said to her, “and you can be Wonder Woman and save me.”
This is a conversation that most certainly did not happen on my playground as a kid. Hearing about it now, though, made me deeply happy.
Not even a year later, we experienced the blockbuster release of another groundbreaking film, Marvel’s Black Panther.
Whoever would have guessed superhero movies could change the entire world, one perspective at a time? (I mean, besides the white guys who have been lucky enough to have grown up with this as their norm).
The poster for Black Panther alone — an empowered ensemble of black actors embodying the spirit of kings and queens — has to be one of the most spectacular movie posters I’ve ever seen. If it stopped me in my tracks and gave me chills to stand in awe, absorbing that much magnificent talent and cultural significance in one heroic poster, I can only imagine the positive power it must have for children of color to see themselves reflected in that glorious light.
And the whole time I was watching the film, the beautiful costumes, sets and characters woven with relevant nods to African history, a story told with intelligent, fierce and beautiful women warriors and even a nuanced and heart-breakingly poignant anti-hero, I couldn’t help but think: all hail director Ryan Coogler, and the studios for hiring a black director to carry out his vision of this film.
This kind of representation: it matters. On a soul level. In forming people’s own narratives for how they see themselves in their lives. It matters. A lot.
Which brings me to Lin-Manuel Miranda. His genius vision and storytelling talent is fresh on my mind today after finally having experienced the paradigm-shifting phenomenon that is Hamilton: An American Musical, following years of belting out the music at the top of my lungs. Non-stop.
Hamilton is a recent predecessor to both of these superhero films, and perhaps the most spectacular example of culturally groundbreaking storytelling of our time. A narrative told powerfully enough to rewrite the rules of musical theatre, of diverse representation and of historical storytelling all at once.
Giving profound meaning — and literal color — to the story of the immigrants who founded our country, Lin-Manuel’s bold decision to cast historical figures as actors of color has at once the striking effect of reframing our understanding of otherwise stuffy, old history, while also giving voice to a diverse body of actors often left out of leading roles on Broadway.
The heart-wrenchingly brilliant music and extraordinary, multi-cultured talent on stage don’t hurt, either.
Perhaps most importantly, this choice ultimately allows immigrants of every origin to see themselves mirrored in the faces, voices and hearts of the founders of our country. To see their predecessors forging new alliances, inventing a new form of government, loving, trying, failing, problem-solving, fighting and creating.
To watch and feel, viscerally, that we are all human beings sharing a common story at the end of the day.
Diversity in storytelling MATTERS.
As a paying audience members, we support the narrative choices of Hollywood and independent studios, Broadway producers and book publishers with our ticket purchases (which is my defense for the fact that, between my son and I, we’ve purchased an untold but unnaturally large number of tickets to both Wonder Woman and Black Panther… and as soon as I can afford more tickets to Hamilton I most assuredly will be investing again).
So cheers to the storytellers who break with tradition and work to bring long overdue balance to our cultural narratives.
Here’s to writers and actors, directors and producers who chose to elevate all manners of new voices with their work, inspiring young people who will see themselves reflected in a landscape which better reflects the beautiful, diverse melting pot that makes this country interesting, creative and worthy of celebration. And here’s to the audiences who support diversity in the movies they elect to see.
Here’s to the “Inclusion Rider” being an even larger part of the conversation in the future.
A rising tide lifts all boats, after all.