Representation is Bullshit

There will never be a part-Hispanic/part-White, devastatingly handsome, six foot tall, thin, modestly fit, straight, quite masculine, Colorado-born, PA to ND transplant, very late Gen-Xer like myself properly portrayed in film. Should I despair?

“Private Vasquez.” Source: 20th Century Fox

One of my favorite films as a kid, which still is to this day, is Aliens. James Cameron’s brilliant high-octane 1986 sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic horror Alien.

Set 57 years after the events of the first film, Aliens sees heroine Ellen Ripley return to face the terror that destroyed her crew and ship. This time with a platoon of badass Colonial Marines packed to the gills with awesome firepower, sent to rescue a remote colony that has been infiltrated by the monsters with acid for blood. “This time it’s war.”

This movie blew my six-year old mind when I first saw it. I loved everything about it. The sets and visuals. The story, which starts meaningfully slow, and builds up to become a runaway freight train. The mother-daughter relationship between Ripley and the only colony survivor, the 8-year old girl Newt. The unique and awesome firepower, including the pulse rifle, and the “steadicam that kills,” as Cameron describes in the script of the massive Smartgun. And of course, the flamethrowers. The memorable and very quotable lines of dialogue. “Game over, man! Game over!” “Nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” The giant APC. The pulse-pounding score. The climactic battle between Ripley in the powerloader and the Queen Alien. The strongly written characters. Hicks, the mature corporal leader. Hudson, the smartass. Bishop, the stoic and self-sacrificial android. And especially Vasquez, the street tough Latina.

As I got older, and became more ethnically self-aware, I found myself particularly drawn to the Vasquez character. Though I was not exactly conscious of it, I was appreciative of the fact that one of my favorite movies prominantly featured someone who kind of looked like me. And, in fact, might even share some of my ethnicity. Vasquez’s precise ethnic background is never mentioned in the movie. In the screenplay, Cameron only mentions her as being from South Central Los Angeles. She could be Mexican, Colombian, Nicaraguan, etc. I didn’t really care. She was darker-skinned. That was good enough. I thought that was pretty cool, in a novel albeit trivial sort of way. Like when you meet someone who happens to have the same birthday as yourself.

Nonetheless, Vasquez was my cinema avatar. My Brown Sorta Sister. As I mentioned in another article, I’m part Mexican, Italian, English, Irish, and a host of other things. It doesn’t really matter. Point is, growing up, I was dark enough to clearly indicate that I was Not White for the most part. When you are Not White, you get Teasing Questions from other kids. To be fair, you get Teasing Questions if you look different in any way as a kid— ask most redheads or people who were “big-boned,” about their childhoods, and they’ll often get Vietnam-style PTSD flashbacks. But as a Not White, Teasing Questions take on a distinct Grand Inquisition style, with such probes as, “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” and others often hurled your way. Usually from peers, but sometimes even from random adults.

I moved around a lot, too. I averaged a new neighborhood about every 18 months. So I was always the new kid. This made it hard to become one of the Cool Not Whites. Instead, I was perpetually a Mystery Not White. This wasn’t really a big deal in grade school, where peers tended to be more concerned with your cartoon loyalties than your race. Once I got to high school, it became more pronounced, especially since one of the government daycare camps I went to was a Diversity High School. And generally speaking, most of the Not Whites didn’t exactly fit into the structure of the school. We had metal detectors. Gang fights. Rampant drug dealing and drug doing. Racial and ethnic divisions. And in the case of my school, a vocal, pronounced, and very proud Puerto Rican and Dominican presence.

An example of the racial tensions simmering under the surface of my Diversity High School: I once made the catastrophic mistake of categorizing Hispanics as White in a biology class, only for some Brooklyn-hailing Puerto Rican princess in hoop earrings and pink yoga sweats to start yelling at me about how “dat ain’t true,” in an obscenity-laced tirade. All while the biology teacher — some pudgy White beta male with an earring, wearing creased New Balance sneakers and dress shorts — did fuck all to keep order. It’s no fun being mixed in a Diversity High School. Or in life in general, for that matter.

My mother is White, and my father is Mexican. They split when I was an infant, as such inter-ethnic/racial pairings often go. She later married a White guy, and had three kids. This didn’t help me any, as now I stood out even more. Not just due to my Not Whiteness, but also because I was the oldest offspring by a good margin, and the only one from a different father.

Naturally, our family lived in White neighborhoods. I attended mainly White public schools (except for DHS). Went to all-White churches. Basically all of my friends were White. I often placed in those very special Advanced Placement classes due to my above average “smartness.” The ones with the kids who are all going to College. Maybe even (awed hush) Ivy League Universities. Those classes were always 99% White.

The notion of my “differentness” didn’t start to manifest until I was an adolescent/pre-teen. It wasn’t a big deal or anything. I was always treated nicely. I was a well-behaved lower middle class kid, and consequently well-liked. But still, I clung to my Brown Sorta Sister, Private Vasquez. And I couldn’t help but start to notice in my voracious media consumption, that there were hardly, if any, people my shade. Even though I admired many actors of all backgrounds, suddenly, inexplicably, I felt the uncanny need for a Representation Fix.

It was the late ‘80s/’90s, so the only “color TV” were shows like Family Matters, The Cosby Show, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, Kenan and Kel, and the ahead-of-its-time diversely cast Nickelodeon show All That. Television was still largely segregated back then, divided between White shows and Black shows, with little mixing outside of token characters or cameos. While I enjoyed some Black shows, I wasn’t Black myself, so there was no hope of getting my Representation Fix from them. There was little if any programming with Hispanic characters. Oddly enough, I had to watch I Love Lucy — a show made in the freaking ‘50s, starring Cuban-born Desi Arnaz —just to get a taste of Latin flavoring.

As for movies, they were mainly White affairs. Aryan Arnold, who was every ’80’s/’90’s kid’s idol at one point, and the Italian Stallion Stallone ruled the macho Alpha Male hero market, with Scotch/Irish-y Bruce Willis in tow. Pre-slap Will Smith was your go-to Black Guy. Keanu Reeves was your Half-White Half-Asian but White Enough to not be Not White and so therefore Basically White Guy action hero. If there were any leading Hispanic actors back then, I never saw them, or don’t recall any. Usually anyone who looked like they hailed south of the border was relegated to the sidelines, or just a random extra in the background. Gang Leader #4. Prison Cellmate #2. The darker the character, often the dirtier the character. Or if a character were actually Latin, they were whitewashed by someone with a milkier dermal disposition, or a different nationality altogether. Al Pacino as Scarface, for instance. That sort of deal. Even as recently as 2012, Christopher Nolan swapped Bane’s Latino identity for an Eastern European-hailing thug in The Dark Knight Rises. A disappointment to me not so much because of the whitewashing, but because I wanted a Bane more authentic to what I’d seen in Batman: The Animated Series.

Hey, that was alright, I thought back then. I had my Brown Sorta Sister Vasquez. She was all I needed to satisfy my Representation Fix.

And then one day I discovered that the actress who played Private Vasquez, far from being a Latina of any type, was actually a Jewish woman. And not just a Jewish woman, but a fair-skinned one at that, who essentially played Vasquez in brown face, darkened up with make-up to match the tone of the character’s possibly Mexican melanin-tinted heritage.

:::sad slide whistle:::

The actress’s name is Jenette Goldstein, a Cameron standby, playing roles in Titanic and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, amongst many others in a long and varied, on again off again TV/movie career.

Jenette Goldstein. Source:

This revelation wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. I was old enough to realize actors often played characters with ethnic backgrounds different from their real-life own. It was a somewhat numbing experience, however. Certainly, it was a teachable moment. It had all been a lie. My Brown Sorta Sister, like some imaginary childhood friend, never really existed. Even though it was the character that I had bonded with — which was and still is of a similar matching ethnicity — and not so much the actress herself, the fact that the actress’s ethnic background was distinctly not Not White like mine, and clearly White, nonetheless kind of ruined the suspension of disbelief. I had to make peace with the fact that this character that I had always loved was like something out of a minstrel show.

It’s bizarre to think about now, but there was a time when Hollywood had no idea what to do when it came to “ethnic” casting. There were no rules. At the least, it was much more (literally) Black and White. You had White characters and occasionally Black ones for a little spice. Rarely did they mix if it wasn’t for comedic or token effect. Or if the show or movie was racially themed, like set during the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement, or something. That was about it.

James Cameron cast and shot Aliens in England in 1985, right next door to the same lot Stanley Kubrick was filming Full Metal Jacket, in fact. The mid-’80s England theater/acting scene wasn’t exactly a huge melting pot. Goldstein came to audition for Vasquez dressed in a fancy gown she was wearing for a Victorian Age play she was in at the time. It’s not exactly surprising that Cameron was unable to find a legit Latina in merry old England in order to properly portray the tough and streety South Central L.A. character he had written for the Alien sequel. Michelle Rodriguez would have only been 7 years old at the time. Far too young to convincingly play a badass machine-gun wielding chica dura.

Now, if one were a racial grievance monger, or simply of a lesser mind (i.e. woke), they might be outraged and excessively butthurt at the fact that a movie character was portrayed in brown face as late as the late 1980s. But I am neither a monger nor of a lesser mind. (Remember, I was in all those Advanced Placement classes.) Even though “losing” Vasquez, my Brown Sorta Sister, was like losing a good friend, the conclusion that I eventually came to was not some self-righteous moral condemnation of Hollywood’s well-known history of White preferential casting. It was to realize that it had been foolish and immature of me to ever think I needed some kind of Representation Fix in the first place.

It was to realize that representation is bullshit.

Of course, nowadays, racial and ethnic representation is all the rage in Hollywood. The Big Thing to do now is swap popular, originally White lead characters, and replace them with Black actors. The Little Mermaid is the most recent example. A trend that’s been met with controversy on all sides of the debate. White nerds on YouTube decry it as “woke” and “White erasure,” or something. Proud wokesters declare it a form of “equity,” a reflection of the sensibilities of “modern audiences,” or something. And still some still call it “tokenism.” Or corporate virtue signaling to appeal to a broader market. Or something.

It’s all very silly and stupid to me. Though it does strike me as a cringy overcorrection. As if Hollywood were trying to make up for its past exclusionary casting sins by throwing in as many non-Whites as it can into lead roles. There are apparently diversity laws now that govern Hollywood, which necessitate that particular identity boxes be checked during casting before a movie can be greenlit. All in the effort to reflect the modern, diverse world in which we live in. Though it’s not as if astute observers like myself don’t see the subtext underlying the sudden good-hearted racially-minded castings— the violence wreaked in the summer of 2020 during the Black Lives Matter riots over the death of George Floyd. Amongst other supposed racially-motivated killings of Black Americans over the last decade and a half or so. And lest we forget #OscarsSoWhite, the viral hashtag denouncing the injustice of the 2015 Academy Awards nominating 20 all-White actors. The Blackening of Hollywood had been a long time coming. Whether adding more Blacks constitutes actual “diversity” or simply more tokenism to appease an activist mob is a subject for another article. For now, we’ll go along with it.

Personally, I often feel a quiet civil war within my mind over whether this latest diversifying trend is genuine or not, and by extension, good or bad. I’d like to think it’s my reasoning faculties weighing the trend impartially. But perhaps it’s just my middle-aged cynical side thinking it’s merely the actions of a few conglomerate entertainment companies attempting to hook a wider audience, while keeping themselves out of the crosshairs of the trigger-happy Twitter hashtag mafia.

There are two camps of thought on this, I’ve found. The Doomer “Who Cares It’s Just Entertainment” Camp, and the Crying Zoomer “No, What About Authenticity and the Author’s Intent!” Camp.

In the Who Cares It’s Just entertainment Camp, I ask myself why the hell do grown ass men care what color the little mermaid is? Or that Anne Boleyn is being portrayed by a dark-skinned Black actress? The former is fictional. The latter we all know was in reality a very White British lady. It’s not like seeing Boleyn portrayed by a Black actress is going to brainwash people into thinking the British monarchy was Black during the 1800s.

But then the Crying Zoomer wails that certain stories and characters are representations of ethnic history and culture. For instance, Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s fantasy version of Middle Ages England, which is why all the characters are White. Or at least they were. Did Tolkien mean for his work to represent “modern audiences?” Or, was he making a contemplative statement on humanity’s temptation to abuse power, with a sort of Christian allegory, based off of a region that was 99.9% White up until about fifty years ago? As for The Little Mermaid, it’s a Danish fairy tale. Shouldn’t that mean it’s only meant for White characters?

There’s certainly a place for factoring in the ethnicity of characters, especially when historical accuracy is required. I’d be taken aback to see Abraham Lincoln being portrayed by Denzel Washington in an Oscar-level biopic. But if such a thing were to happen, so what? Hollywood can’t change history. Even if Denzel Washington played Lincoln, that wouldn’t suddenly change reality. He did just fine portraying Macbeth, afterall, and no harm subsequently befell the former King of Scots’ caucasian integrity. Lincoln would still be a White dude. Lincoln’s race is besides the point anyway. We discuss him to this day, and will continue to do so into the far future, because of his tremendous accomplishments, and his values as a man and as a president. That he was White is incidental in the grand scheme of things.

It’s taken me a lifetime to achieve what I believe is the highest and most enlightened mindset when it comes to this issue of representation. I speak as someone who overcame the false belief that it is in some way essential. Here’s the deal: If you are outsourcing your sense of self-worth and validation to casting agents in Hollywood, if you only feel “seen,” when people who happen to kind of match your ethnic background are on TV or in the movies playing pretend characters, then you are foolishly delusional and chasing a phantom.

As Snoop Dogg wisely says, and quite eloquently so:

Once you be you, who could be you but you.

What exactly is the concept of “you?” I think if you’re looking at yourself primarily, or in large part, in terms of race or ethnicity, you’re shortchanging yourself a great deal. You’re ignoring qualities or abilities that actually matter. But let’s say you can’t help but see yourself through the lens of race. And let’s say that seeing others that share your race/ethnicity on screen is of the utmost priority to your emotional well-being, or sense of “belonging,” or “being seen” within a culture or community. Ok, then, does that still apply if the person who shares your racial/ethnic identity on screen has a different nationality? Or comes from a different sub-culture or tribe within an ethnicity or race? Or has a different political persuasion? Or different religion? Why should things like race, sexuality, and gender get all the attention? Why not height, political affiliation, weight, or socio-economic class?

Besides, society likes to lump the races into big catch-all pots. But Russians are very different to the English, even if they share a similar skin tone. Just as South Africans or Nigerians are different from Haitians. Then you have very pale-skinned Whites, olive-skinned Whites, light and dark-skinned Blacks. You have white-skinned blue-eyed blonde Hispanics, and darker-skinned Hispanics. My Hispanic roots trace mostly to the Nuevo Léon territory of northeastern Mexico. I have no clue what side of the island my Irish and English roots are mostly from, or what side of the boot my Italian heritage hails. But I suppose if we’re going to take all this identity politics stuff seriously, it would make it impossible for me to feel “seen” if anyone outside of my territories of origin were to be on screen playing a character. Supposing Goldstein was actually Mexican, but hailed from Baja California. I guess that would rule her out for me.

When you start down the path of “validation by racial/gender/sexuality representation,” you begin to realize that it’s an unobtainable goal, especially taken to its granular extreme. All it does is set you up to fail, chasing some phantom snake oil elixir meant to supposedly cure your racial identity crisis and need for acceptance.

Representation, as far as what Hollywood produces, is no better than one of those useless scam products on late night TV. It’s the Shake Weight of racial reconciliation.

There are a million better ways to work your forearm muscles than one that makes it look like you’re jacking off Andre the Android. There are a million better ways to “fix” racial imbalances than sticking race-swapped characters on the boob tube and calling it good.

Supposed “identity validators” can be fluid and fall from grace anyway. Take J.K. Rowling, for instance. Once a shining feminist icon through which many young women ported their sense of value and pride. A single mom who rose up from poverty to become a billionaire author on her own power and create a mega franchise single-handedly. An inspiring story of grit and determination. During introductions at a literary analysis class in college, nearly half the room (all women) credited the Harry Potter books as their inspiration to study English and become writers. Nowadays, Ms. Rowling has fallen sharply out of favor, impaled on the social sword of “intolerance” and “bigotry” for her unacceptance of the trans community’s/activist’s interpretations of gender and sex. Former fans burn her books. Her Twitter is no longer a place of magic, but a bloody sparring ground of ideological clashes.

Then you have Bill Cosby. Once “America’s Dad.”

:::Price is Right losing horn:::

Need I say more on him?

Perhaps I’m being a bit obtuse and simplistic here. But I’m trying to illustrate an argument by absurdity. My point is, the destination that you will ultimately arrive at in this long introspective quest for the validation of “you” is obviously yourself — you, the individual, which, as Snoop says, cannot be replicated by someone else, or duplicated.

And that’s just considering the racial/gender/sexuality angle. As implied at the very top with my laundry list of very accurate personal attributes, it would be impossible to find your exact equal anywhere on earth, much less on the screen. So why care so much? Who could be you but you?

For the record, I fall more into the Doomer camp from the aforementioned debate over diversifying casting changes. But with a twist. I don’t really care much about supposed casting diversity. If the actor is good and the story is written well, I’ll likely enjoy it no matter who’s playing what roles. I recently watched Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine, about two transgender Black prostitutes living on the streets of Los Angeles. Even though I’m pretty far from the race and sexuality identities of the main characters, I still enjoyed the film, which was mainly about jealousy, jilted love, betrayal, forgiveness, repressed and closeted sexual desires, and friendship. Even if you can’t relate necessarily to the characters, or to every thread or idea in a film, a good story provides universal themes that anyone can relate to in some way. At the least, it was a fascinating look at an unusual subculture.

However, don’t sit there and expect me to believe we’re making social “progress” just because the little mermaid is Black. GTFO of here with that. And further, it’s okay to prefer actors of particular races to play certain characters, especially in stories or series you love. That doesn’t make you racist. It makes you a loyal fan. It’s okay to want to see people who look like you. But so do others who may not share your racial background. So it’s best not to get your ego and sense of identity too tied up with how fictional characters are portrayed on screen.

At the end of the day, I’m a representative of one. Myself. That’s it. I still love Vasquez. I hold nothing against the talented actress who played her. In fact, I think it’s incredible she was able to transform so effectively that she had me fooled for years. I still revere James Cameron. He’s still one of my favorite writer/directors. He’s part of the reason I’m a writer today. And, of course, I still love Aliens.

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