The following essay was brought to our attention by University of Calgary School of Performing Arts Sessional Instructor Léda Davies. We’re thrilled to get this insight into what post-secondary theatre students are thinking about, researching, and writing about right now. Thank you Sofia Huarte Aguilar for sharing this excellent essay!
THE ETHICS OF INTERSECTIONAL REPRESENTATION AND THE MODEL MINORITY
Sofia Liliette Huarte Aguilar
Theatre in colonial first world countries, like everything else that exists within the structures of power in what we call the Western world, upholds the cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled, middle-to-upper class man as the standard of normalcy. Theatre in colonial first world countries, like everything else in these spaces, is extremely bigoted. Not only by virtue of existing within systems that are inherently bigoted, but because the theatre industry is run and marketed toward a very specific subset of the population: that which has been deemed “normal.” There is a reason why 78.5% of all audience members and 79.25% of all performers on the 2014-15 Broadway season were white, and it goes beyond implicit bias: this is an issue of systemic oppression (Onuoha 2016). It should be self-evident that diverse voices and stories ought to be given more space and agency within the theatre industry, but in order to introduce intersectional representation into these spaces, we must first understand what prevented these voices from existing within the theatre, and be acutely aware of the pitfalls we might fall into on the path to representation. It’s crucial to have an understanding of all the heavy lifting that will be necessary to diversify the theatre on and off stage, to ensure support for the marginalized communities that will be leading the work, and to be ruminate on questions about who gets to tell stories, and how they are told. In this essay, I propose that intersectional representation be exercised with responsibility and accountability, and needs to be grounded in ethical empathy and positionality.
What is it then, that makes the theatre industry so devoid of marginalized voices? Consider the high costs associated with it; tickets for professional productions are often priced too high for low income families, minors, and students; theatre education-everything from community theatre programs for children, all the way to university education-is expensive; life as a theatre artist frequently enduring employment and financial instability; just being a theatre artist is expensive: headshots, classes, certifications, the travel that’s involved, having to take days off work to attend auditions; these are all things that low income people simply cannot afford. “When the people on stage are those who can afford to lose rather than make money, and the paying public are similarly middle-class, it is difficult to defend theatre from those oft-invoked charges of elitism.” (Lownie, 2019) It’s also important to remember that poverty has a tendency to affect Black, Indigenous, and People of Color disproportionately. In the United States in 2019, the median household income in Hipsanic households was $20,000 lower than that of white households; for Black households, there was a disparity of $31,000 (Statista Research, 2021). For many people from marginalized communities, theatre is simply a luxury they cannot afford.
Introducing intersectionality in theatre goes beyond what stories are told on stage, representation is a complex issue, and we must not try to look at it as a linear, unified, homogenous entity. In her article Intersectionality and Identity in Theatre, Rebecca Anjwojner talks about scholar Gayatri Spivak’s theory that outlines two types of representation: by proxy -as speaking for, such as in politics: this includes the inner dynamics of advocacy-, and by portrait -as re-presentation, which includes staging, and making significance. The latter is perhaps the one we would more directly see reflected on the stage, as “A representative [that] mediates and translates the subaltern position.” However, Spivak argues that by portrait representation cannot exist without by proxy representation first laying the groundwork to allow it to exist (2020). Which means that diversifying theatre spaces can only be achieved through a revision of systems that uphold the theatre industry as it exists today. It is not enough to merely tell marginalized stories and “uplift” marginalized voices, for as long as theatre remains inaccessible to the bulk of those communities, it will not truly be a diverse space. We must take concrete steps to make the theatre more affordable, thinking of specific actions to make it a more inviting space for everyone, but especially marginalized communities.
We must be very cautious in the search for intersectional representation. Simply having diverse bodies exist on stage is not enough, for that renders them vulnerable towards being portrayed in ways that uphold harmful stereotypes, such as the myth of the model minority. This dangerous narrative has been around since World War II, when media perpetuated the idea that Japanese Americans were “rising up from the ashes”, and used this notion to incite the idea that other racialized groups were at fault for their low-class status. To this day, it is used as a tool of population control that works by “minimizing the role racism plays in the persistent struggles of other racial/ethnic minority groups — especially Black Americans” (Chow 2017). Within the concept of theatre and storytelling, the myth of the model minority can be seen under the misconception that marginalized individuals need to be outstandingly good, and seemingly flawless, because they need to be coded in a non-threatening way to exist on stage. Rarely do we get to see morally ambiguous marginalized characters outside of villainous contexts, because they are not seen as complex intersectional individuals, rather two dimensional icons and symbols of one specific trait of their identity. Furthermore, marginalized people shouldn’t need a reason to be “allowed” into stories; no explanation should be needed as to why a character is queer, a person of color, or disabled: people like that exist in the world and that is sufficient reason to have them existing on stage.
In examining Martyna Majok’s play The Cost of Living, we can see the complexities, nuance, and even polemics of positionality in representation. It tells the story of two disabled people and their primary caregivers, putting a lot of focus on the intersections of systemic oppression they all live in. The nuances of the way racism, xenophobia, ableism, misogyny, class struggle, and homelessness interact is put on display throughout the play, and Majok always ties all of these struggles back to the concept of loneliness and human connection. Majok is a non-disabled Polish immigrant that came to the United States as a toddler alongside her mother, and the nuance and insight with which she talks about the disenfranchisement of the immigrant reflects her personal experience. She portrays disabled characters as complex individuals, and subverts tired stereotypical narratives to tell a story about universal human experiences through the experiences of these characters. But Majok is not a disabled person – can, and should, this then be considered representation? Is it acceptable for non-disabled people to be telling disabled people’s stories back at them just because they are appropriately portrayed as whole humans? Should this not be the bare minimum? This is not to say that people outside of specific marginalized communities aren’t allowed to have members of such groups present in their stories, but when it comes to very closely examining intrinsic pieces of the identity they make up, positionality is necessary to avoid appropriating narratives. Positionality “requires researchers to identify their own degrees of privilege through factors of race, class, educational attainment, income, ability, gender, and citizenship, among others” (Duarte qt. in University of British Columbia 2020), this sentiment, I would argue, must be extended to artists and theatre makers in the search for intersectional representation. Artists must recognize the limitations of their identity, and properly position themselves within the structures of power that relegate some individuals to the margins will prevent privileged individuals from speaking for the marginalized.
My goal with this essay was not to give clear cut answers to the questions I was asking, but rather to provide with ample context that would allow myself and the reader to go through the process of asking these questions, and reflecting upon them, as to generate conversations surrounding the complexities of the topics that surround these questions, which is in and of itself a way of diversifying theatre.
Sofia Huarte Aguilar is a first generation Mexican immigrant pursuing a Drama degree at the University of Calgary. Also an activist and a Faculty Representative at the Students Union, Sofia is massively passionate about pursuing an intersectional revolution through art.
Ajnwojner, Rebecca. “Miszellen: Intersectionality and Identity in Theatre: GTW.” GTW, 1 Mar. 2019.
Chow, Kat. “’Model Minority’ Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks.” NPR, 19 Apr. 2017.
Emmett, Luke John. “Theatre IS Elitist!” OnStage Blog, 10 Sept. 2016.
Lee, Carissa. “Essay: Why Australian Theatre Needs Intersectionality.” Witness Performance, 19 July 2018.
Lownie, Rob. “Pale, Male and Increasingly Stale: Is Theatre Reserved for the Elite?” The Student, 2019.
Mimi Onuoha, Commentary. “Broadway Won’t Document Its Race Problem, so a Group of Actors Quietly Gathered the Data Themselves.” Quartz, 2016.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “How the Model Minority Myth of Asian Americans Hurts Us All.” Time, 26 June 2020.
Statista Research Department. “Median Household Income by Race or Ethnic Group 2019.” Statista, 20 Jan. 2021.
University of British Columbia. “Positionality & Intersectionality.” CTLT Indigenous Initiatives, 2020.