Representations, Identities and Experiences, and Acting

Frequent and important discussions occur on the topic of privileged performers playing non-privileged people. For example, all too often a cis-gender person plays a trans person, a heterosexual person plays a non-heterosexual person, an able-bodied person plays a disabled person, and a person racialized as White plays a non-White person.

These conversations are certainly necessary and important. Representations matter. The true, complicated experiences of minorities are simplified and normalized, even caricaturized, when they don’t play such roles or don’t have involvement. People (rightfully) argue that an undocumented heterosexual cisgender man cannot accurately play the role of a gay trans man who is a citizen, for example.  

My question is why don’t we apply this same reasoning across-the-board. People play mothers and fathers, doctors, teachers, murders, inventors, singers, pilots–you get the idea–without having any personal experience as such. People play people who lived in different times and places–without, of course, having any personal experiences as such.

Naturally, acting means acting and taking on a variety of roles – pretending to be other people – giving live to different stories and experiences – but it remains an important question – why are some identities considered more essentialist and vital to providing an accurate performance.

The real-life role and identity of mother or politician requires just as much specialized learning, both conscious and unconscious; just as much internalization; and just as much super specialized experience as that of being an immigrant (or not), for instance. 

Intersectionality and positionality matter–collectively. No one aspect is more important. No one aspect is less cultural. 

(And to be absolutely very clear – we desperately need to see a much wider range of diverse bodies throughout the media. Research shows that “seeing” people who are like you greatly enhances happiness. I am specifically wondering about the emphasis on people who have or don’t have specific identities related to race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. and why this same logic–that if you’re not actually a professor you can’t accurately, honestly, or fairly play the part of one in a production–isn’t used similarly across the spectrum of identity.)

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda