Must minorities dance for you before they can be human?

As Quantico started its slow rise into the US consciousness — an interesting take on the traditional procedural, presented in an intriguing way — I started reading a great deal of commentary about the show, and I particularly enjoyed Anu Bhagwati writing at the New Republic about Priyanka Chopra’s role on the show. Bhagwati noted that Chopra is a huge Bollywood star and it’s remarkable to see her crossing the Pacific to take a role in the US pop culture pantheon, but in the piece, which explored a number of angles on the show, one thing particularly struck me:

Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari are two huge exceptions to South Asian invisibility in American pop culture, but the fact that they’re comedians makes them slightly less exceptional. Voices of color often break into the American imagination through entertainment, particularly comedy. It seems if we can be laughed at, and if we can laugh at ourselves, there’s a place for us at the national table.

She’s absolutely right — when it comes to South Asian representation, I do generally think of comedy, whether it’s comedians striking out in their own right or troped comedy roles on a variety of television shows and in film. But the same, I realised as I began reflecting on her piece, holds true for a number of other minority classes, including not just people of colour, but also gender and sexual minorities, disabled people, working and lower class people, and others who are in a position of marginalisation and oppression. In order to be accepted in entertainment, and society at large thanks to the huge influence of pop culture, they must first prove that they can make people laugh.

Let me be clear: I love comedy, and it has an important social role. I enjoy watching and reading good comedy and I particularly prefer comedy produced by marginalised people, for marginalised people — rather than that designed to capture the dominant gaze, which is, unfortunately, the kind of comedy many people are pressured to produce. I particularly enjoy dark, sardonic comedy, like some of the truly outstanding disability comedy out there, and the work of people like Maysoon Zayid, who plays at both ends of her identity as a Palestinian with cerebral palsy.

But the expectation that people use comedy to humanise themselves is frustrating, and it’s a social avoidance tactic that allows people to evade responsibility for their own role in structural social problems. Embedded within is the notion that if people can’t play nice and be entertaining, they don’t really belong in society, and that if they refuse to make the issues they face ‘accessible,’ they can’t expect people to ‘sympathise.’ It’s unreasonable, people who want to retain dominant structures suggest, to expect people to engage when critics are ‘mean’ and don’t speak in the right tone. If these attitudes sound dubious to you, they should, because they’re indicative of really troubling social problems — people should not have to perform like dancing ponies to prove that they are human beings with actual issues who have actual needs.

The really striking and classic example of this in US culture is probably the minstrel show, in which Black performers were expected to get up, get on stage, and amuse white audiences. Minstrel shows actually originated with white people in blackface, gradually shifting to Black performers in the aftermath of the Civil War — precisely when freed slaves wanted to carve out a place for themselves in an extremely hostile society. Dressing up and providing goofy slapstick was supposed to make them less threatening to white people, but, importantly, it was often the only way for Black people to enter the performing arts in the United States. Even if they were talented actors or musicians, they couldn’t access roles on white stages and in white drawing rooms — notably, well through the civil rights movement, amazing Black artists like Josephine Baker (and, earlier, Billie Holiday), weren’t allowed into white theatres and couldn’t attend events allegedly held to celebrate their own shows. So it’s not that Black artists enjoyed a limited range of artistic expression and did it for funsies.

This isn’t a modern problem. Little people were expected to entertain in courts of Europe as ‘dwarves’ and ‘jesters,’ with the alternative being an unsafe life in a hostile society. The Hottentot Venus was a huge attraction. Disabled people worked in freak shows because they couldn’t access other employment opportunities. The bodies of oppressed classes have been used for entertainment over the centuries, and in some cases, people have been active players because of a lack of choice — if you have the option of starving, being in an institution, or performing six shows a night on the midway, you put on your spangled costume.

Bhagwati was thinking specifically of Asian-American artists, but her commentary holds true for lots of other classes of society — it’s easy to think of examples of LGBQT comedians and comedy shows, disabled comedians (well, easy for some people to come up with examples, though thanks to the invisibility of disability this may not be true for all), comedians of colour, programming making fun of middle and lower class people who actively engage in the comedy that lampoons their social status. It’s harder to think of romantic and dramatic roles featuring the same classes of people, particularly roles that aren’t produced for the pleasure of the dominant gaze, perhaps because in part allowing people to play such roles is to admit that they are also human beings. This is, to many eyes, unacceptable — for the dominant gaze, the oppressed are a form of entertainment, and placing them in a landscape where they are allowed access to a full range of artistic expression is a dangerous, radical act.

Image: Disney | ABC Television Group, Flickr