by Lenka Morova
LGBT Health and Wellbeing took the opportunity to celebrate Bi Visibility Day with a film night followed by a panel discussion on the movie ‘Margarita with a Straw’. The event brought up various topics of discussion and I would like to tell you more about moments that really stuck with me.
We had wonderful panellists from different backgrounds, each providing their own unique perspective: Sandra Alland is a writer, filmmaker, interdisciplinary artist and curator who published and presented work from D/deaf and disabled poets; Churnjeet Mahn is a senior lecturer at Strathclyde University whose work specialises in travel writing, heritage and studies of race and sexuality; and Robert Softley Gale is an actor, director and disability rights activists who advocates for equal access to arts for disabled people. I highly recommend checking out their amazing work.
The event started with the panel being prompted by the question: What can we gain from discussing the visibility and representation of queer lives on screen — particularly depictions that involve multiple marginalised communities, like disabled or D/deaf bisexuals and/or queers of colour?
Sandra’s first thoughts were that it is important to publicly critique filmmakers and to note whether people from marginalised backgrounds are shown on screen at all. Expanding on that, Sandra highlighted the importance of being aware of how marginalised characters are portrayed but also who is writing these stories and who is playing these roles. This served as a reminder for casual viewers like me, who don’t have a film background and often forget to look past the overused cliché storylines and good-looking actors. It is necessary to look deeper because representation matters and people deserve to see themselves well-represented on screen.
Sandra also pointed out that when mainstream movies actually decide to include characters from marginalised backgrounds, they tend to do a pretty bad job at portraying them. Commonly showing disabled people as having lives not worth living and most often, as childlike and lacking any sexual desire. Bisexual people are also portrayed as confused, greedy or only using the label as a way to keep “one leg in the closet”. And racial minorities are often stereotyped as sexually deviant.
Robert carried on emphasising that until there is a “level playing field” he does not think that disabled characters should be played by anyone other than disabled people. What really struck me was when he pointed out that it is not only lacking authenticity, but casting an abled actor takes away the attention from the story. Most of the praise is focused on what a great job the actor did, pretending to be disabled. And this is very true, I just never heard it put into words like that. Actors accepting awards for doing a “great” job portraying a disabled character generates a lot of press coverage and the actual story gets left behind, just as an afterthought.
Churnjeet brought out the point that as a Scottish Asian lesbian in a white, middle-class English department, she is a minority, but “being Indian in India is not a minority” reminding us that marginalisation is related to power. There are various parts to someone’s identity which end up being pinned down into different boxes at different times. But people are complex and cannot be boiled down to just one label.
It was amazing to witness the reaction from the audience as it was clear that Sandra, Churnjeet and Robert had a big impact on everyone in the room. It was a great feeling to hear the panel put into words what many of us felt about misrepresentation. We all consume a lot of media on a daily basis, and it brought me a sense of validation to be in a room full of people who agreed that there is a lot of work left to be done in terms of authentic representation. A great point that stuck with me was brought up by a person in the audience saying that it is not only actors who need to come from the marginalised background they portray, but also the people involved in other parts of the filmmaking process. They explained that the best movies they have seen had been made by people who themselves come from marginalised communities. Having a diverse group of people behind the scenes also means that the casting will be more authentic and bring focus to the story they are telling.
I, personally, really enjoyed starting with the panel discussion before watching the movie. It brought up many interesting issues that made me look at the movie differently. It could be interesting next time to have a panel discussion before and after, with a shorter movie in-between. Since this movie was quite emotional and intense at times, people were drained by the end and there wasn’t much energy left for talking. Overall, I think this event was an eye-opening experience that provided a platform for a much needed discussion on issues that don’t often get talked about. Bringing people together with an audience that wants to hear more and feels passionate about giving marginalised groups a voice to express their experiences, should definitely happen more often. It is through listening to people’s experiences that we can gain a better understanding that ultimately can lead to a bigger change.
With intersectionality and authenticity as the main themes of the evening, it all came down to providing validation and giving people the chance to see their true selves, not just making their identity an overlooked footnote. After all, representation matters.