Representation is a funny, beautiful thing, and it is, above all things, a complex thing. Representation doesn’t just mean characters that look like you going through situations that you are familiar with, it can also, in a way that TV hasn’t really understood until recently, mean people who speak your language communicating in it, without the need for it to be transformed into something people outside the culture can comprehend.
Aka, without the need for subtitles.
Now, of course, I’m not talking about plot-related things. Sometimes the characters are speaking in another language but you need to know what they’re saying to understand what’s going to happen, and then, of course, subtitles are the way to go. Stories cannot be told if a large part of your audience doesn’t understand the reasons for why things are happening.
But, that doesn’t mean everything requires an explanation.
These thoughts have been knocking around in my brain for the last few weeks, but the ideas somehow solidified after “Smells like Teen Spirit.” It was the first time the show had actually subtitled any of the Spanish the characters had uttered, and though I think they could have gotten away with not doing it, I understood why they decided to add the extra level of clarity.
It was necessary to understand the scene, if not the context, of what was going on.
Of course, the same doesn’t hold true when Liz refers to her dad as papi instead of dad or daddy, or when she lets out an exclamation in Spanish when she gets scared. Those things are easy to understand in the grand scheme of things, and also, most importantly, are not about the larger audience relating.
They’re about who Liz is, as a latina. They’re about her reality, which is that Spanish is part of her day to day life, part of who he is, and part of the way she communicates.
Identity doesn’t need translation.
Sure, some people might not understand every word coming out of Liz or her father’s mouth, but that’s okay. Some things aren’t meant to be understood by people outside of a culture. Some things are meant to be a nod to something you aren’t, and you can appreciate it from the outside, without it being meant for you.
Again, let me repeat that, because it’s important: Some things aren’t meant for you. You’re not supposed to relate to everything. And when you don’t, it’s okay to stand on the sidelines and let other people have that moment of feeling represented.
Let other people enjoy it.
The first time Roswell, New Mexico did it, spoke in my language, the one my mom still speaks to me, I remember making a note of it and smiling. The second time they did it, without dumbing it down, without making it feel like an other, I felt my heart grow three sizes. At this point, just six episodes in, it feels pretty normal, and that’s why I decided to write this.
Normal is good. Normal is perfect, even. Normal is what I wanted. But it cannot become normal in the general TV landscape without us pointing out how important it was for Roswell, New Mexico to take this first step.
My story, and all diverse stories, matter. So do my words, and my language. And who I am doesn’t, shouldn’t require subtitles to be appreciated.